Young Nigerians are struggling to breathe.
I understand this better than most, as a young woman with no prominent family members or powerful connections, thrust into the forefront of a national movement against state-sanctioned oppression.
Tina Ezekwe understood this too. She was a 16-year-old girl who was killed by negligent police officers. Her grieving family represents thousands of other Nigerian families who have suffered in similar ways, with no access to justice or hope for resolution.
Tina’s death along with the countless others killed by Nigerian police compelled me to hit the streets to demand that the killings stop. I used my social media networks to organize a three-day sleep-out in front of the Lagos state police headquarters and the Lagos National Assembly. I nearly died there.
My bank account was frozen – one of the many acts of intimidation used by the government against activists, including being placed on watch lists, having our passports seized, being thrown into underground cells for months. Many protesters are still in jail since last year. It is a strange thing to see the government act against people whose only crime is to demand accountability.
The global protests against police brutality triggered by George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis gave a moral edge to the anger and frustration that has been building up for years in Nigeria. Being citizens of the richest country in Africa isn’t a shield from still having to remind our government that black lives matter.
The result was EndSARS a protest movement calling for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of Nigeria. It was the first time in 20 years that a social-conscious movement devoid of class, religion or tribe pushed a united mandate on issues of police brutality, governance and accountability.
An enduring feature of these protests – this movement – is that it has mobilized one of the world’s largest black youth populations in the largest black nation on Earth.
It is not just a political but a social rebellion. Bound together by resilience, we have begun to acknowledge disability and LGBTQ rights, tribalism and religious bigotry.
At a young age, I am calling for change, breaking out of the norm, in a country where people have been voiceless for a long time. More importantly, I am not the only one doing it. I am doing it alongside millions of other Nigerian youths.
EndSARS has become a rallying cry, spreading throughout the country and over our borders to Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, The Gambia and around Africa.
It created active citizens out of young people who won’t just rant on social media but who are gearing up for the next general election to speak loud and clear with their votes. A united front and a decentralized movement have allowed us to collectively shoulder the anger of the government and protect each other. It gives women pride of place and acknowledges their contributions to nation-building in this electric ‘youthvolution’.
Amid the peaceful protests across the country, the impressive organizational skills employed by volunteer groups made up of young people – the Feminist Coalition, EndSARS legal aid, Citizen Gavel – was a vital glimpse into a future Nigeria whose political and administrative structures can be properly managed to diminish financial embezzlement and corruption.
We used, and continue to use, technology to highlight police brutality, and help the families and victims of it to get justice, medical help and closure. We also use it to respond to mental health emergencies and organize the provision of food and the needs of protesters. The demonstrations revealed a working nation and more importantly, the change young people in Nigeria are demanding.
We took our protests online, using the immediacy of social media to express our frustrations at the structural barriers that prevent us from participating in shaping policy. It was a direct channel to government, uncorrupted by cronyism and sycophancy. The government has since retaliated by shutting down Twitter. They are frightened by a united electorate exposing their weaknesses.
The push for reforms has not been limited simply to action on the streets. Young people have decided to participate in judicial panels to join the effort to push through police reforms, thus helping the government regain the trust of its young citizens. It has been a face-to-face encounter with the horrors that the people of Nigeria pass through in the hands of unstable security agents and a broken judiciary system.
Even while the judicial panels are continuing, a widescale clampdown on protesters is still going on. Police are still carrying out extra-judicial killings without being prosecuted, while extortion, torture and undue harassment are still going unchecked.
Despite the trauma of the recent killings, there is a newfound spirit of nationalism that unites us in our vision for a better Nigeria. That spirit is not limited to our country. We are united in solidarity across borders and continents because it is about our future. It is about our survival. The momentum of this movement continues to grow as we channel attention towards the education of voters and grassroots mobilization for the 2023 elections.
We are using our collective efforts and every legal and accessible channel to ensure we achieve the change we seek. Maybe then we can finally catch our breath.