An aerial view shows protesters gathering at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, on October 15, 2020, during a demonstration to protest against police brutality and scrapping of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Pierre FAVENNEC / bioreports
In a social media post, I had compared the #EndSARS protest to an Arab predecessor – the Arab Spring. Its Nigerian cousin continues to vibrate day by day, maybe soon – week by week, with young people filing through the veins of major Nigerian cities. Armed with placards, hashtags and guts, they are supported with solidarity from foreign corners. Someone had copied my social media post and added it to the placards in London. It reads, “Arab Spring. Nigerian Harmattan. The climate is always right to challenge oppression.”
In what seems to echo the immortal words of Chinua Achebe – “Being a Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting,” these modern protesters are relentlessly charging forward with a demand for institutional change, while, most extraordinarily retaining the uniquely Nigerian joyous exuberance. As revolution fists Bioreports News the air and smartphones bear witnesses to surrounding events, free jollof rice and bottled water are being distributed to fuel the body. Music blares, too, to animate the moment. Funds are being raised – already in hard millions – to support victims of the protest. This is a different generation.
As the stories stream in the news and on social media, one wonders if this crowd was part of the larger population already browbeaten by the pandemic and its depressing economic consequences. Again, ours is a different generation, proving in no less measure that despite faces festooned with facemasks, civic agitation can still find a voice.
To the matter at hand. The anti-robbery arm of the Nigerian Police Force, SARS, has become infamous for its highhandedness in the discharge of duty. To be victim is to be mostly young and to fit into the unit’s perceived profile of criminals and cybercriminals. This bucket list includes driving a car that appears to be beyond the driver’s paygrade, to be spotted with smartphones or laptops, and perhaps the evilest of them, rocking dreadlocks or tattoos. Countless lives have been lost to these profiling. The human costs may yet include the early morning melancholy that visit young people before they set out for the day. SARS have become an insatiable devil, lurking in the shadows in order to stuff its jail with young bloods.
There’s an absurdity here. A retrogression, even. While the world continues to adjust to a global economy shaped by digital and creative expressions, the Nigerian Police, by bullying young people who bear the tools of the digital and creative economies, unilaterally transports the country into primitiveness. It’s indeed a throwback into barbarism. In an ironical coincidence, as I write this piece, the global tech world awakes to the news that a Nigerian start-up, Paystack – built by laptops, smartphones – and with a dreadlock-haired co-founder, has just been acquired to the tune of $200 million. Were fate plotting evil on Paystack founders – even before their company got a name, they might have been victims of incorrect profiling, say, on a fateful day, when the evening cloud hovers above Lagos, one of them, the dreadlocked one, driving home after a day of coding, is stopped by a SARS officer. At first, he might have been polite as a reasonable Nigerian should in front of a gun-bearing personnel, especially in broad-day darkness. Before winding down his window, he intuitively turns off his rap music. The new scene deserves a rather solemn soundtrack, or none. He might force a smile, measuring his voice to convey friendliness before giving the Nigerian constitutionally-sanctioned code of respect – “Oga Sir, Good Evening.” No matter how much he tries though, the impression is formed. The seemingly dishevelled strands on his head marks him as a suspect. He might be greeted with a stern response to a point of irritation. He may soon be thrown into the back of a nearby police van and it may take weeks before his parents and the world will notice his absence, and heaven forbids a grave, yes, grave outcome.
By so far responding to this event with early indifference and later kneejerk tokenism, the Nigerian government advertises its hostility towards dreamers and a suffocation of life and innovation. This is both a civic and moral imperative. SARS and its many crimes are not new. But a lack of concerted effort from government to reform the force and betroth it with the sophistication that matches 21st century policing is a worrisome concern.
Perhaps one should not act surprised about this indifference. A government that understands the realities of today’s youth will respond differently. This is a generation that observes with disdain rules handed over by previous generations, especially if such rules serve no functional or redeeming value. They are best used as memes, mocked to high heavens for their uselessness. It’s expected from those whose parents are products of eras marked mostly by military excesses and a culture of blind obeisance. If every generation must discover its mission in that Fanonian admonition, the writings on the wall suggest that this generation has elected to be the one that challenges the moribund structures that hold the country to ransom. There may not yet be another Fela, the poster child of activism for a generation with post-colonial ills. There may not yet be a Tai Solarin as witnessed by a generation struggling to find a moral compass. But what it lacks in standout heroes, it compensates for in a zeitgeist contrarianism that exploits technology, pop culture and catchy slogans that slap and stick. And indeed, this generation may not yet be the ones to enjoy the fruit of their struggles. But, unlike their inheritance, they are curating something worth handing over to the next generation.
In essence, this isn’t merely about police brutality. One can entertain the possibility of a reasonable intervention. It may not yet reach the scale of the Arab Spring, and hopefully doesn’t suffer from the same fate where the gains were short-lived and most affected Arab countries aren’t better off. But the shivers of frustrations have never been harsher from this Nigerian Harmattan. The protest is really a pretext to channel a distinct generational attitude about politics, the corrupt nature of Bioreports-style capitalism, and the vulnerability of a country that may yet implode if its leadership doesn’t soro soke.
Chris Ogunlowo is a writer, advertising creative director and culture enthusiast.