Understanding Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement

Nigeria has been rocked in recent weeks by massive protests against police violence. Jaye Gaskia looks at the origins of a movement has brought a whole new generation into political struggle.

Protesters in Lagos. Photo: Kaizenify / WikiCommons

Nigeria’s ruling class has been haunted by a spectre in the last several days and weeks: the spectre of the possibility and potential for a mass revolt of impoverished and hard-pressed citizens and the exploited classes.

That spectre was eventually let loose with a vengeance when the anger of youths burst onto the streets, birthing the #EndSARS protests, which over the course of two weeks grew into a youth rebellion of such a massive scale that it became the life-defining mass self-activity of a generation.

But we have to understand how the glowing embers of dissent became fanned into the blazing flames of a wild forest fire.

Classes, repression and exploitation

As of May 2020, Nigeria’s official National Bureau of Statistics [NBS] was reporting that 40.1% of the population – that is 82.9 million people – were living below the official poverty line, reporting that ‘In Nigeria, 40.1 percent of total population were classified as poor. In other words, on average four out of 10 individuals in Nigeria has real per capita expenditures below 137,430 naira ($352) per year.’

Furthermore, according to the NBS Quarter 2 (Q2) report, the unemployment situation had also worsened since the third quarter of 2018, which is the last time the NBS published unemployment statistics. The general unemployment rate rose by 4% from 23.1% in Q3 2018 to 27.1% in Q2 2020, while the underemployment rate rose by 8.5% from 20.1% in Q3 2018 to 28.6% in Q2 2020 – the implication being that the composite unemployment rate had risen by 12.5% from 43.2% in Q3 2018 to 55.7% in Q2 2020.

The situation is even more deplorable among young persons aged 15 to 34 years of age, with youth unemployment rate rising by 5.2% from 29.7% in Q3 2018 to 34.9% in Q2 2020, while underemployment rate amongst the same age group, by 2.5% from 25.7% in Q3 2018 to 28.2% in Q2 2020, meaning that the composite unemployment rate among youths rose by 7.7%, from 55.4% in Q3 2018 to an almost astronomical 63.1% in Q2 2020.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that 2 in every 5 Nigerians are living in poverty, with roughly the same proportion – that is, 2 out of every 5 Nigerians of working age – either out of a job, or in precarious, poverty-inducing employment. Meanwhile, among young persons, more than 3 out of 5 youths aged 15 to 34 are out of a job.

This is the context within which the successful mobilisation of youth anger and grievance over the past three weeks can be properly understood.

The historical and class character of the state

It is also important to understand the character of the Nigerian state, and why this has contributed not only to the failure of governance, but also to the imposition of economic hardships, the often ruthless nature of the exploitation of the working classes, and the consequent repressive character of the state. This repressive character engenders the alienation of the people, and fosters the high propensity towards the brutalisation of citizens, and the violation and abuse of their rights, by the security and law enforcement agencies in general, and the police and its specialised crime-fighting units and task forces, such as the discredited Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS] unit in particular.

The modern Nigerian state has been significantly shaped by its colonial origin as an occupying and pacifying state, requiring the use and deployment of repressive policing, security and law enforcement agencies and institutions.

Protesters taking the knee for the Nigerian national anthem. Keywords: Nigeria EndSARS End SARS #EndSARS police violence state protests
Protesters taking the knee for the Nigerian national anthem. Photo: TobiJamesCandids / WikiCommons

This inherent character of the state to rely on the use of force to maintain ruling-class hegemony and enforce ruling class economic policies which have favoured the ruling class and impoverished the working classes, has led to the concentration of societal wealth in very few hands, something which was further accentuated under more than three decades of authoritarian military dictatorship from 1966 to 1999.

The consequence of this is that the ruling class has become particularly disconnected from the working people, becoming imperious in its relationship with them, acting with impunity, and feeling emboldened, by its total control over the wealth of society and the levers of power of society, to spawn a culture of corrupt and ostentatious living.

#EndSARS and the broader movement

Against the background already outlined above, which can be considered as the structural and systemic factors at the root of the youth rebellion, we can also identify a number of more immediate triggering factors that helped to drive the youths onto the streets.

In the weeks before the #EndSARS protests, Nigeria’s government had imposed fresh and additional burdens and hardships on the people: twin price hikes in the cost of electricity and the cost of fuel. In a country with poor electricity generation, distribution and transmission capacities and infrastructures, as a consequence of which the overwhelming majority of households and businesses are either not connected to the national public grid, or do not receive sufficient supply for their needs, the bulk of the electricity required to power households and businesses is self-generated.

