By Biodun Jeyifo
My the time that readers get to read this piece, it will be two days since it was written and sent off to my Editor. Of course, I am writing it now, in the early hours of Friday, October 23, 2020 in the time zone of the Eastern Seaboard of the U.S. I have just read Buhari’s speech on #EndSARS. The speech is terribly disappointing, to say the least. On the surface, it seems conciliatory. In it, Buhari profusely thanks eminent persons at home and abroad who have sharply criticized the president and his administration for using deadly, murderous force to try to crush a protest movement demonstrating against state-sanctioned murderous force.
Buhari in the speech also seems to validate the constitutional rights of the protesters to demonstrate and protest peacefully. But at a fundamental level, the speech shows that Buhari has absolutely no sense of how deep the anguish and rage of our youths are. What is one to say of a ruler who has only a shallow and superficial sense of the consuming despair and anger of our youths, the largest demographic bloc in our society? This is the subject that I wish to address in this piece. However, before getting to it, permit me to briefly give an account of how I became aware and profoundly impressed by the #EndSARS movement
Like most Nigerians at home and broad, I am still reeling from the catastrophic development that overtook the #EndSARS demonstrations last Tuesday. Indeed, it is with a hesitation, a great desultoriness that I am attempting to write about the development in this piece. Again like most Nigerians, I have watched innumerable images and texts on this event on the social media of the Internet, in Nigerian and international radio and television broadcasts, and in newspaper reports, editorials and opinion pieces. Beyond the certainty that a fateful line has been crossed by the killings at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, I confess that I am still trying to achieve even a minimum of the understanding that the development calls for. What exactly do I mean by this?
First, there was the welcome surprise of the nationwide scope of the protests and demonstrations, together with the boisterousness, the selflessness, the idealism. In this column, I have long argued that the poor and the excluded in their millions, especially among our youths, come from virtually all the ethnic communities, religious faiths and regional zones. For this reason, it warmed my heart and stoked my hopes that #EndSARS was/is a thoroughly Pan-Nigerian phenomenon, the likes of which have been hard to come by since the June 12 Movement of 1993. This was all the more remarkable given the fact that #EndSARS seemed the brainchild of the youths themselves, without the patronage or manipulation of either professional politicians or vested moneyed interests.
Secondly, finding to my great surprise many parallels between #EndSARS protests and the demonstrations of the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, I actually began to hope, to pray – in my secular expression of faith – that things would go successfully with and for #EndSARS demonstrations as they did and are still doing for the BLM. After all, didn’t the BLM demonstrations begin, as did #EndSARS, with denunciation of police brutalities against Black people before morphing into a general call for an end to all the social and economic injustices that Black people are forced to endure in America? Indeed, one parallel with the BLM movement struck me forcefully in #EndSARS, this being the apparent leaderlessness, the deliberately decentralized nature of mobilization and organization. From accounts that I either read or was given by people in the know, this was such a marked feature of #EndSARS that most people were both impressed and baffled by it.
And then thirdly and finally, #EndSARS had a festiveness, an air of ecstatic joie di vivre that did not however in the least detract from the utter seriousness of the protesters and demonstrators. Food was cooked and consumed in the streets and highways, music and dancing combined with songs and chants of principled militancy, and instantaneous artwork was created and “consumed” through posters, T-shirts, signage and handbills. And as all this was happening, much of the art and performance created was almost simultaneously shared across the length and breadth of the country and the outside word, especially via the social media and its capacity to make things that are launched into circulation go wildly viral. I confess that the demonstrations and protests had been going on for about three to four days before I got wind of it. But when I did, much of the material, “evidence” of something new, unprecedented and wondrous, was there for me to watch and listen to as if in real time. In revolutionary history, there is something known as the “carnival of the oppressed” – that is what we were seeing in the #EndSARS movement. This phenomenon is at the heart of what I have to say in this piece because it poses the question of why oppressed populations – or fractions thereof – often stage their protests, their uprisings as a sort of festival.
