Radical social change in Nigeria beyond #EndSARS

What can we do in 2021 to move the #EndSARS movement forward?

A demonstrator holds a banner during a protest against alleged police brutality in Lagos on October 12, 2020 [File: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters]

2020 is the year we wish we could erase from memory and, if possible, imagine it never happened. But it did happen and some events like #EndSARS and the massacre in its fatal climax should never be forgotten. Many say today that the outbreak of the #EndSars protests in October 2020 changed the perception of the Nigerian youth as essentially slothful and politically inactive. But there was much to disprove this perception even before the protests.

Nigerian youths have never been apathetic. On the contrary, we have been very busy growing up too fast, negotiating an abusive relationship with a predatory state and avoiding being eaten alive by the leaders we were taught were our shepherds. We have been awake in the darkness, forging a path for ourselves on platforms that were ridiculed as unceremonious.

We have been speaking very loudly and doing a better job as nation builders and global ambassadors with our music, movies, fashion, literature and tech novelties, so much more than the politicians. And what have we received in return? The ruling elite’s scorn and the security apparatus’s brutality.

So our simmering anger finally boiled over in the #EndSARS protest and it started actively pulling down the garlands of Nigeria’s PR democracy.

The ruling elite responded to our rage with the usual tactics: it smeared protesters as reprobate and subversive elements seeking anarchy, unleashed the police on them and introduced a few symbolic measures to assuage public outrage.

While these tactics have temporarily halted street protests, the #EndSARS spirit is not going away. So for the many supporters of this sprawling movement, some of whom might have understandably moved on to the demands of everyday survival in Nigeria, the 2021 question is: what next?

Radical social change beyond #EndSARS protests

People have asked whether #EndSARS is a moment or a movement. I say it is both. Change occurs in scales. Each moment creates a seismic shift, generating a movement that may endure or dissipate depending on how well the outrage is systematically harnessed.

However, citizen activism and movements for social change often fall prey to idealism without enduring strategies. Journalists and scholars of resistance have written extensively about how social movements can inadvertently perpetrate the inequalities it strives to eliminate. The demands for change and good governance have to be matched by the supply of clear coherent strategies.

To show that we have a more operational grasp of history, we must look to the strengths and pitfalls of previous movements within Nigeria and elsewhere. The Arab Spring is now uttered in the same breath with the #EndSARS protests. But what were the challenges that followed that uprising and others like it? What went right and wrong?

The uprisings were strong, swift and toppled dictatorships. Clearing the debris, however, proved to be a more herculean task. Some scholars have attributed this to the lack of trust among discordant opposition groups, the hijacking of protest movements by extremists, especially with the rise of ISIS, and a citizenry disillusioned by the lack of credible long-term solutions.

An underlying theme in all these factors, and more, is that civil resistance is a contingent process with a dubious shelf life. In the absence of a follow-up scheme to keep the dream alive and creatively place demands on the front burner, the outrage fizzles out.

That is why, it is important moving forward not only to have a clear-cut strategy for #EndSARS but also to manage expectations. Protests do not last forever, they are not meant to. Protests are a short-term catalyst for long-term transformation. People must return to daily life, as they have.

Change also cannot come overnight. It is a long, drawn-out process which involves hard work on many levels, but most importantly on the grassroots, local level.

Going local and grassroots

Contemporary political activism in Nigeria has often leaned towards organised representation whether in form of labour unions, notable personalities or civil society groups. However, mistrust of potentially duplicitous organised leadership should not deter genuine exploration and collaborations with well-meaning organisations while individuals continue to hold the fort in various creative ways.

Young Nigerian feminists came together in July 2020 to form the Feminist Coalition, a platform that became a major rallying point for fundraising and other logistics at the outbreak of the #EndSARS protests.

We saw our celebrities and entertainers in a different light with the depth of awareness and engagement they brought to the process. Indeed, it was the Nigerian rapper, Falz, that made a call for the first march and the protests swelled from there. Many others did and continue to use their platforms. A coalition of artists – Art X Collective – recently initiated a project to feature the works of photographers that captured protests.

There seems to be an increased political consciousness as new groups have also emerged with a focus on sensitising young people ahead of the 2023 general elections.

These emerging forums and collective platforms are evidence that beyond #EndSARS the outrage is being harnessed on diverse platforms of expression. But we must also remember that people across social sets outside Lagos and Abuja were part of the protests and many may not have access to the social media discourse. That is why, inclusivity through offline activities is important.

The demands of the movement should not be directed solely at the pinnacle of power. It is important to grasp what is going on in local governments, the civil service, the private sector, etc. Considering the demands of the movements have expanded to accommodate broader issues of governance and accountability, beyond police brutality, it then follows that there should also be a decentralised focus that captures the reality of Nigerians at the local levels and help them create change within their communities.

Further, we need to give texture to the broad demands and going local is an effective way to do so. What does good governance or redistribution of wealth mean for people in a particular locality? The removal of exorbitant market levies? The renovation of dilapidated school buildings? The equal distribution of national revenue between states?

To contest a hydra-headed and democratically disguised political system like Nigeria’s, a coordinated and collaborative movement has to be sustained. One way to achieve this is by dismantling class, political and ethnic divides. This is already happening with the rise of a new generation that is more interested in finding commonalities rather than difference.

Towards a generational transition in politics

The protests have brought anxiety to Nigeria’s political landscape and an opportunity for creative internal reformation. The space for a new kind of politics has to expand to include fresh progressive ideals. Of course, we do not expect the current political elite to enthusiastically make space for young blood. It is for us to carry on creatively chipping away at the system by creating new spaces of social and political kinships until the balance of power shifts.

Here is a quick calculation. By the next election cycle roughly three years from now, a generation of voters will come of age, ready to be mobilised for political action. Many, like my 15-year-old brother, were part of the #EndSARS protests and have become remarkably politicised as a result.

They are on the margins, watching, waiting, and being shaped by the realities around them. The #EndSARS movement can channel the current awakening towards a sustained engagement with the coming elections that leads to the entry of a new generation of progressive Nigerian politicians ready to transform legislative politics from within.

We saw this process with the rise of millennial voters in the US elections. From using social media platforms to mobilise voter registration to physically challenging nationalist bullies attempting voter suppression and rallying behind progressive candidates, young Americans have conspicuously changed the landscape of their nation’s politics.

Young Nigerians can also rock the comfort zone of gerontocratic politics by deploying similar creative dissidence. Many have already taken the lead on social media, radio programmes and other less visible yet innovative platforms. Some prominent young entertainers have decided not to feature in political rallies but to invest their time and money mobilising and supporting people at the grassroots – the target areas for looting votes and coercing voters with handouts.

The momentum of the #EndSARS protests can be used to rally voters behind alternative, independent candidates who can challenge the old establishment and deliver on much needed local solutions to local problems. It can help build a new political consciousness among Nigerians which redefines citizenship as not just a set of rights but also of responsibilities – to demand one’s right from the state but also to have the responsibility to do one’s part in transforming it for the better.

Thus, in 2021, as we seek to move the #EndSARS protests forward, our New Year resolutions should place individual and collective responsibility for good governance at the top of the list. Else, the Nigerian government will only replace old wine in new bottles at the next election.

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