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GWYNNE DYER: Nigeria's intergenerational war

People gather in a plaza in Lagos, Nigeria. — Reuters file photo
People gather in a square in Lagos. — Reuters file photo

The young Nigerians who were protesting at Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos Tuesday night were not the African touring company of “Les Misérables.” Lekki is one of the poshest suburbs of Lagos, full of gated communities, and most of the protesters were literate, media-savvy youths who reeked of urban cool.

The army killed them anyway. Or maybe it killed them precisely because of who they were.

[email protected], who does not explicitly say he was there, tweeted: “They removed the cameras 2 hours before, turned off the street light and the LED billboard and deployed soldiers to open fire at the crowd singing the national anthem…they brought tanks!! Over 78 people are dead. The Nigerian army then began to put the dead bodies in their trucks.”

Almost all Nigerian police forces are corrupt and brutal, but SARS specialized in robbing, torturing and sometimes murdering prosperous and trendy young people.

The numbers may be exaggerated: one eyewitness told the BBC he had counted about 20 bodies and at least 50 injured after the soldiers opened fire. Official sources have denied that anybody was killed, or that the army was even there. But Channels Television has video showing men in Nigerian army uniform walking calmly up to the barricade and firing into an angry but non-violent crowd.

The massacre comes after two weeks of protests, mostly in southern Nigeria, that were initially targeted on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Almost all Nigerian police forces are corrupt and brutal, but SARS specialized in robbing, torturing and sometimes murdering prosperous and trendy young people.

If you were young, had hair of a different colour or tattoos and were in a flash car, you stood a statistically significant chance of having an unpleasant encounter with SARS. The protests began two weeks ago after pictures allegedly showing a man being beaten to death by SARS circulated on social media.

Muhammadu Buhari, a military dictator 35 years ago and now back at 77 as Nigeria’s elected president, recognized the danger and acted fast. Within two days he abolished SARS, promising it to replace it with a kinder, gentler force — but the protesters had heard that story before, and besides they had already moved on to broader targets.

Nigeria is a powder keg at the best of times, and with lengthy lockdowns this is not the best of times. Protests exploded across southern Nigeria, and not all were non-violent. On Monday a mob burned a police station in Yaba, another upscale suburb of Lagos, and 120 kilometres to the east in Benin City armed crowds freed more than a thousand prisoners from two jails.

The state claims that the protests have been infiltrated by criminals, and in some places that is clearly true, but that’s not why the ruling political class is panicking. That’s not why they shot down well-educated, trendy but law-abiding young people in Lekki. It’s because those in power fear a youth revolt that could not only transform the country, but split it in half.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation (200 million people), is really two countries. The southern, mostly Christian half, with all the oil and ports and most of the industry, is around 95 per cent literate. Only one of the 19 northern, mostly Muslim states is over 50 per cent literate, and half the young women in the northern region have no formal education whatever.

Naturally, relative prosperity shows the same disparity. Only 27 per cent of southerners live below the poverty line; 72 per cent of northerners do. Yet it is young southerners who are on the brink of revolt, because it is the political domination of the north that keeps the ruling kleptocracy in power.

It starts with the army, whose officer corps has been dominated by Muslim northerners since colonial times. That is why Muslim military dictators and elected presidents from the north have ruled Nigeria for 38 of the 60 years since independence, but even Christian presidential candidates from the south are in hock to northern interests.

The traditional rulers and religious authorities of the north control the big banks of voters that can be sold to the highest bidder, and it is in their interest to keep those voters ignorant and obedient.

The southern kleptocrats who buy the votes have an equally strong interest in the system, as it lets them go on stealing: one-third of Nigeria’s oil revenues over the past 50 years have ended up in foreign bank accounts.

The young men and women in the streets of Lagos may not realize that their rebellion could endanger this entire system, but those who benefit from it certainly do — which is why their response has been so extreme.

What happens next matters a lot, because 25 years from now Nigeria will have overtaken the United States in population and become the third biggest country in the world. It would be nice if by then it was a stable, well-educated democracy where prosperity extended beyond the south.

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is “Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work).”


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