You must remember, compatriots, that the median age of Nigeria for this year, 2020, is 18.1 years. Going by the technical definition of the concept of median age, this means that half of our country’s population is under 18 years and half over that age. Equally telling is the fact that the estimate of Nigerians under the age of 24 is 64%. The implication of these stats and data are inescapable: the vast majority of Nigerians are young; those of us who, like Muhammadu Buhari, are in the eighth decade of life are an infinitesimally small fraction of the population. More to the central point of this article, since about 7 out of every 10 Nigerians live in poverty, it means that the poor in our country are, by an overwhelming majority, young. I admit that I am perhaps merely giving a statistical and data inflection to facts about poverty in our country that most people know. But I do have my reason for doing so, especially in juxtaposition with Buhari’s septuagenarian gerontocracy.
In Buhari’s #EndSARS speech, there is a genuine surprise that his administration’s offer to scrap SARS and replace it with another reformed formation in the Nigerian Police was rejected and furthermore, it was complicated by more demands that went well beyond police brutality and extra-judicial violence. Why could Buhari and his advisers not see that #EndSARS’s demand for an end to SARS would not stop with that demand and would logically and inevitably extend to the myriad of indices of hardship and hopelessness that our youths ae compelled to endure? Joblessness; parents and older family members in grinding penury and therefore incapable of adequately feeding, clothing and housing themselves and their young; the education they are getting nearly worthless in getting them employment or preparing them to be competitive in the national and global marketplace of skills and professions; the profound ennui of what to do with themselves as all kinds of temptations assail them, making them to drift into either cynicism or criminality.
Yes, one of Buhari’s daughters is alleged to have participated in #EndSARS demonstrations, but was this what lured Buhari into thinking that once he had offered to scrap SARS the youths should have danced their way into talks with his government? I do not wish to diminish the genuineness or the value of whatever she felt in joining #EndSARS demonstrations, but Buhari’s daughter is vastly separated from the despair and anguish of most, if not all of her fellow protesters. Unless of course she commits “class suicide”, leaves Aso Rock before the end of her father’s current term in 2023 and becomes a full-time or lifelong activist.
Nothing, compatriots, nothing reveals Buhari’s ignorance of the depth of the despair and anguish of our youths than the programs and policies of his administration that he outlined in his speech as evidence or proof that he is not indifferent to the suffering of the poor and the downtrodden of our society – Farmermoni; Tradermoni; Marketmoni; N30,000 each to 100,000 artisans; 250 businesses to be registered at the Corporate Affairs Commission; etc., etc. In relation to the size of our population and the structural features of our economy, these are mere palliatives that will not make a dent in the scale of poverty and immiseration in our society, especially among the youths. This is beside the fact that these policies and programs do not in the least touch the real bases of the vast wealth and income disparities of our national economy.
Mr. President, how in the world can you address the dire circumstances and prospects of our youths without touching one jot on the existing structure of wealth and income inequality in our country that is one of the worst in the world? And in this regard and to be completely blunt here, predatoriness – the division of society into predators and preys – is the motive force of our political economy: how can Buhari and his administration come to the rescue, in his own words, of “youths, women and the most vulnerable in our society” when predatoriness has not decreased but has been magnified and finessed in the rein of Buhari and the APC?
Permit me to put this argument in a revisionary syllogism that can be easily understood. Here goes: To lift most, if not all, of our youths out of despair and anguish without touching the existing structure of wealth and income disparities, you would need to generate new wealth on a colossal scale; this is not happening now and does not seem about to happen in the foreseeable future; ergo, you cannot lift the youths and other excluded groups out of poverty without ending predatoriness, thereby vastly reducing wealth and income disparities. If Buhari and his advisers try to make light of these arguments, let it be known, first, that wealth and income disparities in Nigeria are universally known to be one of the worst in the world and secondly, with the possible exception of the U.S., all countries marked by the sort of vast disparities of wealth and income that we have in Nigeria tend to be marked by violence and criminality as the preferred instruments of governance among the ruling elites.
I would like to conclude with a final word on the idea of the “carnival of the oppressed”. #EndSARS was remarkable not only in extending and reproducing itself throughout the country, but also in empowering our youths to believe in themselves and to think their way out of the terrible impasse that we, the older generations, created. It is a wonderful experience for an entire generation of youths, against all the odds, to find strength and possibility in themselves and in the future. That was what was celebrated in #EndSARS; that was the source of the “carnival of the oppressed” that was such a distinctive feature of the movement. The apparent present impasse will not last. This is because once a whole generation has come into intimate contact with its powers of self-destination, no force on earth can take that away from it/them.