By Nnamdi Elekwachi
The Nigerian youth, on the whole, are arguably the most insecure. Note that ‘insecure,’ beyond functioning as a mere adjective, is a choice word, and that as used here, does not imply only a lack of safety but equally the unavailability and absence of basic necessities of life, like good food and decent job.
As a young Nigerian, I had my fair share of what being a youth in Nigeria entails, the most memorable being the one I encountered as a young graduate. Barely two years after the compulsory one-year national youth service programme, NYSC, I applied during the 2013/14 recruitment exercise the Nigeria Immigration Service (NIS) had, through the ministry of interior, advertised in different national dailies. For job openings of, say 4,500 vacant positions, millions of young applicants, many of them jobless, applied online. All applicants, whether or not they could afford it, were required to purchase an ‘online processing form’ at ₦1000 which the Federal Ministry of Interior claimed would go to ‘consultation.’ So, the meaning was that citizens ‘paid’ money to be offered jobs in a federal establishment. Though there was a later presidential order mandating the Nigeria Immigration Service to repay all online subscribers, it was no more than a mere window dressing, after the milk had spilt.
At Umuahia, the Abia State center for the job screening, Immigration personnel on ground first ordered candidates to run, and then later to participate other martial arts. Participants here, mind you, included pregnant young women! When the test finally started, given limited time and writing materials, and crowd congestion, a stampede happened leaving scores severely injured. Before my eyes, young Nigerians were being stretchered to the nearest clinics, having been exposed to suffocating, tortuous exercises at various stadium centers. We later heard the news about what happened in Abuja, Benin City, Lagos and Port Harcourt where deaths were reported.
Ultimately, over 20 persons, most of them youth, had died in the exercise. Some sources said that figure was conservative!
If you ever thought the government of Goodluck Jonathan gave a hoot, you indeed missed the point. Abba Moro, then federal minister of interior, on national television, blamed the victims because they were ‘impatient!’ Watching Moro live on national TV, I couldn’t believe it was coming from a minister of the federal republic paid with taxpayers’ money. That was the day I knew that it was actually the Nigerian youth that a certain Afrobeat musician had in mind when, in one of his songs, he said ‘nothing for you.’
Let me confess here: that very exercise marked the end of my attempt at securing job in a federal establishment. Before then, fresh off from the National Youth Service Corps, NYSC, often, I would source for fund, mobilise myself from Aba, and then storm the Federal Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the Federal Ministry of Culture and Tourism, both in Abuja, armed with my well-worded CV, as an upper second-class (-honours) ‘graduate of History & International Relations willing to change the world,’ as was written in the career objectives of the CV.
Later, even though the entire recruitment was suspended, it was strongly rumoured that the children and relatives of the elite already had their appointment letters from the same Nigeria Immigration Service only awaiting mere formalities before the fatal screening. If that rumour was anything to go by, then, it goes without saying that what millions of young Nigerians like me, actually came looking for in the name of ‘federal jobs’ were leftover vacancies after the political elite and their allies had grabbed the juicest ‘slots’ and ‘quotas’ for their children, families and – yes, you read it right – their lovers and paramours!
Seven years down the line, the scene of stampede shifted to Lekki Tollgate, the ‘Nigerian Tienanmen Square’ and theater of shame. For many years the Nigerian youth became endangered species following reported cases of brutality, exploitation and wrong profiling from the now-disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, a special unit of the Nigeria Police Force, NPF, notorious for dishing out a Gestapo-like policing to young Nigerians. SARS detention centers, it was said, became Guantanamo bay (Gitmo bay) of sorts. Youth driving certain vehicles, even those possessing laptops, iPhones, tablets and other gadgets, and those wearing tattoos, body piercings, earrings or dreadlocks, were being labeled ‘yahoo boys,’ internet fraudsters. Forced disappearances and detentions were reported. Releases of course happened, but usually with hundreds of thousands (of naira) being coughed up by families of victims. SARS became a state within a state as all attempts at reform, most of which were merely nominal, proved abortive.
On October 8, 2020, however, some angry and frustrated youths had begun to push for a better policing standard after an online video of a SARS agent who killed a young man and made away with his car in Westown Hotel, Lagos State, circulated online. The protest, a spontaneous movement, soon gained vibrance and acceptance as its ranks were later joined by young artistes, musicians, online activists, stand-up comedians and feminist groups, under the Twitter hashtags: ‘#EndSARS’ and ‘#EndSARSNow.’ What began as a Twitter (now X) campaign in 2017 had indeed left the virtual space for the governance and global spaces, coinciding in history with the moment when America’s race relations birthed the #WeCantBreathe campaign, part of the #BlackLivesMatter campaign, that trended after George Floyd was killed in far away Minneapolis. International solidarities and sympathies began to pour in. However, on the night of October 20, 2020, twelve days with the protests showing no sign of letting up, a combined force comprising Nigerian soldiers and SARS personnel opened fire on unarmed peaceful protesters at Lekki Tollgate in Lagos State, the epicenter of the protests.
Lagos State Government denied there were casualties, maintaining that, contrary to the opinion in some quarters, it did not deploy soldiers to the protest ground; the army denied it deployed its men to the protest ground. In another twist, the army agreed there was indeed a deployment but that not even a single shot was fired. Later, investigative and independent reports revealed that Lagos State Government was indeed aware of the Lekki military operation and that soldiers fired live bullets into a crowd of young protesters, contrary to the earlier claim of ‘firing blanks.’ Number of casualties varied, but what is clear was that the killings were systemic. First, lights, both traffic and billboard lighting, all went out at the protest ground, allowing soldiers and SARS personnel to carry out a massacre on the youth under the cover of darkness!
