Nigerian protests: A once-in-a-generation moment for change

Demonstrators gather to protest against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria October 17, 2020. [Temilade Adelaja/File Photo/Reuters]

Last month, the protests that gripped Nigeria for weeks reached a bloody peak. On October 20, security forces opened fire on unarmed demonstrators at a toll gate in Lekki, outside Lagos, which, according to Amnesty International, killed 12 people. Witnesses described how CCTV cameras and lights were shut off before the shooting started, apparently in an attempt to protect the killers.

The next morning, cyber-thugs were deployed to create chaos. People spent the day confused, reading planted stories. Like many Nigerians, I was watching the events unfold on social media. When I saw a video of the father of one of the victims mourning, I started crying uncontrollably. As a musician, I have spent much of my life touring and in the recording studio. The past few weeks, however, have opened my eyes.

Thankfully, millions of other young people feel the same. The catalyst may be the pandemic – people have been locked up so long that their anger has finally boiled over. Since early October, Nigerians – mostly in their 20s and 30s – have taken to the streets to voice their anger over police brutality, corruption and the incompetence of the ruling elite. The demonstrations were first triggered by anger at the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, better known as SARS. This is a branch of the police notorious for its track record of human rights abuses: kidnappings, extortion, harassment and killings.

Almost everyone in Nigeria has a story about SARS abuse, including me. In June this year, a friend of mine was arrested after breaking curfew to buy medicine for his ill wife. After he called me for help, I went to see him with a police officer friend of mine, hoping his job and my fame could offer some protection.

When we arrived at the scene, SARS officers had stopped close to 30 cars and confiscated everyone’s phones so they could not call for help. We saw how officers blatantly planted drugs in one of the cars, and then made everyone else line up at a nearby ATM to take out anything between $3 and $50 cash for their bribes.

SARS is also notorious for targeting young people on the flimsiest suspicion of involvement in gangs. I have friends in the music industry who have been arrested for nothing but their tattoos or their dreadlocks. It usually takes two or three days in jail and a well-placed bribe, before they are released. No wonder that #EndSARS has trended on Twitter for weeks.

The terror spread by security forces is, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Young people are protesting against a system that for decades has protected and enriched those in power. Elections have become a charade with rampant vote buying and a sense of apathy and hopelessness has defined many Nigerians – until now.

The response by the authorities has been brutal. Police have used beatings, tear gas and – as they did in Lekki – live ammunition to break up demonstrations, resulting in many deaths.

On October 11, the government pledged to disband SARS, but we have heard similar promises before. In fact, there is every chance the situation could escalate. In his address to the nation, President Muhammadu Buhari refused to even acknowledge the massacre in Lekki. He also called the government’s initial willingness to listen to protesters a “sign of weakness”, and issued thinly veiled threats of more violence.

For us protesters, it is clear that we are fighting against a government that is willing to kill you and then blame you for your own death. The authorities are intent on creating chaos as a pretext to intensify their crackdown. One politician has even tried to whip up ethnic hatred – suggesting that the demonstrations are the South trying to plan a coup.

This is a monumental moment in Nigerian history. For many young people, President Buhari represents an old and corrupt generation of politicians that have little left to offer the country. This is the moment where previous generations of Nigerians were on the cusp of change, but decided to sit back, fearing a violent backlash, or that there were not enough of them. I understand it, but we are ready to push on. At some point, there has to be a generation that takes a stand. A generation that says: “We are not going to stop, even if you kill us.”

In the immediate term, the protesters’ demands focus on justice for police abuses and more independent oversight of the police force, but also an increase in police salaries to help fight corruption. In the longer term, the presidential elections in 2023 are increasingly seen as an opportunity for real change.

Our challenge is to channel the momentum of the past few weeks into a lasting political movement. This will not be easy, since Nigeria is deeply divided on regional, class and religious lines. But I am confident that, in the end, we will succeed. Too many people are tired of the divisions the old ruling class have created and eager to move past them. Those who lost their lives in Lekki, and everyone else who have taken to the streets, deserve nothing less.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.