The fight to #EndSARS is really a fight to fix the Nigerian system

Yesterday was a dark and traumatic day for Nigerians. Following the state-imposed curfew in Lagos state, young Nigerians at the Lekki toll gate decided to make a bold statement, and continue to peacefully protest. Unfortunately, they were met with attacks from the Nigerian Army, who opened fire to disperse the crowd, leading to several getting shot and undisclosed amount killed. This is all because young Nigerians have been asking the Nigerian Police Force to stop killing innocent Nigerians, for no just cause.

The timeline of the ongoing fight against the havoc the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) has wreaked on everyday Nigerians been a tumultuous one to trace. Dating back to 2017, Nigerians have been contesting the existence of the rogue unit which has extorted, attacked, and killed many of the country’s young citizens quietly. Today, young Nigerians decided to take charge of this problem, after several promises from the government to disband the unit came to no fruition. Things began to look up a few weeks ago when we took their incessant cries online to popular streets in Nigeria demanding to have nothing less than the complete dissolution of SARS, until yesterday when things took a dark and traumatic turn.

The protests which have sprouted up in over 25 states across the country were sustained well over a week, despite continued efforts posed every day to derail the peaceful demonstrations. Over the course of 12 days, young Nigerians have poured their anger against the system of oppression which has been notorious for their unsupportive outlooks to modern youth culture in the past. These peaceful gatherings which were mostly a melting pot for citizens from all walks of life, backgrounds, religious beliefs, and sexualities– would be a gold mine for any SARS personnel hungry to carry out their usual modus operandi to profile young people as criminals because of their dressing and hairstyle choices. The way young Nigerians banded together with a common goal dispels everything we were told about ourselves by the powers that be, and efforts were definitely made to ensure that we don’t realise or much worse, use our collective power.

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The attitude these SARS operatives, and policemen in general exhibit are emblematic of a societal system that created, upholds, and enables the system of rot we are fighting against today. Nigeria has always been a very conservative and puritanic society, especially throughout the lifetimes of many of the young adults protesting today. Traditional and religious beliefs are deeply interwoven in our moral fabric and we are socialised to take what we get without questioning authority on any level. Young adults grew up being told what to do, say, and what to think, and anything that dared to stray from the beliefs set down by parents, the church, and schools was met with some form of punishment. Even things that are out of a person’s control, for example, being sinistral.

Punishment was largely corporal. You disobeyed instructions and you got a smack from your parents or guardians and in some cases, brutal beatings involving dangerous nearby objects. You failed a test and you were beaten by those in charge of guiding your reasoning and mental advancement. You ‘sinned’ and fear became a tool by churches to make sure the masses remained docile and unable to fight for themselves because they would be judged by an omniscient higher authority. The Nigerian psyche has been primed to manage, adapt, suffer and expect the worst from everyone, ranging from our family who are the people closest to us to our political leaders and others with any sort of state-given power. This is why years and years of having to adapt to sporadic government policies without seeing tangible results have bred an inevitable feeling of distrust between the government and the people they rule and serve. So it follows that law enforcement agencies do not exist to serve citizens, but to protect personal interests without much regard for human life. All we have been asking for, these past few days is to not be killed, and what we have got in response is more people being killed.

This is a direct consequence of colonialism, which left the Nigerian people unsure of who they are, adopting another country’s cultures and beliefs, whilst theirs were being demonised. Today, Christians will tell you those who practice traditional worship are diabolical, when that used to be the order of the day for our ancestors. We are told to dress modestly in a way that doesn’t attract attention, but modesty in clothing from what we know today about fashion had more to do with the trends of the time, than anything about actually being modest. Nigeria seems to be stuck in a time capsule, and from the systems in operation to our culture, we haven’t moved forward or advanced since our independence over 60 years ago. What the ongoing fight against SARS shows is that the rot doesn’t start and end with the unlawful operations of a rogue unit alone, but actually begins at every level of the Nigerian society which enables and rewards abuse of power and disproportionate use of force.

 

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SARS and the entire Nigerian Police Force at large are birthed on the belief system that young people do (and should) not have autonomy over their lives and what they choose. Given that the way in which authority is flouted and abused, and the way that we generally treat each other is widely atrocious, proximity to callous abuses of power is nothing new to many Nigerians. From home, we’re constantly told of the value of physical correction methods, and very often, you’ll often hear phrases like ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ in conversations surrounding discipline and correction. Outside familial disciplinary methods, the average Nigerian on the street lauds power over others who they come across in their daily routine. From security guards at popular housing estates, to NYSC officials, and even to the police themselves, everyone with some power will do as much as they can to exercise it over the next person. Run-ins with the police typically involve the use of force, and many people have reported being slapped and attacked with police weapons if the police ever felt like they had been disrespected by a younger person or someone who they believe that they have power over. On top of it, they have no accountability, and usually get away with any level of violence, and this is what has led to the years of strife. To the police, they are well within their rights to act without consequence seeing as they have done so for years, therefore, they cannot believe the audacity of some ‘children’ to demand better treatment.

