The drama, arson, destruction, looting and death witnessed in the past two weeks are unfortunate. The resultant loss in GDP and adverse effect on the common man and the economy as many states impose curfews and restrictions to stem the orgy of violence is very regrettable. There have been attempts by some unscrupulous elements and opportunistic hoodlums to derail the real objective of the protest and give it an ethnic bent, which if not nipped in the bud may lead to an internecine ethnic conflict. Attempts to stoke up ethnic tension failed.
Despite these undesirable outcomes, the events of the past two weeks should serve as a rude awakening to the political class and the older generation. The Nigerian youths, hitherto believed to be apolitical, have shown that they would no longer be taken for granted by their rulers. They have realised that they can make their voices heard and be united in asking for a better Nigeria across ethnic and religious lines.
It is instructive that in a country like ours with sharp ethnic fault lines and where the #EndSARS protests were most active in the predominantly Christian southern part of the country, the symbol of the protest was the iconic image of Aisha Yusuf, a Muslim woman in a hijab. The symbolism of this is not lost to decerning minds. It means that our youths want merit in place of nepotism. They want justice in place of injustice.
The protest showcased the rise of a new national consciousness. The young generation of Nigerians is displaying new consciousness where there is no North, no South, no Christianity and no Islam. This showcases the rise of new Nigerian nationalism. Without any doubt, there is a shift in orientation among young Nigerians.
#EndSARS promoted national consciousness, whether in social media, the language of communication or relationships. Majority of the enlightened youths have realised that their ethnic and religious divisions are artificial. These are only employed by the politicians to keep them permanently enslaved. Ineffective leadership poses a challenge to all Nigerian youths, and they all face the same challenges of trying to survive and eke out a living in a challenging environment.
The aspirations of the young people who are the future of Nigeria is different from the older generation. We have seen all sorts of wish or demand list by the leaderless #EndSARS protesters, but they are asking for the same thing. They are asking for an end to police brutality, a firm reform of the Nigerian police and by extension a reform of the Nigerian system that had failed to provide them with any sense of safety.
There might be a good reason why any meaningful societal reform in Nigeria should start from the police force. The Nigerian police have become a symbol of the failures of the Nigerian state. Corruption has been the bane of our national development and the Nigerian police force, rated as the most corrupt in the world, symbolises corruption in Nigeria. These supposedly law enforcement officers are the symbol of lawlessness and impunity that continues to bedevil the Nigerian society cruelly.
So it is generally believed that any meaningful reform of the Nigerian police will trickle down to the rest of the society. It may be a dawn of a new era, the beginning of the much needed national renewal. #EndSARS, therefore, becomes a call to end the old ways and usher in a new Nigeria.
The #EndSARS protest, a rebellion against the status quo, was entirely predictable. When the government at different levels consistently fails to deliver social services such as security and economic empowerment, protect citizens and encourage a sense of belonging not hinged on religion or ethnic grouping, it leads to frustration and despair and encourages revolt. The shirking in national responsibilities and denial of the people of equal access to services serve as the building block for national consciousness.
The youths are full of energy and dynamism. Unlike the older generation who are stuck in the old ways, whose subconscious may have been permanently enfeebled and defeated by the ‘Nigerian system’ of ineptitude, waste and corruption, the youths look at the society through the prism of opportunities and change. They are less susceptible to accept the status quo and more inclined to demand a departure from the old, ineffective order.
The older generation may also have seen the country at her best and may have benefitted from a benevolent Nigeria. Most of them went to the school when tuition was free, and unemployment was hardly part of their lexicon. They barely heard the word ‘terrorism’ and acute insecurity mentioned as a national issue. As Nigerians, they had a country that was the envy of a lot of other countries. They even had the privilege of saying ‘Ghana Must Go’ as they felt that immigrants from our neighbouring country were ‘infesting and corrupting’ our society and environment.
For most of the Nigerian youths, it has been a struggle from Day One. Most were even lucky to be born. Others were not so fortunate and died at birth or after that. The ones that did not live died not because their parents engaged in late-term abortion but because they were victims of infant mortality, which became widespread as our healthcare system collapsed.
At birth, most Nigerian youths face hunger as the country’s rate of poverty increased exponentially. In primary school, they do not receive a quality education as they had poorly trained teachers, sat on bare floors while studying and beaten by the rain and sun as their classes had no roofing. They did not fare better in secondary school. Those that offered science courses did not have equipped laboratories. Many of them who could not afford costly private schools went to public schools with poorly motivated teachers owed months and years of salaries and dilapidated infrastructure.
ASUU Strikes haunted today’s youths at the university. It took some about seven years to finish a four-year degree programme and the sorry state of our tertiary education meant that many of them left the university as unemployable graduates. For the few who worked hard enough to be employable, they looked for jobs in a labour market and ‘Nigerian System’ that is driven by nepotism and favouritism – a system where who you know, your religion and where you come from matters more than competency and qualifications.
The Nigerian youth has suffered from the day he was born a Nigerian in Nigeria. The average Nigerian youth is hungry, frustrated and angry. #EndSARS allowed him to unleash great anger on the political class, the leaders, the country and the system that have given him nothing other than suffering and pain.
The question is: When calm eventually returns to the country, what should be the new normal for our youths who have demonstrated a high degree of social and political consciousness with the #EndSARS protests? The fact is that young people can make the most impact if they get more actively involved in the political process. They should channel this new consciousness and energy towards organising themselves to participate in the 2023 elections and possibly grab power at many levels of government.
Party nomination of candidates remains a stumbling block for youths who are desirous of participating in the political process to bring about the desired change. PDP and APC, the dominant political platforms in the country, have been so monetised that it takes tens of millions of naira to obtain party nomination forms. This is aside from other several of millions of naira needed in ‘building structures’ and running an election campaign.
The best for the youths is to create a different political platform. They should channel the enormous energy, organizational capacity and creativity of #EndSARS to form a political movement that would not be characterised by money politics and archaic and corruption-ridden ‘structures’ but by new ideas and new ways of playing politics. They should prove that a new Nigeria can be born from the ashes of the #EndSARS movement.
The gains of the last two weeks should not be lost. This is a historic moment. The Nigerian youths have shown that Nigerians are tired of the prevailing situation in the country. They are fed up with the status quo. Our politicians have worn them out, the older people in power and their archaic ways, which have continued to hold the country’s progress to ransom, keeping Nigeria underdeveloped, entrenching poverty in the lives of the majority of Nigerians.
The youths have shown that they can rise beyond ethnic and religious considerations to demand their rights, to request that the country must change to meet their dreams and aspirations. Some of them have been killed in the process, heroes of the desire and struggle for a new Nigeria.
They should not die in vain.
Dakuku Peterside is a policy and leadership expert.