Recap, Reflections: #EndSARS and Nigeria's Youth

A focus on youth in Nigeria's latest movement, looking back and thinking forward

On the last day of 2020, Modupe Odele was getting ready to get on a flight when her passport was collected for “secondary screening.” This was the second time she experienced this and, according to the officials she spoke to, it would not be the last. Using her education and work experience as a lawyer to help those in need was what turned her into the government’s target. She was involved in the EndSARS movement that took off last year by providing legal aid to protesters who needed to defend themselves against law enforcement and other national authorities.

Odele is one of the numerous Nigerians who have reported being monitored and put on lists by the government because of their participation in the EndSARS protests. In September 2020, the movement began with protests against the brutal and often fatal methods of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit and signified a massive shift in consciousness for Nigeria’s youth. From the protests to the harsh way of life that continues to compound, life seems to be getting worse as they get older. Due to globalization, they can see what is happening in other parts of the world: they see how citizens are enabled to contribute to their societies and how they are treated when they demand change. So, when thousands of Nigerians poured into the streets to protest police brutality, a large percentage of protesters were part of the younger population.

Most of those marching had an encounter to share about SARS that was rooted in poverty in the forms of unemployment, hunger, and insecurity. Such struggles were not new in Nigeria, but their experiences were deeply marked by coming of age in a national culture that refuses to understand and appreciate youth. Exposure to the rest of the world as seen through their personal expression and career choices became the crime that led to mass harassment and murder, and their protest messages and slogans declared that locs, tattoos, and iPhones were not punishable by jail or death. Protesters fought to make the rest of the country see that working in modern ways like in digital tech or as a freelancer was normal. In addition to dealing with police and other government authorities, they were dealing with policing right in their homes and communities. This resulted in a struggle against both the older members of their communities and the government forces who regularly punished them for their personal life choices.

The generational differences in the EndSARS movement lay in the ‘why’ and ‘how’. When they stood in the streets and connected online in protest, the youth had unique solidarity among each other because SARS and the police stood in for the much larger need for a revolution in the mindset of all Nigerians. The youth were fighting for their right to survive and thrive in their homeland. Despite this, a lot were discouraged and even barred from protesting by their parents, grandparents, other elders, and those that did not completely condemn the movement criticized its methods. Some believed that the youth brought on bad treatment at the hands of police because they refused to do what was right. Others thought that they were going about the protest wrongly. They criticized the leaderless nature of the movement and the choice of aggressive methods, like blocking off roads. Some of this advice came out of experience because the Nigerian state is known for dealing with protesters and activists mercilessly. This was confirmed by the tragic Lekki Massacre of October 20, 2020, where members of the Nigerian army shot at Lagos EndSARS protesters who were singing and holding up flags at the Lekki toll gate. To the elders, opting out of protesting would be the sensible thing to do simply because it meant staying alive. However, the youth already had experience in resisting—having to stand for and defend themselves and their activities constantly—and felt like putting their life on the line was worth it for this cause.

Nigeria’s younger generations are speaking up at any cost. They have had to unlearn trying to appease authorities at the cost of their dignity and learned to demand that their rights as citizens and people be respected. They are tapping into the revolutionary spirit that has shown up at different times in Nigeria’s history and connecting it to the revolutions they see happening around the world now. Taking what they need from their elders’ past and leaving what they do not, they are carving out their own unique paths to change.

A lot of the questions and reflections circulating among us have centered around this: what next? My questions and first thoughts are, what difference has this movement made in how we feel about Nigeria on an individual level? What will our feelings be like in five years, or ten? In other words, what will the memories of this movement do for us as young Nigerians even as we continue to scatter all over the world?

Our core behaviors towards authorities and the formal structures that control both politics and society are changing and it is worth watching to see how this spirit carries on in 2021 and beyond, yes, but do we really believe in fighting for this country? There is a difference between going out in the street because your government is killing you and going out in the street because you believe your country can be what you need it to be for you. I have realized that there is tension here for us (because there definitely is for me) and we need to explore what we know in our hearts to be true of our country and what we can ask of it.