What felled the Lekki youngsters, sources later revealed, was not only the rounds of live bullets fired by soldiers, but equally stampede, as was observed during the 2013/14 Immigration recruitment exercise where applicants, with no consideration of their safety, were packed in stadium centers across the nation, culminating in stampede, suffocation and deaths. And like former Minister Moro, a certain Lai Mohammed, Buhari’s Goebbels and failed federal minister of information, became the agitpropper trying and lying so hard, often with no reasonable measure of success, to salvage what was left of the government’s battered image. Lai upped the ante with an empty sanction threat on CNN, whose independent investigative report had indicted the Nigerian state over the Lekki shootings.
Lai Mohammed, it must be known, is by far worse than what Moro was. There is no political character or figure in charge of government propaganda machinery like Lai, who spectacularly failed at it for eight years. By flatly calling Lekki shootings ‘phantom massacre,’ Lai forgot that what is known in history as the ‘Boston Massacre,’ one of the events that saw the culmination of political independence in America only claimed ‘only’ five lives of colonists, yet is properly called ‘massacre.’ Fatalities don’t make a killing massacre, proportion does often. The question then is: were the peaceful protesters, in any way and manner deserving of the caliber of soldiers deployed to Lekki in peacetime?
Even though government officials like Lai had been dismissive of those killings, three years after the protests, a leaked memo showing that a sum of ₦61,285,000 was proposed for the mass burial of some 103 #EndSARS victims recently surfaced online. This latest development vacated the Lagos State Government’s attempts to dismiss parts of the report of the Independent Judicial Panel of Enquiry with a white paper, after a failed censorship attempt. Last two years, two victims and witnesses to the shootings appeared live on AIT TV morning show, Kakaaki, and showed the bullet wounds they sustained at the protest ground to the world!
Three days ago, I waited to see whether President Bola Tinubu, who was himself a former governor of Lagos State, would issue a statement on October 20, 2023, like Lincoln did in Gettysburg, at least to honour the memory of young Nigerians who lost their lives fighting for their own freedom at Lekki and elsewhere in the country, but I was not disappointed when none came. Tinubu is an establishment president, not one for a common cause such as the 2020 youth-powered protests, his involvement in the NADECO struggle, which came by chance, was occasioned by the political permutation of the moment, especially where event had placed him and the place of the Yoruba nation in Nigeria by 1993.
Like the late 1970s student-led ‘Ali must go’ protests that ended in a massacre, #EndSARS became Nigeria’s cause célèbre, even as of yet, there had never been any restorative justice or closure to the cruelty youngsters suffered at Lekki. Some protesters are still languishing in detention three years after. What is worse, SARS-like policing standard returned to the streets immediately after the protests ended in a bloodbath, even the five demands tabled by the youth had long been discarded. Even though SARS had since been disbanded and the Rapid Response Squad, RRS established in its place, the latter is still referred to simply as ‘SARS’ in Aba and other parts of the nation, because unfortunately, the RRS unit is still officered and manned by the same SARS agents. Nothing changed, except mere initialism.
What has to be understood following the protest years is that there now exists a huge gap in patriotism, also in confidence in Nigerian institutions, and that unlike the days when young Nigerians like Azikiwe, Mbonu Ojike, Awolowo and the generations after returned from abroad to build the nation, the exiled youth of today, during whose time the #EndSARS protests happened, care nothing about returning to rebuild Nigeria. Brain drain is on the increase as the japa exit and the struggle for it, known as ‘japa,’ Yoruba for ‘escape’ or ‘flee,’ is celebrated when finally ‘achieved.’ Abroad however is home, another man’s land, where many Nigerian youngsters of today seek ‘the golden fleece,’ greener pastures or a better prospect, even after study years.
Youthful exodus, beginning with protesters like DJ Switch, took a toll on young Nigerians post-protest. This of course is not to discountenance the surge in emigration before the protests, but the japa wave reached a fever pitch such that the quest to emigrate out of the country by 2021, just a year after the protests, grew exponentially. Quoting a source, seven out of every ten Nigerians want to leave the country. The number of passports issued by the Nigeria Immigration Service increased by 38% between 2020, the protest year, and 2021 post-protest year, alone, from 767,164 to 1,059, 607 passports, respectively. This figure pales in significance if compared to the 1,899,683 passports issued in 2022. Only last year (2022), 159 Nigerians renounced their citizenship, a number more than the 150 who did so from 2006 to 2021!
Perhaps when we take stock or reflect as a nation, we will understand what the years after the protests have taken from us in actual sense. Our best, be they medical doctors, nurses, software engineers, web programme developers, craftsmen and other skilled youth are leaving in droves, and the stampede today is no longer at Lekki Tollgate or certain Immigration screening grounds, but our various points of exit. Britain, the United States, Canada, and Europe are the top beneficiaries of this youthful demographic.
There is unemployment. There is food insecurity or inflation. There is general insecurity. There are – quite often – academic strikes; they all make the youth seek the exit route, whether land, air or sea, but how much of these trends owe to the EndSARS protest aftermath is what we are not talking about much, maybe we will someday, when we finally agree to it is needful to interrogate the current ‘japatide’ and ‘japawave.’
Nnamdi Elekwachi, a historian wrote from Abia State