Opinion guest column

The “Soro Soke” generation of Nigerians

What comes next for the Nigerian youth

On Oct. 20, 2020, the Nigerian military opened fire at tens of civilians protesting at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, Nigeria. This event, now termed by many as the “Lekki massacre,” was preceded by almost two weeks of peaceful protests nationwide. The leaderless protests began organically against a special police unit in the country known as SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad). SARS has been notorious for years for its extortion of and brutal disregard for the lives of the citizens it was instituted to protect. SARS officers are known to arrest youth for owning nice phones, having tattoos, wearing their hair in dreadlocks, or even carrying a laptop bag. After these unlawful arrests, they then proceed to solicit large sums of money from the arrested or their families to guarantee their release.

Those that are unable to pay their way out of SARS’ hands often pay much graver consequences. A Mr. Godwin Sunday publicly shared how he lost his wife on Sept. 16, 2015. On his way home from church with his wife and four children, Mr. Sunday was held at gunpoint and asked for 2,000 Naira — roughly 5 U.S. dollars. After explaining that he had no money with him, he began to walk back to his vehicle when he heard two gunshots. His wife had been shot in the head, and the bullet meant for him had grazed his shoulder and caused permanent damage to his jaw. The officers in charge of this sinister crime were not prosecuted — this is the level of impunity that has been permissible for so long in Nigeria.

This police brutality and impunity is what brought thousands of young Nigerians out to the streets for weeks to exercise their democratic right to protest. Within days, the Nigerian President announced the dissolution of the SARS unit. However, the unit had been previously dissolved in 2017, 2018, and 2019. This time, the youth refused to back down and demanded clear action to ensure that SARS officers will not remain on the streets. And to support their protests, in spite of the leaderless and organic nature of the protests, a very clear five-point agenda was produced and given to the government. Instead of swiftly acting to meet the people’s needs, the government responded by unleashing state-sponsored thugs to instigate violence in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the protests. Such a tactless response to very clear demands showed that police impunity and brutality are symptomatic of a much larger problem: ineffective, corrupt and self-serving leadership in Nigeria that has consistently failed to serve the needs of the people.

The protests continued all around the nation and on Oct. 20, a curfew of 4 p.m. was announced in Lagos state — a city of 21 million people — at 11:30 a.m. Around 4 p.m., the cameras at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos were disconnected and as evening approached, the lights around the toll gate were switched off yet many of the protesters remained and peacefully continued to demand a better Nigeria starting with police reform. Soon after, the military arrived at the toll gate and with thousands of Nigerians, along with the rest of the world, monitoring the situation through social media, what happened next was unbelievable. The military opened fire on innocent Nigerians — they took the lives they are sworn by duty to protect. Some protesters gallantly continued to sing the national anthem even as the bullets were fired.

Even in our sorrow, there is an undeniable truth that many of the youth that have taken to the streets during these protests — whether it be the Nigerian streets or the Twitter streets incessantly tweeting with the hashtag #EndSARS — have woken up. The “Soro Soke” (a Yoruba phrase meaning “speak up”) generation has had its moment of national reckoning. A generation often regarded as uninterested in matters of national interest has been mobilized under a united front to fight for the future of our country. Even without any clear leaders, everyone played their own part from bringing speakers for the protests, to setting up phone charging stations, to providing food and drink, to cleaning up after the protests.

One notable group at the forefront of planning is the Feminist Coalition — a group of Nigerian women with the goal of “championing the mandate of Nigerian women.” Through their platform and with the help of several other people and organizations, they were able to raise around $390,000 to cover the costs associated with the protests such as legal expenses, medical care, and others. More impressively, they were able to account for every Naira spent — something the Nigerian government continues to find difficult. In a matter of days, we saw them set up helplines so that they could quickly attend to the needs of the protests nationwide. We saw over 700 lawyers volunteer their time and expertise to get arrested protesters in over 20 states released. With their tireless work, they were able to get at least 81 protesters released and still continue to fight for the release of others.

In a matter of days, these “lazy” Nigerian youth were able to unite and create, with seamless operation, a sustainable ecosystem to facilitate these protests. We have shown that we are capable and we have shown that we can lead. Robert F. Kennedy said: “This world demands the qualities of youth; not a time of life but a state of mind, a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a predominance of courage over timidity, of the appetite for adventure over the life of ease.” We have displayed these qualities in abundance. It is imperative that we remember the lives lost during these protests, that we remember how our unity brought the world to attention and caused our government to panic in their attempts to save face. Most importantly, it is imperative that we remember what we can achieve together, fighting for ourselves and our country, while bearing in mind that change will always surrender itself to persistent suitors.

If you would like to support the #EndSARS movement, please continue to spread awareness on social media and through any platforms that you are able. 

Awele Uwagwu is a member of the Class of 2021 studying Chemical Engineering.