Demonstrators want to return to the streets, but the Nigerian government has shown itself willing to turn to violence to stop it.
To mark International Human Rights Day, a number of prominent activists, actors, politicians and musicians – including Angela Davis, Greta Thunberg and Opal Tometi – signed an open letter to Nigeria’s incumbent President Muhammudu Buhari, calling on him to release protesters jailed for their involvement in the country’s recent mass anti-police brutality demonstrations. Among its demands, it calls on Buhari to allow an independent investigation into the shooting that occurred on the 12th day of protests when officers of the Nigerian military are alleged to have opened fire on demonstrators in Lagos. According to Amnesty International, 12 protesters were killed as a result.
But it’s not just the international community that’s still calling for justice from the Federal government. Despite taking a break from physical demonstrations, young people in Nigeria are still fighting for a better future. “The break was important, we needed that time to grieve,” 26-year-old writer Conrad Omodiagbe tells VICE World News. “Nothing else has changed with regards to where I and a whole lot of Nigerian youths stand. We still want accountability and change. Killing us won’t stop the movement.”
Omodiagbe is not alone in this sentiment. Many young Nigerians seem to have found their voice for the first time in the country’s political sphere, determined to demand real change, starting with the country’s 2023 elections. “The #EndSARS protests created a strong bond of community that I never used to see among Nigerian youths,” echoes musician SGaWD, who has partnered with a non-government organisation to sensitise young voters ahead of the elections. “It has motivated groups of people to come forward and form organisations to fix problems in Nigeria.”
Social media has continued to be a vital tool in boosting morale and educating each other on ways to get involved in the country’s seemingly inexhaustible battles. They have now taken the protests off the major highways and roads and onto their phones and social apps, biding their time until protesters can reconvene publicly without fearing for their lives. This push for accountability online comes at a time when the Nigerian government is adamant in resisting any criticism of their slow and uncertain response to the #EndSARS protests.
President Muhammudu Buhari has been fairly silent since his last address where he threatened protesters but spoke out recently to express his “disgust” at what he perceived to be bias coverage of what he termed as the “End SARS violence” by international media. Meanwhile, young people in Nigeria are still being threatened for their involvement in the protests, including having their bank accounts frozen, as others are blacklisted from travelling out of the country. The women’s advocacy group, the Feminist Coalition, which was instrumental in sustaining the protests has detailed instances of intimidation and pushback including having their website temporarily blocked from being accessed in Nigeria.
Still, young people are growing frustrated at having their demands ignored, and there is growing interest in reigniting the #EndSARS movement. Just over a week ago, as news of a second potential wave of protests spread across social media, police and military presence was said to have been amped up across different areas in Lagos. The push to hit the streets was sparked by an alleged suit filed by the Nigerian police at a Federal high court in Abuja. Officers sought out an order to stop all public hearings and proceedings of the End SARS judicial panels across all 36 states stating, that they were “unconstitutional, illegal, null and void and of no effect whatsoever.” The panels were set up to investigate the government’s response to the demonstrations.
Although the suit was eventually withdrawn, their actions have wedged more doubt in the minds of young Nigerians about the impartiality of the judicial panels and the likelihood of attaining justice.
Based on the government’s previous record, SGaWD believes that people are justifiably concerned about the effectiveness of the panels. “Not only do the government have a whole trend of lack of accountability, but they are also continuously pacifying us with lies and gaslighting citizens about what we know to be true,” she says. A notable 1999 panel, popularly known as the Oputa Panel, set up to investigate the gross human rights violations that took place during the country’s civil war is just one in a series of government-led investigations where no action was taken on the findings of a judicial panel.
For other young Nigerians like queer activist Matthew Blaise, the validity of the panels is already in question because of their refusal to consider the stories of affected members of the LGBTQ community. “Many queer Nigerians have been victims of SARS dehumanisation due to their queerness,” Blaise says. “My friend was beaten almost to death at a bus stop for appearing femme. I was detained and assaulted for looking gay on two different occasions. But these stories when presented to the judicial panel will most likely be ignored and considered invalid because of our sexual orientation and gender identity.” Queer voices have not only been barred from speaking up at these panels, but they were often silenced during the protests despite facing targeted violence and harassment from the police.
The main questions now for many is how can young Nigerians continue to effectively fight for justice when the government’s response has shown a willingness to turn to violence. “There’s currently no clear direction on what next to do or how to move forward but I just feel like we are all holding our breath, waiting for something to spur us back to action,” Nelson, 21, tells VICE World News.
Currently, Nigeria is still catching its breath as it begins to pick itself up from the effects of black Tuesday, and the economic recession that continues to make life increasingly difficult for the marginalised members of society. But the government’s tunnel vision on the future won’t suffice anymore, young people want to see real change now, but, ideally, not at the expense of their lives this time around.