For instance, electricity available for transmission to users of the national grid has never topped 5500megawatts (MWs), usually averaging 3000 MWs on any given day; and this in an economy which is the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa, and which is powered by more than 55,000 MWs conservatively. Thus the bulk of households and businesses and offices depend on self-generated electricity, with the overwhelming majority of these relying on fuel-powered generators to generate their electricity needs. Businesses in Nigeria under the aegis of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria [MAN] report that in the 2019 financial year, they spent nearly N80bn on self-generated power, accounting for nearly 40% of their cost of production, thus making their businesses less competitive.

The hiking of fuel prices and electricity tariffs, and the raising of tax rates and implementation of new taxes, created an atmosphere of deep-seated anger and increased the sense of grievance of the working people. There were several organised protests against these unjust and unpopular measures across the country, including a massive campaign and mobilisation to pressure the labour centers to take strike action and organise protests. This campaign succeeded in pushing the Nigeria Labour Congress and the Trade Union Congress into declaring a general strike and mass protests, which were to have commenced on the 28 September 2020.

The abrupt calling-off of the general strike and the protests, after the capitulation of the main labour centers, led to increased levels of frustration among citizens, and compounded the anger. It was only a matter of time when a spark would trigger a massive forest fire.

The protests called to mobilise popular grievance were repressed by the police, and acts of police brutality continued to take place in the environment of dissent, frustrations and anger.

The character of the movement

Enter the #EndSARs protests, which were organised to protest against police brutality and call for comprehensive police and policing reforms.

The protests soon became massive and caught the popular imagination. The organisers effectively utilised social media to organise and mobilise. And although there were several groups involved in the mobilisations, the emergent and growing movement was dispersed, decentralised, and lacked visible leadership and coordination.

As the protests became a movement, the movement became a franchise, and narratives of the movement being ‘leaderless’ and unorganised began to be floated and embraced by the movement and its organisers. This apparent reason for the success of the growth of the movement also became something of an Achilles’ heel.

Protesters in Lagos. Keywords: Nigeria EndSARS End SARS #EndSARS police violence state protests
Protesters in Lagos. Photo: TobiJamesCandids / WikiCommons

The movement embraced youths of various classes, and was in reality led by the youths of the upper middle classes, who exercised ideological and financial hegemony over the movement. However, youths of the working classes thronged to the movement and became its base, proving a grounding for the movement and an anchor to the exploited classes.

It was this mixed character of the movement that enabled the active engagement and intervention of organised left and other social forces with the protests and protest movement. This engagement was both that of solidarity, active participation in the protests, and active engagement with the ideas and demands of the movement, ensuring the beginning of a debate about the direction of the movement, and its organisational strategy and tactics.

A reckoning with history

After watching the movement on the street blossom and grow, and being frightened by its pace, the ruling class acted true to character, and forcefully suppressed the movement, setting an example by carrying out the Lekki Massacre [in which at least a dozen people were killed in Lagos by the military on 20 October, while dozens more were killed in other attacks nationwide].

The Lekki massacre came after several, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to use organised thugs recruited from among deprived, impoverished and alienated youths, and sponsored by the state and the ruling class, to attack and disperse the protests.

This suppression of the protests in its initial phase, and the temporary retreat of the movement from the streets under the veil of threats, has now created a vacuum enabling and unleashing the anger of deprived and alienated sections of youths on the properties and businesses of the ruling class and the institutions of the state, in particular the institutions that aid state repression – the police, the courts and the prisons.

On an interim final note, it is important to note that the movement has achieved quite a lot. It forced the state to disband the hated SARS unit, and forced the state to commit to and establish judicial commissions of inquiry to probe and investigate allegations of police brutality.

But, more importantly it has led to the awakening of a younger generation of the working classes and the people of Nigeria, learning to take action, to make demands of society and the state, and learning to organise and mobilise and work together.

And even though at the inception of the movement, it proclaimed that it was nonpolitical, by the time of the Lekki Massacre, the movement had become political and the protesters had become radicalised.

Thus, like the generations before them, who were politically radicalised by the Ali Must Go students uprising of 1978; the Students uprising in response to the ABU massacre of 1986; the Youth Uprising and citizen rebellion of the 1989 nationwide mass Anti-Sap [Structural Adjustment Programme] protests; the Anti-Military Resistance which became consolidated in the June 12 movement; and more recently, the January Uprising of 2012; this generation of Nigerian youths have found their own radicalising, politically awakening moment in the #EndSARS Protests movement.

This movement, by the way it grew, and the lessons it has taught, has the potential to birth a radical Pan Nigeria Youth Movement, with a different vision for Nigeria, one of a country with diverse peoples, united and committed to building a more inclusive and equitable society.

And herein lies its greatest – potential – achievement.

Solidarity protests in Britain with the Nigerian movement are ongoing, and have happened so far in a wide variety of cities and towns around the country. Follow the EndSARS UK Twitter account for information of upcoming demonstrations. rs21 encourages supporters to also take action in support of Black Lives Matter protests against police racism and state violence in Britain.

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