Last December, I visited Nigeria for the first time since middle school, and was surprised by how much had changed yet stayed the same. The city of Lagos is familiar to me in an all-encompassing way that fills my nostrils and buzzes in my ears. Despite the intricacies I adored about the city I grew up in, the same fundamental issues seemed to stifle our every chance at progress.
Due to the inadequate road system, I spent five hours stuck in traffic in what should have been a 20-minute car ride. My family had to move out of our apartment on Christmas Eve because the Power Holding Company of Nigeria — the country’s infamous electricity monopoly — decided to “take light,” as we say, leaving us without power and air conditioning. At a music festival I attended with my friends, police officers at the gate threatened to tase us, waving their activated weapons to herd us back like animals. This was all from the comfort of Nigeria’s upper-middle class. This was all before #EndSARS — a youth-led movement against extrajudicial policing by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad and the broader structural issues plaguing Nigeria — started trending.
Like many Nigerians living abroad, I view myself as a sort of ambassador to the United States, and feel conflicted discussing the injustices in my country to foreign audiences. Many Westerners already view Africa as a monolithic waste pile — one where we are all dying of malaria and malnutrition, so take a gap year and help us, please — so we work to overcompensate. We share pictures of our country’s huge mansions and luxurious hotels. We talk about the vibrancy of the elite club scene and how we spend our weekends on private beaches. We boast about the wealth that exists in our country without realizing that our main sources of pride alienate us from our fellow citizens — 40 percent of whom live beneath the poverty line.
The ongoing #EndSARS protests across Nigeria have brought together the nation’s youth — regardless of class, tribe and faith — in a way past generations have never seen before. On Oct. 20, when government officials reportedly turned off streetlights and CCTV cameras at the Lekki tollgate to hide evidence, protesters could be heard singing the national anthem in unison before uniformed men opened fire on the crowd. Twelve people died, and despite the police’s militance, Nigerians remained undeterred in their activism for a reimagined future — one where corrupt leaders are held accountable and protections are granted to every citizen. These demonstrations show a striking parallel to those that took over the American consciousness this summer.
EndSARS and Black Lives Matter both reject the bigotry embedded into each country’s moral framework, which assigns categoric value to certain lives above others and produces the inhumanity of the current policing systems. The only difference is that in Nigeria — a racially homogenous country that hosts the world’s largest Black population — Blackness is not one’s defining characteristic. So we pivot. As humans are damned to do, we find different ways to disenfranchise each other — in Nigeria’s case, on lines of social status and proximity to government.
Like flies to rotting fruit, people are drawn to the illusion of superiority. It grants a sense of exceptionalism that overlooks the larger ways that they themselves have been marginalized. We see it within every community that has been subjugated in some way. In cultures across the world, individuals with lighter skin and more Eurocentric features are esteemed above other members of the population, even if they share the same heritage. The DOJ’s recent lawsuit against Yale, which pits Asian Americans against Black, Native and Latinx people, stratifies the BIPOC community and reinforces the “model minority” myth. The list goes on — all forms of oppression exist on a time loop. People will always find a factor, no matter how arbitrary, that allows them to align themselves with power.
When fighting for any movement, then, we must ask ourselves whether we’re truly upset that the vulnerable are being exploited or that we can’t access the power of our oppressors. If we aren’t intentional with our activism, as soon we abolish one sort of discrimination we’ll make way for another.
Now, over a month into the nationwide EndSARS protests, Nigeria is a pressure cooker of fear, anticipation and optimism. While the Nigeria Police Force has made empty promises to dissolve SARS, it’s unclear what lies ahead for my country.
What I’m sure of, though, is that if we’re calling for the government to invest in suburban infrastructure but not a social safety net, and if we’re advocating for the end of tribalism but are indifferent to issues like the criminalization of homosexuality, we might be just as dangerous as the people we’re marching against. I admire the spearheads of the EndSARS movement for their message of unification in this period of national unrest, and can only hope that as we work to free ourselves from this oppressive system, we lay down plans to construct one that is entirely different, rather than flawed in a new way.
SIMISOLA FAGBEMI is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.