By Sunny Awhefeada
(This piece was first published on 23rd October 2020 in the wake of the #ENDSARS protests)
The month of October remains the most significant in Nigeria’s history. It was at the dawn of its first day in 1960 that we were set free from colonial bondage and pronounced an independent nation. The import of that day remains inscribed in the consciousness of every Nigerian. Growing up, many songs were composed for us to sing about that day as primary school pupils. Our social studies lessons and later government and history gave much premium to the fact that October 1 was the “day that set us free”. In spite of the bleak ambience that enveloped my childhood and teenage years, we looked forward to October with a lot of enthusiasm.
However, as we grew older and able to look Nigeria in the face, pessimism set in and October 1 became a hollow day that held neither promise nor meaning. Then the end of the last century and the exit of the bogey of military dictatorship rekindled our hope. We had a second independence, but this time it was not on October 1. It was the routing of the military and the return to civil rule on May 29, 1999. We reckoned that it was a fitting way to end that century and begin anew. How wrong we were!
What Nigeria got at the turn of the present century was old and sour wine in a cracked and leaking cask. Olusegun Obasanjo, who was at the bridgehead of government, got stuck in the past and he couldn’t muster the statesmanlike courage to stir the country in the course of greatness. He pandered to base and at best mediocre tendencies which plunged Nigeria into her present miasma. Nigeria marked sixty years of nationhood this October. An event which ought to have elicited the rolling out of drums, singing and dancing turned out to be ashy and bland.
We had nothing to celebrate. It all appeared as if October lost its significance until the youth said nay and spoke up for Nigeria and Nigerians! The October youth uprising was thus born and October became significant again. What started as a movement against police brutality triggered off by a video of one of such incidents in Ughelli soon assumed a national and international campaign against all that constituted “the trouble with Nigeria”. From #ENDSARS it mutated into #ENDBADGOVERNANCE.
The youths having waited in vain for a redeeming factor decided to confront the demons headlong. Vilified as lazy and wayward, shortchanged, oppressed, exploited and dispossessed, the youths have for many decades been at the receiving end of everything that is wrong with Nigeria. To add salt to their injury, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a rabid unit of the infamous Nigeria Police, notoriously known as SARS, criminalized the youths and made it their avowed duty to kill them for their maniacal pleasure. SARS did to Nigerian youths what the Apartheid Police did to black South African youths in the days of Apartheid. The youths’ response to the evil of SARS became the trigger for the present uprising. Oppression, exploitation and injustice do have their expiry dates. The uprising has thrown up many gory narratives of the evil that SARS really was. From framing of innocent youths, extortion, detention, torture and cold blooded killing, SARS turned itself into a murderous gang worse than highway robbers.
I have worked with youths from my youthful days and I can tell of their hopes and aspirations. I can put a finger to their dreams. I can give voice to their impediments and predicaments. I can attest to their character. I can testify for their mettle. The Nigerian youth is diligent, creative and innovative. As a teacher, my colleagues and I, did notice what we initially lamented to be laziness and loss of focus among our students. But we sooner or later realized that it was an incipient character that comes with an adjustment to a new world order; in this case, the world of ICT.
The physical rigour my generation put into academic work is giving way to the ease of studying made possible by ICT. Not too long ago, some of us insisted on hardcopies of plays, novels, poems and critical essays, but the students are wont to brandish downloaded materials in their phones in our faces. Things are changing. And with the changes come with the capacity of the youths to adapt, innovate and excel. But the environment has made things almost impossible for them. This is not to canonize every Nigerian youth as a saint. No, I cannot do an attestation for the internet fraudsters among them no matter the excuse.
An overwhelming majority of our youths feel shortchanged by the system. Many of them carry in their mind a blistering anger fuelled by frustration. Yet, they love the country. True, some of them are in economic exile all over the world even in such troubled spots like Sudan, Mali, Tunisia, Algeria, among others, but a great majority of them hold Nigeria very dear to their hearts.
They have brought many a laurel, in sports, entertainment, literature and ICT, to Nigeria. In spite of the many atrocities done to them by the system, our youths have embraced the idea of Nigeria and they are ready to lay down their lives for it. Chief among the crimes the system has committed against our youths are the twin evil of social and economic injustice. Massive unemployment and what is now known as underemployment are now the bane of our youths. Those who chose the part of entrepreneurship and self-employment are encumbered by the failure of infrastructure, absence of electricity and lack of roads. Lack of capital and the shrinking of other factors of production compound the problems of our youths who constitute the majority in our demography. There is unimaginable poverty and hunger, the kind of which could breed uncontrollable anger. Yet, the police would invade the lives of innocent Nigerians, brutalize and extort them. The youths just kicked.
The predicament of the youths is a direct consequence of Nigeria’s millennial underdevelopment fuelled by massive corruption which shrunk the public space and reduced opportunities for them. The trillions of Naira stolen from Nigeria in the last twenty-one years would have been more than enough to create abundant opportunities for our youths and shield them from socio-economic injustice. Our youths are deprived and excluded from legitimate opportunities. The desire to shake off deprivation, redress oppression and reclaim Nigeria for good constituted the thematics of the October uprising. How did government respond to the message? Brutal repression! No wonder, the word brutal has alliterative resonance in Buhari and Buratai. Videos showed soldiers firing at unarmed and peaceful protesters who carried the nation’s flag and sang her anthem. Yes, bullets rained on them in Lekki even as they waved their flags and sang the nation’s anthem. The flags and the anthem meant nothing to the dogs of war.
Nigeria has been dogged by a tragic irony since independence in that those who fought for her freedom at different points in time never had the opportunity of assuming leadership. So it was in 1960. So it was in 1999. I listened to Ebun Adegboruwa on Channels TV saying that pro-democracy leaders like Papa Abraham Adesanya and Chief Gani Fawenhimi advised against participating in politics in 1998 and 1999 when the transition to civil rule took off. That position was an error of judgment and Nigeria is the tragic hero now being buffeted. This is where the youths would need to intervene and reclaim Nigeria. With a voting strength of 65% in 2015, the youths have the capacity to vote themselves into power.
At the core of the present crisis is the abysmal failure of governance at all levels. Many governors have hypocritically set up judicial panels of enquiries into the activities of SARS. Where were they when SARS had a field day robbing, kidnapping and killing Nigerians? What did the Inspector General of Police do to rein in SARS? Those sponsoring hoodlums to attack peaceful protesters and raze public property, those funding ethnic bigots to threaten war and those deploying security agents to kill peaceful protesters should know that such irresponsible acts cannot stop the wind of change.
The social media is exposing them by the second. The youths have made a statement that they have the capacity to initiate a popular movement to redeem Nigeria. What is left for them is to articulate a set of agenda that will encapsulate their dream and vision for a new Nigeria. I dare suggest that such agenda, besides fighting corruption, should ban foreign medicare and education for all public officials, ban private healthcare and education for their families, ban the use of generators in their homes and offices, ban air travels for public officials. Then our schools and hospitals will come alive again. Our roads shall be built and rebuilt. Electricity shall light up our homes and power our offices and factories. And Nigeria will be on the path of greatness. And the October youth uprising would not have been in vain. May the souls of those who were killed find repose and comfort knowing that they died to make Nigeria a better place!