Lessons of Nigeria’s October 2020 youth protest

On 6 October 2020, just five days after the celebration of so-called Nigeria Independence, Nigerians woke up to one of the most unprecedented youth movements in the history of the country. This article attempts to highlight some of the key lessons that can be drawn from this experience.

The movement was a reaction to the killing of a young man at Ughelli Delta by the State Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian police force. The scale and magnitude of this movement, the way and manner it spread to almost all the states in the south and some states in the northern part of the country, clearly caught many unawares, including many left activists. The fact is that the killing of that young man in Delta State was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, since thousands of lives had also been violently taken in the past. The movement, in a real sense, was an expression of the accumulated anger, frustration and discontent of the Nigerian youth, who unfortunately have been the worst hit by the crisis of capitalism in Nigeria.

No leader, no politics: what does this mean?

This movement was doubtlessly spontaneous. There was neither prior organisation nor a plan - it was an upsurge of popular anger and frustration that seemed to emerge from nowhere. The protesters even declared that theirs was a leaderless movement. This is not accidental, but the result of a lesson drawn from the consistent sell-outs and betrayals on the part of the Labour leadership over the years. The experience of the 28 September 2020 strike, which was aborted by the Labour leadership without any concrete concessions from the ruling elite, was still fresh in their memory.

EndSars 3 Image KaizenifyThe lack of organisation and leadership is both the strength and weakness of the movement / Image: Kaizenify

The positive side to this is that the government found it extremely difficult to quell the movement, as no particular leader could be approached. However, there is also a weak side to this: those that the movement was directed against (the Nigerian ruling elite) are a very organised and determined force; they have all the apparatus of the state at their disposal and will do everything possible to protect and defend their interests. To confront this monstrous power, leadership and organisation for the protest becomes an absolute necessity.

Although there was no central leadership, as the movement advanced, some natural leaders started emerging at various points, but with an extremely naïve approach to politics. These leaders declared that they are not interested in politics, and that all they wanted was for the regime to “end SARS” - which later became “end SWAT” (the unit introduced by the ruling class to replace SARS) - and “end police brutality”.

Any attempts to raise any form of political questions within the movement were vehemently resisted by these leaders. This of course is an understandable reaction to the kind of politics they have known all their lives of stealing, corruption and embezzlement. They have never experienced any form of revolutionary politics before.

This, however, represents a significant weakness. The Nigerian ruling class have been using their political power to defend their selfish and narrow interests over the years, which was actually the root cause of this movement. It is only through politics that this inept and extremely exploitative ruling elite can be brought down. We need a political solution, but it must be based on revolutionary politics aimed at overthrowing them, otherwise there is no way out of the crisis.

The role of the state in class society

Another important question that has come to fore in this movement is the role of state in the class society. This movement, understandably, has been mostly directed against the Nigerian police force. It is important, however, to point out that police brutality long preceded the formation of SARS in 1992. Police brutality, and all other forms of armed repression, are major functions of the state in class society. The state is not an impartial arbiter, standing above society, as is claimed by the ruling elite and their apologists. Institutions such as the police and the army are organs of state rule. They are used by the capitalist class to maintain their authority.

During the colonial era in Nigeria, the police were used to advance the economic and political agenda of the colonialists. In many areas, the police engaged in the brutal subjugation of communities and the suppression of resistance to colonial rule. After so-called independence, power was formally passed to a local, Nigerian elite, subservient to the former colonial masters. Ever since, the police, the army and all other security forces have defended the interests of the rich. The various military regimes are testimony to this.

A society where the commanding heights of the economy are in the hands of a very small minority, while the overwhelming majority live in poverty, cannot be maintained without a police force, with all its brutality, together with other forms of repression, whose task is to ensure that the lower orders know their place in society and do not challenge the people at the top.

The idea that is promoted by the ruling elite through the education system, the media, etc., is that no society can survive without a police force and an army to maintain law and order. Far from maintaining law and order, SARS was a criminal force whose main aims were the enrichment of police officers and to terrorise the youth in particular. When the movement started, President Muhammadu Buhari very quickly disbanded SARS, but he did so only superficially. The essence of SARS has been transferred to SWAT, and even if the ruling elite were forced to disband SWAT, they would reconstitute it in one form or another.

Lekki Toll Gate Massacre Image Shadow ScribesThe Lekki Toll Gate Massacre saw the mask fall from the Nigerian state, revealing the beast underneath / Image: Shadow Scribes

So long as this ruling elite is in power, and is allowed to hold on to its ill-gotten wealth and the levers of state control, it will make sure it has a well-armed police force and army whose role is to guarantee its riches. But the armed bodies of men on which the ruling elite rely must be paid. And because wages across the board are low in Nigeria, this is done partially by allowing police officers to extort money from ordinary working Nigerians.

