Nigeria’s #EndSARS protesters need a leader
Just over a week into protests to dissolve Nigeria’s notorious special anti-robbery squad (SARS), Nigerian demonstrators have vowed on social media to “not back down.” But it’s unclear where they are headed.
I have been covering politics in Nigeria and in West Africa since 2018. There have been various moments in the last two years when my team and I asked ourselves why people do not take to the streets.
There are countless reasons to ask for change: rising food or gasoline prices, systematic corruption, and ongoing violence —ranging from terrorism due to Islamist militants, banditry, and kidnappings.
But Nigeria never had protests on the scale it is witnessing right now. There have been online protests and hashtags in the past, but frustration only turned into lethargy — as if a majority of them had given up on the idea they could actually bring about any real change.
The same level of lethargy could also been seen at polling stations: Nigeria had the lowest voter turnout in history for its 2019 presidential elections.
With less than 35 per cent of electorate casting their ballots, it also had the lowest voter participation on the continent.
When you talk to protesters now, you will hear descriptions ranging from “this is our Arab Spring,” to “this is not even a movement yet,” depending on how much Nigerians want to see in what is unfolding. One thing is clear: people across all social levels are calling for an end of abuse .
“Enough is enough,” they say. They are loud, are demanding change. But they are also very disorganised.
You may see protests in one part of Lagos almost resemble a Friday evening party, while in another part, people are running for their lives as police violently disperse a crowd. Then there are criminals who mingle amongst the crowd, posing a security threat. . At least 11 people have died so far.
If you examine Nigeria more closely, you will find the unity the youth is demanding to achieve their goals is the same problem the country is facing.
A country fragmented along ethnic and religious lines, influences the dynamic of these protests.
If you talk to people in parts of Northern Nigeria, you will find disagreement over what originally caused the protests: especially in terror-torn Boko Haram region.
There are very practical reasons it will be difficult to keep up the momentum.
“They are blocking roads, also to the airport, they are causing traffic. The goodwill of the people supporting this will decrease over time,” a listener told a local radio station, while the radio host added: “These are valid protests but the protesters have to be smart. Protests can be hijacked.
They may not need a leader but they need some spokesperson.”
In such a fragmented country, the longer the protests continue, the more ways protesters have of bringing their movement forward.
“It’s time for them to mobilise, register as a political party to be ready for the elections in 2023.
They must push for candidates that speak for them,” said Abasili Okwudili, a political science lecturer at the University of Lagos.
Thus far, protesters have rejected turning anyone into “a face” of these protests, fearing, it will be decapitated politically.
Nigeria’s elites promise change., but this will need people representves to keep pushing at tables where politics happens. —The writer is DW’s reporter in West Africa