The new government, led by President Muhammadu Buhari, has given a free hand to the police to brutalise people, especially the youth, as well as members of various social movements.
LAGOS — Amid the sunrise, hundreds of youths in casual clothing and customised "Revolution Now" polo shirts, complemented with dozens of orange wool berets, gathered close to a major highway in Lagos, reducing traffic almost to a snarl.
As the intensity of the early October sun increased some minutes after 9.30 in the morning, they began an 8.0km march along the highway — hoisting placards, chanting songs of activism as passersby looked on — to a bridge atop the independence tunnel of Lagos.
One man hoisted a placard that reads: "42 countries are giving cash stimulus grants and stimulus to the informal sector – they are increasing fuel and electricity prices. This is wickedness!"
These demonstrators and thousands of other youths nationwide, are protesting economic hardship on Nigeria's 60th year Independence Day celebration through a socio-political movement, Coalition for Revolution (CORE) popularly known as #RevolutionNow.
Although the Police Chief in Lagos had warned against any form of protest a day earlier, hundreds of young people turned out to express their grievances in defiance of the caution.
“Nigeria at 60 is not worth celebrating until we have the total overhaul of government and the people running the government,” says Gabriel Adelaja, one of the leading voices in the protest. “And we have come out to express bluntly and blatantly using peaceful procession to express our dissatisfaction against this government."
Nigeria's growing social movements
Adelaja joined CORE – founded in July 2019 by former presidential candidate and journalist, Omoyele Sowore – on Nigeria’s 60th Independence Day to demand a reversal of the hikes in fuel price and electricity tariffs, as well as an end to corruption and insecurity in a peaceful demonstration nationwide.
An increase in the unemployment rate in Nigeria – 21.7 million Nigerians are jobless as in the second quarter of 2020 – is one of the motivating factors of the protest.
Impunity of the Nigerian police is also abound. Thousands of Nigerian youths have been brutalised and killed by the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), and the Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute a single officer.
"Collectively, it gets worse every growing year, says Damilola Banjo, a journalist based in Lagos. “I try to look at where some of these developed countries were when they clocked 60 so that I can do a just comparison, but it's still an unfortunate story."
The frustrations of Nigerians inspired Sowore to call on them to protest alongside Occupy Nigeria, another pro-democracy movement that staged one of the biggest social protests against former President Goodluck Jonathan’s New Year decision to remove the fuel subsidy in 2012.
Through Occupy Nigeria, thousands of Nigerians poured on the streets nationwide to protest this decision.
The demonstrations – orchestrated by mostly youths shutting down petroleum stations, forming human barriers along motorways, setting fire to buildings and cars – lasted for one week and five days.
“Occupy Nigeria inspired institutional activism as against activism on the streets,” says Ikemesit Effiong, Head of Research at Lagos-based SBM Intelligence, a political risk analysis firm.
“And the thing with Occupy Nigeria and the RevolutionNow movements is they were born out of the deep-seated frustrations by some Nigerians with the burning and relevant social and economic issues.”
In the last eight years – since Occupy Nigeria's successful protest in 2012 – more socio-political movements have emerged into the Nigerian political scene.
For instance, Youth Initiative For Advocacy, Growth and Advancement (YIAGA), confronted the Nigerian closed political system through the #NotTooYoungToRun bill.
They influenced the government to reduce the age of candidates contesting for the presidential, governorship, senatorial, House of Representatives and assembly. Through both an online and offline peaceful demonstration, the bill has been passed into law.
YIAGA’s success – which has seen the bill reduce the age limits from 40 to 30 for the president, 35 to 30 for the state governor and the Senate, and also the House of Representatives and state house of assembly from 30 to 25 – motivated new groups like #RevolutionNow to deploy protests and online activism as a tool for change.
The government's reaction
In September, the Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari unveiled the logo and theme of the nation's 60-year independence as “Together shall we be”
In his address to the nation from the capital, Abuja, President Buhari mentioned ways of resolving the critical challenges that beset Nigeria. One of the resolutions include “Evolving and sustaining a democratic culture that leaves power in the hands of the people”
However, in states further afield, where Nigerian youths are carrying out peaceful demonstrations, hundreds on the streets were harassed, arrested and detained for expressing their fundamental human rights.
Last week, during the #RevolutionNow Independence day peaceful demonstration in Lagos, the Nigerian police force arrested and detained 30 protesters, brutalising a journalist from Nigeria's widely read newspaper, Punch, for covering the protest.
“These people are harmless civilians,” says Adelaja, still working to negotiate the release of the protesters at the police station. “The only thing they armed themselves with were placards inscribing our dissatisfaction and expressing those things we want the government to change.”
In August 2019, Sowore was arrested and detained – for over four months against court orders – for calling for the #RevolutionNow protest.
Section 39 and 40 of the Nigerian Constitution (as amended in 2011) guarantees the freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. Also, Section 94 (4) of the Electoral Act (as amended in 2015) states the role of police during political rallies and procession is limited to the provision of security. But government reaction to the #RevolutionNow protesters has been harsh.
Its treatment of groups like YIAGA – a non-profit group with no opposition political leader – pales in comparison to its reaction to movements such as #RevolutionNow led by Sowore.
“From the government perspective,” says Effiong. “It's been easy to spin the involvement of Omoyele Sowore as the arrowhead and the lynchpin of the #RevolutionNow movement as just another political movement discrediting the efforts of the government as against a legitimate channel of the frustrations of many Nigerians with the current systems.”
The tensed political atmosphere
There is also a comparison being made between how the previous administration, of former president Goodluck Jonathan, was more tolerant in dealing with political dissidents and protests like Occupy Nigeria, compared to the current administration’s disposition to a political movement like #RevolutionNow.
President Buhari's administration has been accused of lawlessness, and it has been criticised for its continuous disregard for human rights, its failure to address police brutality of young Nigerians on the streets by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and the battering of other arms of the government and democratic institutions.
The Nigerian security agencies, including the State Security Service (SSS), have also gained notoriety for its treatments of protesters and journalists during peaceful demonstrations in the last five years.
Additionally, there are reported cases of arbitrary arrests and human rights violations of the BringBackOurGirls protesters, another social movement fighting for the release of the remaining 100 plus Chibok schoolgirls abducted from their dormitory in 2014.
Effiong admits there is an interesting contrast in methods of engagements between both administrations that acted under different political atmospheres.
While the previous government was worried about how they wanted to be perceived by the international community – critics say the current one has been entirely indifferent as to how its citizens are treated, especially under the watchful eyes of the entire global community.
"The President Jonathan administration felt significantly worried enough about the potential blowback not in the substantive political term but at least in the reputation term, especially on an international scale," Effiong said.
Regardless of the political climate in Nigeria – tensed or relaxed – Adelaja sees activism through the socio-political movement, #RevolutionNow as a higher cause worth fighting.
“No matter the threats we have chosen a path, and that is the liberation of the future generation to come, says Adelaja, his voice raising a notch. “Because as it is the generation of our father has failed us and we can’t afford to be a failure to our generation and that of our children.”