The elite consciously promote the idea that the role of the police is to fight petty crime, burglaries, robberies, murder and so on. In practice, they don’t do a very good job at this. But when it comes to harassing the youth on the streets, they are very efficient. We have to ask ourselves why petty crime is so rampant in Nigeria. The answer is not too difficult to find. When the country is seeped in such levels of poverty, crime is the inevitable outcome. If the ruling class were serious about reducing crime, they would provide Nigerians with well-paid jobs, good housing, and good quality healthcare and education, and so on. But to do that, they would have to give up their wealth, something which they are never going to do willingly.

The fact is that human society has not always required a separate police force. There were societies that existed in humanity’s ancient past without these armed bodies of men. No state structures such as the police, army and courts with coercive powers were required to enforce one class’s will against another, because these were classless societies. There were no propertied classes standing above the mass of working people - everyone owned and worked the means of production collectively. Social harmony was maintained through moral authority, without any means of coercion, unlike the kind of lawless law and orderless order that is currently being imposed on the majority by the few.

Historically speaking, police forces emerged as society broke down into classes. Under slave societies, the slave owners needed an armed force to guarantee the slaves would stay in their place and not rise up. Later, under feudalism, the landlords needed an armed force to hold down the peasants. Today, it is the capitalists who require an armed force to make sure the workers and youth of today are repressed.

In ‘normal times’, the nature of the security forces is not clear to everyone, but there are critical moments - such as the events of 20 October 2020 at Lekki in Lagos State, where army officers filmed shooting directly at unarmed protesters - when the true nature of the state as an instrument of oppression and repression in defence of the rule of capital becomes clear to all. That day, the mask fell from the face of the Nigerian ruling elite, and the real beast that was hiding behind it showed itself.

In the words of Alan Woods, a leading Marxist and writer:

“There are two ways in which people can be educated about the nature of the state. Firstly, they can read books and listen to Marxist lectures. But this reaches only a tiny minority of society.

“Secondly, they can learn a more painful, but highly effective lesson when they’re beaten on the head with a police truncheon, tear gassed and shot at. Lessons such as these are not easily forgotten by those who have experienced them.

“The aim of this pitiless violence is to cow the people and make them afraid. Normally this tactic works very effectively. But there are limits to all things. The use of violence is subject to the law of diminishing returns.”

Therefore, we have to understand that it is only a revolutionary reconstruction of society through expropriating the commanding heights of the economy, placing them under democratic workers’ control and management and running them as part of a planned socialist economy, that will remove the economic division of people into classes. This will remove the material basis for the state, putting an end to police brutality, all forms of oppression and the exploitation of man by man.

 

Amorphous composition: how did it play out?

As stated earlier, this movement was spontaneous. This explains why it comprised different classes of youth, resulting in an amorphous character. These different classes of youth represented different class interests within the movement. There were the radical youth, who were trying to raise bold demands, but unfortunately their voices were not being heard: they were seriously isolated and relegated within the movement. This is partly as a result of weaknesses of the left activists.

There were also declassed elements (the lumpenproletariat), who unfortunately, have been highly dehumanised by decades of squalor and exploitation under capitalism. Although, they did not have the upper hand at the beginning of the movement. Those dominating the movement were mainly the petty-bourgeois youth, including “celebrities” from the world of entertainment, whose demands did not go beyond the confines of the capitalist system. These people see everything in terms of reform. They want capitalism without state repression, which is like wanting lions who don’t eat meat.

However, immediately after the shooting of unarmed protesters at Lekki, and because of the lack of a central leadership and organisation, the whole dynamic of the movement changed. The declassed elements started getting the upper hand. They took advantage of the disorder that followed after the shooting to loot and commit arson.

There is another element that we have to warn the youth about. It is in the interests of the ruling elite to present this youth protest as an orgy of chaos and mayhem. We have seen many times, in many different countries – in the United States during the recent Black Lives Matter movement, for example – how the state consciously plants agents provocateurs within the street protests. These agents of the state take part in and promote the wanton destruction of shops, the burning of cars, and so on. They allow this to continue for a while, and when they feel the time is right, they move in against the youth with the excuse of re-establishing “law and order”.

