Nigeria’s problems cannot be solved by young people alone
Nigeria’s recent youth protests against the rogue Special Anti-Robbery Squad police unit, have revealed as much about the country’s generational divides as about police brutality.
They have shown the extent to which the government reflects an older, out-of-touch minority: a generation that seems incapable of recognising younger members of society as equal citizens. The problem is a societal one. Older Nigerians hate being held accountable, especially by the young. They prefer silence and unwavering respect and they weaponise “tradition” to avoid having to earn or reciprocate such respect.
Many of the “elders” who occupy positions of power in Nigeria came of age between the years of independence, during the Biafran war and our earliest military coups. Understandably, they believe violence, not service, is the language of authority and that impunity is synonymous with leadership.
Such policymakers are only comfortable relating to young people who present themselves as passive and obedient “children”. They demand obedience, when what they really mean is obsequiousness. But they are morally inconsistent. Hence, during the protests, younger Nigerians referred to policymakers as àgbàyà, Yoruba for “dishonourable elder”. Many young people can no longer bear the hardships of today’s Nigeria and our leaders’ aloof stance in silence.
The recent series of peaceful demonstrations across Nigeria culminated in a violent crackdown in which several unarmed protesters were shot in Lagos last week. They officially began after a video surfaced of SARS officers killing a young man in Delta state and then driving off in his car. But the roots are much deeper. In Nigeria, violence towards young people is systemic and there is no escaping it: not at home, in schools, universities or even places of worship.
By protesting, young people learnt several lessons. Focused as they were on ending the SARS police unit, their demands might have appeared, if not unambitious, simple. In that light, the government’s response, which evolved from lethargic to callous over two weeks, was perplexing — that is, until you consider that #EndSARS is a rupture, a more subversive cause than it seems. In a society that thrives on subjugating its youth, anything that galvanises young people to take action, to hope, is an existential threat. The strength of the protests is not simply that they had no official leaders (who could be co-opted or, worse, killed). It is that, for once, young people did not ask for permission to act from a generation whose morals, leadership and actions they no longer trust.
Young people were united in ways unimaginable to their predecessors and refused to be violent. After all, what message could be more powerful than a peaceful protest from a generation who have little political representation and have only ever known the consequences of failed policies. Each protester grew up amid widespread corruption, the threat of terrorist group Boko Haram, bad education and even dodgier health systems. Now they know they can be killed by soldiers even while singing the national anthem.
Nigeria is not a problem for its youth to solve. That is why we have elected officials and a judicial system. But if our politicians or judges are to produce solutions to this national crisis, they will first be required to reckon with their own serious moral crisis.
Older Nigerians must understand how their repression of young people in every sphere has only enabled the kind of brutality that is routinely perpetuated by SARS, whose targets have mainly been people between the ages of 17 and 30. They must acknowledge their complicity in such a broken system. Such elders, if indeed they are to be respected as elders, would need to be capable of looking within.
Wale Lawal October 29 2020