Otago Daily Times

Re­volt could threaten whole sys­tem

- Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent Lon­don jour­nal­ist.

THE young Nige­ri­ans who were protest­ing at Lekki Toll Plaza in La­gos last Tues­day were not the African tour­ing com­pany of Les Mis­er­ables. Lekki is one of the posh­est sub­urbs of La­gos, full of gated com­mu­ni­ties, and most of the pro­test­ers were lit­er­ate, me­dia­savvy youths who reeked of ur­ban cool.

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

IZZY@theleventh, 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.’’

The num­bers may be ex­ag­ger­ated: one wit­ness 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 non­vi­o­lent crowd.

The mas­sacre comes af­ter two weeks of protests, mostly in south­ern Nige­ria, that were ini­tially tar­geted at the Spe­cial

Anti­Rob­bery Squad (SARS). Al­most all Nige­rian po­lice forces are cor­rupt and bru­tal, but SARS spe­cialised 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, recog­nised the dan­ger and acted fast. Within two days he abol­ished

SARS, promis­ing 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 non­vi­o­lent. Last Mon­day, a mob burnt a po­lice sta­tion in Yaba, another up­scale sub­urb of La­gos, and 120km 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 well­ed­u­cated, trendy but lawabid­ing 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 about 95% lit­er­ate. Only one of the 19 north­ern, mostly Mus­lim states is over 50% lit­er­ate, and half the young women in the north­ern re­gion have no for­mal ed­u­ca­tion at all.

Nat­u­rally, rel­a­tive pros­per­ity shows the same dis­par­ity. Only 27% of south­ern­ers live be­low the poverty line; 72% 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: one­third 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 re­alise 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 third­big­gest coun­try in the world. It would be nice if by then it was a sta­ble, welle­d­u­cated democ­racy where pros­per­ity ex­tended be­yond the south.

 ?? PHOTO: REUTERS ?? A demon­stra­tor paints ‘‘End Sars’’, re­fer­ring to the Spe­cial Anti­Rob­bery Squad po­lice unit, on a street dur­ing a protest de­mand­ing po­lice re­form in La­gos.
PHOTO: REUTERS A demon­stra­tor paints ‘‘End Sars’’, re­fer­ring to the Spe­cial Anti­Rob­bery Squad po­lice unit, on a street dur­ing a protest de­mand­ing po­lice re­form in La­gos.
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