Seeing how the Nigerian Governement reminded us very clearly what they are really about yesterday, and even at the moment as the Police are still wreaking havoc all over the streets, it is not surprising to see why so many older Nigerian adults think and behave the way they do. Many of the earlier generation of boomers and millennials grew up in a society which enabled oppression, andn largeley infantalised people who are of legal voting age. A number of Nigerians in these generations were also raised on heavy religious ideals, turning them into moralistic cheerleaders who would rather sit back and pray than tackle issues of injustice head-on. Religion birthed concepts like purity culture where women were chastised for wearing certain clothes and were constantly told to be modest and subservient to their male counterparts. Men were socialised differently to take and demand anything they wanted, reinforcing a harmful power divide in many older Nigerians. Outside religion, traditional culture helped propagate these ideals further, for instance, Yoruba culture heavily demands respect to anyone who is older than you, even by minutes.

This culture of upholding respect for any older person is evident in the responses that we see today from many government officials and many of the older generation. In the past few days, government officials have responded online to protesters’ demands for police reform by calling on the parents of these ‘wards’ rather than recognising them as adults of legal age who have a right to vote and be voted for in this country. The infantilisation of Nigerian is a typical response from the older generation used to trivialise and demean our contributions to society by reinforcing gerontocratic ideals. That’s exactly why those in power — including the police — can’t believe the audacity of young Nigerians who are daring demand for better than they are currently receiving in society. This is the effect of a system and society that does not value young people and sees them as inferior and collateral damage, only because they are older.

Years and years of socialisation of this kind led to the profiling that we see today, young people have become the susceptible target for police harassment and aggression. This is where Nigeria being stuck in a time capsule comes in. We belong in a digital age, where most interactions happen via the internet and through technology. Most young people everywhere in the world have advanced gadgets to keep up with the times, yet in Nigeria some people have been labelled as criminals for doing what young people all over the world do.

As a result of this digital age, white collar jobs are not the only means to make money anymore, as has been the case in the country for decades. There are job opportunities in many different walks of life, and people who are not required to present themselves as the corporate world demands also get into trouble for freely expressing themselves. Men who decided to grow out their hair, women who wear the kinds of clothes they want to, are looked at with raised eyebrows, and much worse, sometimes killed, raped, extoreded for just existing.

The actions of social activist, Segun Awosanya commonly known as Segalink who has been sowing seeds of discord to the wider public against the efforts of the Feminist Coalition who have been a monumental support to the ongoing EndSARS protests. Over the weekend, The Feminist Coalition tweeted that they support the LGBTQ protestors, which is a stance you would expect any progressive and radical group to take to protect the interests of marginalised groups in society. Unfortunately, being from a stifling and moralistic country like Nigeria, there was no room for this progressiveness, as they were met with backlash for taking such a leftist stance, which is ironic during a fight for liberation. Nigerians have consistently failed to understand the intersection of the queer community and violence from the police, where they are targetted for being ‘perceived queer’.

Sunday set a dark cloud on the movement and showed that the country is not ready for progressive change yet, opting to leave LGBTQ+ issues in the darkness because the law does not protect them and criminalises their existence. While people like Segalink used this as a means to demonise the movement which no longer idolised him, others used this as an opportunity to show their queerphobia and push these very real issues queer folk face to the side. What people fail to realise is that we can’t talk about one leg of oppression without the other and the fact that the Feminist Coalition had to retract thier statement in a utilitarian measure shows that we are not in the clear and are still being oppressed. Although the climate in Nigeria explains why things played out the way they did, it sends a very clear message to the queer community that we are just going to have to bend to Nigerian ideals, and that is what this system does to us.

As is constantly reinforced, the fight is not a sprint but a marathon and the only way forward is a complete reform of Nigeria. Being Nigerian places an unjust and unfair limit on you, and one can’t break through a glass ceiling they can’t see. The social contract between young Nigerians and their leaders is disintegrating and it is only through youth empowerment and inter-generational equity that we can forge a way forward for the Nigeria that we all deserve.

May the souls of those who have been killed in our fight for liberation rest in perfect peace.

 


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ICYMI: The fight against oppression does not exclude the LGBTQ+ community

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