Young Nigerians often claim that the Nigerian dream is to dream about Nigeria from the comfort of a functional country. Their goal of leaving the country behind, or to “japa,” is not difficult to understand. The massive unemployment rate, rampant insecurity, crumbling public infrastructure, poorly funded healthcare system, irregular electricity supply, etc. — in Nigeria, the rot is the system. Young people’s fixation on “japa” betrays a despairing acceptance that the country is beyond rescue; only the individual can be saved.
Three weeks ago, the EndSARS movement changed this collective apathy toward Nigerian patriotism. Even within an institution as unruly, corrupt and power-drunk as the Nigerian Police Force, the callousness of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, stood out. Many young Nigerians have personal stories of harassment, extortion, kidnapping and assault by SARS officers. SARS-orchestrated murders have been documented on social media for years. Again and again, a new human rights abuse goes viral and forces protesters into the streets to demand the dissolution of the unit. Each time, the protests fizzle out after the government makes and breaks promises to end SARS.
The 2020 EndSARS movement felt different. On Oct. 3, a video taken in Ughelli showing alleged SARS officers murdering a young man and driving off in his Lexus SUV went viral. Small protests convened in Delta state, then in cities across the country, and support grew, both at protest sites and on social media. Many people have theories about why this EndSARS movement was so massive: the poor economy, increased unemployment, university closures, or the incredible organizing efforts of feminist coalitions and other young Nigerians on social media.
Regardless of the reasons for its uniqueness, the EndSARS movement was beautiful to observe. I saw the best of Nigerians — people devoting their time, effort and money to the fight for a safer Nigeria. The traditional crisis-making tools of the political elite had minimal impact because Nigerians across all religions, ethnic groups, socioeconomic classes and genders were united in their goal of police reform. As the movement grew, so did my hopes for the future of our country. For the first time in years, I saw young Nigerians embrace a fervent patriotism and devotion to the improvement of the country.
The organization of the movement came into stark contrast with the corruption, lack of accountability and ineffectiveness of the Nigerian government. With that observation came a growing consciousness that the EndSARS movement would be the first step in our path to functionality. After police reform would come a better Nigeria.
The Nigerian government saw and understood this idealistic undercurrent. As protests grew larger, so did their resolve to stand firmly behind the system as it was, rot and all. The government made a performative announcement of a new SARS ban. On social media, however, there was evidence that SARS officers continued roaming the streets. Police officers still harassed and shot protesters and bystanders. The government feigned surprise when protesters, who had witnessed the broken promises of the past, refused to leave the streets until evidence of police reform was provided. Embedded in the state’s obstinacy was the refusal to empower the youth as active stakeholders in the future of the country. State-sponsored resistance escalated in tune with the movement’s growth.
Although violence had been brewing for several days, it came to a head on Tuesday. A curfew was announced in Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous city. Lagos had been central to the EndSARS movement, with numerous daily protests in different parts of the city. Protesters had occupied the Lekki tollgate in the city for over ten days, costing the city government and its affiliated private interests over $500,000 in levies. Many protesters left the tollgate, but some incredibly brave, patriotic Nigerians persisted.
Early that evening, I saw videos of the remaining protesters, about a thousand strong, seated together, waving Nigerian flags. The sun set; street lights were turned off. Soldiers from the Nigerian army arrived at the tollgate and fired bullets into the crowd. On Twitter, I watched those courageous souls sing the Nigerian national anthem with background instrumentation from the rifles their taxes had bought. Together with 120,000 people on Instagram Live, I watched a DJ and other terrified but defiant protesters try to extract a bullet from a man’s thigh. I watched them attempt CPR on an unconscious man. Throughout the night, the government lied about ongoing events, and most local news stations either remained silent or twisted the truth. What they tried to hide, social media laid bare to all. The Nigerian government sanctioned and orchestrated the cold-blooded murder of peaceful protesters.
Where do we go from here? Like many young Nigerians, I am still reeling from the reminder that the Nigerian political elite will openly and casually spill the blood of the innocent in their quest to maintain the status quo. I feel powerless, because over and over again, the voice of the average Nigerian has been drowned out by the ammunition of those who wield political power. Then, I remember the protesters — at Lekki tollgate and around the country — who were injured or killed because they fought for a safer Nigeria, a Nigeria that protects and nurtures its citizens instead of one that frustrates, oppresses and murders them.
The orchestrators of these campaigns of violence aimed to instill fear in the youth and send them back into cocoons of despairing apathy that they, along with the generations that came before them, occupied. I refuse to do so, but that declaration is easy to make from the comfort of New Haven.
I hope that this is not the end. I hope that young Nigerian voices will be heard. I hope that the seeds of promise that were planted in the past three weeks get the chance to germinate and bloom. I hope that future generations will inherit a better country, one where their lives are valued.
IJEOMA NWABUDIKE is a first-year MD/PHD student at the Yale School of Medicine. Contact her at email@example.com.