Therefore, as we prepare for the Nigerian Revolution - a genuine mass movement of the Nigerian masses for transformative change - it is absolutely necessary to take into account the various methods the ruling elite will use to divert, divide and isolate the movement. One of the means at their disposal is this army of declassed elements, who can always be called on to take advantage of the movement to go on a looting rampage, act as agent provocateurs of the government, and thereby give excuses for the state repression.

The only way of avoiding this is to have a well-organised and coordinated movement. The movement needs democratic structures through which debates can be conducted and collective decisions taken on what programme it is fighting for and with what means. It also requires stewards to guarantee security on the demonstrations, and so on. Otherwise, the movement can be easily manipulated by the people at the top, who have a lot of experience in facing protest movements.

The youth as a barometer of what is to come

EndSars 2 Image KaizenifyAny new party of youth must stand for the class interests of working people / Image: Kaizenify

This movement no doubt was dominated by the youth, who have borne the brunt of the crisis of the capitalist system. Merit is no longer enough for the Nigerian youth to get admission into tertiary institutions of learning. Data from Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and the Joint Admissions and Matriculations Board (JAMB) show that, between 2010 and 2015, of the 10 million applicants that sought entry into Nigeria’s tertiary institutions, only 26 percent gained admission. This is because the capacity of the 150 private and public universities in Nigeria is just 600,000 students. And the majority that are lucky enough to get admission to university end up graduating without any job prospects.

Furthermore, the statistics reveal that Nigeria’s unemployment rate, as of the second quarter of 2020, is 27.1 percent, indicating that about 21.7 million Nigerians remain unemployed. Unemployment and underemployment (28.6 percent) when combined stand at 55.7 percent. And the worst-hit are the Nigerian youth.

The youth of Nigeria are angry, frustrated and urgently looking for a way out of their unfortunate situation. As Trotsky pointed out, the youth are a barometer to measure the seething discontent in society. This movement is surely the beginning of a deeper and much more profound movement to come. He further explained that the barometer only measures the wind, it does not in itself cause the wind. It is the classes and the struggle among them that brings about the real winds of change.

Party of the youth: based on what ideology?

There is now a yearning for a “Party of the Youth”. This is obviously a step forward from the “no to politics” slogan at the beginning of the movement. It means a section of the Nigerian youth are already learning from their experience and are gradually drawing political conclusions. But what does a party of the youth mean? The division in Nigerian society is not between the old and the young, but between classes. So the debate must be shifted from the idea of a party based on what age you are, to one of which class you belong to; and, most importantly, it must be centred on what programme such a party would implement.

Emmanuel Macron, the president of France, at 43-years-old, is relatively young compared to most politicians in leading positions, and his economic policies have been to further the hardship of the mass majority of the French people. Also, we have the example of 45-year-old Yahaya Bello, governor of Kogi State, who is a member of the APC (the governing party) and has fully subscribed to the ruinous economic policies of the ruling party. Therefore, the question is not about age but the ideas and the class interests that any future party will defend.

What is urgently needed in Nigeria now is a mass party of the workers and the poor, based on economic policies that will be driven by the needs of the mass majority of Nigerians instead of the profit of the tiny minority. That is, a party based on a socialist programme. So long as the wealth remains in the hands of a tiny elite of super-rich capitalists, no solution to the problems of the workers and youth will be forthcoming. Unless this idea is fully understood, then even a new party will end up having to carry out the dictates of the wealthy elite, and that will include maintaining a police force that can change its name, or the colour of its uniform, but without changing its essence.

What conclusions do we draw?

This movement was spontaneous, and it lacked central leadership and organisation. Although this gave it its initial strength, it later constituted a serious downside for the movement. Merely coming out onto the street in a carnival-like manner day after day has its limits. It must either move to a higher level, get organised, develop a programme, and reach out to the working people of Nigeria as a whole, or it must fall prey to internal division, manoeuvres on the part of the state, and eventually recede.

The experience of the past 60 years of Nigeria’s independence has shown that the Nigerian ruling elite is completely incapable of moving society forward. They have to be overthrown and replaced by the rule of the people themselves, but this cannot be achieved by a spontaneous action, no matter how bold and sweeping the movement is. It requires a revolutionary organisation/party capable of providing correct leadership, guidance and perspective for the movement.

Unfortunately, this kind of organisation cannot be improvised when the people are already on the streets, but must be painstakingly built and prepared before the movement breaks out. This is precisely the aim of our organisation, the CWA (Campaign for a Workers’ and Youth Alternative). We must get organised, win the most revolutionary youth to our banner, educate ourselves and build up the initial forces of what later can become a party capable of providing the necessary leadership to the workers and youth of Nigeria. We are appealing to you to join us in this important revolutionary task.

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