Ejike Ikezuagu and Princess Dandison were among the organisers of the End SARS UK march in London on 24 October (protesters pictured above). They spoke to Sacha Ismail from Solidarity.
Since it was created in 1992 SARS [the Special Anti-Robbery Squad police unit] has targeted young people. In Nigeria the youth face a very bad situation; people leave education but there are no jobs. Instead of helping them, the government treats them as yahoos or scammers or criminals. When they see young people with a car or nice clothes or even a nice hairstyle, they will question them, demand to know their occupation and often find an excuse to kidnap them, torture them and in some cases kill them. Nothing ever happens – the kidnappers and killers are not prosecuted. Fear of these people is the beginning of wisdom.
Now young people are saying enough is enough.
This is about more than just the police. People are angry because they are working hard and fighting to survive, but barely getting by, barely surviving. The political class in Nigeria provides nothing for the people – no jobs, no welfare, no healthcare, not even guaranteed electricity.
On 20 October police and soldiers attacked the protest camp at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos with live ammunition. The protesters were peaceful, unarmed and not even violating the curfew, but at least twelve were killed and many more injured. The authorities tried to deny this, but a video of the attack went viral. The attempt to scare people into silence did not work. Since then the protests have spread, including solidarity protests in other countries.
How is this movement organising?
The movement is like a wildfire. There is no leader. It’s born out of passion. Social media is important – also for our solidarity movement here in the UK.
What demands are being raised?
A favourite tactic of the political elite is offering negotiations. We don’t just want negotiations, we want to see progress in real changes. We need real action to deal with the police – they say they have disbanded SARS, but we see the same people out on the streets attacking protesters. And we want the president to resign.
Nigeria is naturally blessed – we have oil, we make many millions of dollars from oil daily. It is not like the country is poor. The money is going into private purses. The money is there for the government to look after the people. We need rich people to pay taxes so the government can provide healthcare, welfare and education, create infrastructure and services and employ people, particularly young people, as well as providing support for private businesses. But this will only happen with a different government.
What kind of government?
We want a government that is committed to improving the lives of its people, in every respect, socially and economically, and invests in the youth. Which obeys the rule of law, and says no one is above the law. We want a government which says what it will do and does what it says, instead of deceiving people. A government which listens and is not deaf. We must have the right to express ourselves in life and to protest injustices without being repressed and killed.
We also need real federalism in Nigeria, instead of everything being centralised in the capital. This is very important.
We want a government which represents and involves the youth, to provide fresh ideas. All the existing political parties are part of the problem. There needs to be a new force which represents the youth. The movement is there to make it possible.
Why do you think this has flared up now?
SARS killed a young guy at the start of October, which sparked protests; then the Lekki massacre made things flare further. More broadly, part of it is that people in Lagos are now being attacked too. Previously the killings were mainly in the south east of the country. Many people thought it would never happen to them. Now they see everyone is vulnerable, and protests are taking place everywhere in the country.
What role do religious and ethnic divisions play?
Tribalism and religious divisions have always made it harder to fight the government. People feel driven to defend and rally to “their” leaders, instead of uniting with others from different communities. Now this youth movement is crossing tribal and religious divisions. People say, why are we talking about these divisions when we don’t have jobs or water to drink. The elite are trying to manipulate these divisions, but we don’t think they will succeed, because the youth movement is determined.
Is it just young people supporting the movement?
No, many different groups are supporting the struggle. It’s not just about the youth. But the youth are the people on the streets, who can sleep outside and get up and keep protesting. It is the youth who are the most daring.
Have there been any strikes or workers’ actions as part of this struggle?
In Nigeria we have many workers’ struggles and strikes for the same reason as these protests, that people’s rights are not respected and sometimes even wages are not paid. It’s the same issue of bad government and not providing for the people. Even as we’re talking universities in Nigeria are on strike. But perhaps workers’ groups would not be confident to strike specifically as part of this movement, because they would fear the consequences in terms of repression and reprisals. That does not mean they are not supporting the movement more quietly and organising their members.
Where have there been solidarity protests?
In London we got several hundred at two days’ notice. There were also protests in Southampton and Manchester, and other countries including the US, France and Germany. Many countries where Nigerians live. Our people have a very direct motivation to protest. In many cases we are sustaining our families and friends through the millions and millions we send back – sustaining our loved one when the government will not. We have a direct interest in the country working differently as well as a more general commitment.
Do people in your movement take inspiration from other protests about police violence, like Black Lives Matter and the movement in Hong Kong?
What is happening in Nigeria is unique, and in some respects actually more intense – but this is not to take anything a way from the struggles in Hong Kong, Tunisia and elsewhere. We are aware of these struggles and of course we support them. Black Lives Matter is very important – of course Nigerians have direct experience of what racism in the US means. So our struggle is unique but there is inspiration at the same time. Our lives matter.