#ENDSARS UPRISING: PERSPECTIVES, LESSONS, TASKS AND THE WAY FORWARD FOR THE REVOLUTIONARY MOVEMENT
The #EndSARS protests have marked the entry of a new generation of Nigerian youths into the arena of mass struggle. It is a unique generation, many of whom, unlike previous generations, do not have the usual background of campus or school activism, nor working place industrial or collective bargaining struggles. They can, on the one hand, be rightly called the ‘Internet/Social Media’ generation or, on the other, the ‘street generation’ though not in the sense of not being educated. But they chose to stand against police brutality and in the process confronted the nation with a phenomenal movement, which looking back, can be captured as ‘The 13 days That Shook Nigeria’ – the protests having started on October 8th and ‘ended’ on October 20th, 2020 following brutal suppression by the Nigerian state. It was the first time that the youthful majority of Nigerians had an impact on the entire nation.
By Lanre Arogundade
The protests were an example of how rapidly movements can develop and during it we say how quickly events can unfold. This movement was one of the biggest in Nigerian history though lesser in size comparable to the January 2012 anti-fuel hike general strike and mass actions of the trade unions and civil society groups in which we in the Democratic Socialist Movement (DSM) played an important role. Also in contradistinction to that and the previous equally popular June 12 anti-military struggle against the cancellation of the presidential elections of 1993, etc., the #EndSARS was a distinctly youth movement comprising working graduates, unemployed graduates, working youths, unemployed or underemployed youths, female youths, youthful artists and social media influencers, the rural and urban alienated youths, , etc.
#EndSARS was also politically symbolic as the struggle broke out in the month of October when Nigeria was supposed to be celebrating 60 years of her independence from Britain and when the dominant debate was around the so-called question of restructuring with calls within sections of the bourgeois class for return of the country to regional system of governance or the division of the country along ethnic or nationality lines.
As we have noted in previous political discussions, although layers of the poor and working masses totally disenchanted with the neo-liberal economic hardships imposed on them by successive pro-capitalist civilian governments since 1999 also erroneously believed that regionalism or break up might be the solution to Nigeria’s myriad of problems, the response of the youths to the debate seemed to have been the launch of a pan-Nigerian movement with the peg as #Endsars involving youths across all the ethnic groups or what in Nigeria is called the geo-political zones who actively participated.
Without being on their own sufficiently politically conscious of it, the message the youths were sending across was that a united struggle of Nigerian peoples was possible, just as our tendency and organisation have repeatedly emphasised that the potential power of the Nigerian working masses and their allies to fight to throw off the yokes of capitalist oppression and repression. But a key factor holding his back has been the class collaborationist attitude of the current leadership of the trade union that would rather betray the struggles of the working class against capitalist economic yoke than see such through.
The outbreak of the #Endsars protests was therefore also symbolic in the sense that it came in the wake of the refusal of the leadership of the central trade union federations – the NLC and TUC – to resist the latest round of neo-liberal assault on the poor masses by way of increase in the price of petrol in the name of deregulation as well as hike in electricity tariff – a fallout of privatisation programme. The labour leadership reached a rotten compromise with the Buhari government stating that it had come to the conclusion that deregulation of the petroleum sector was in the best interest of its members – a lie that stinks to the high heavens. The labour leadership took this position without the modicum of decency to table the issue before the organs of the NLC and TUC including the NEC and CWC, which had earlier rejected deregulation. Neither did they subject it to debate among the state chapters, the local unions levels and indeed the rank and file.
One final spark led youths to take their destiny in their own hands, so to say, following the extreme brutalities that many of them had been subjected to by the notorious police unit called Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, whose specialty was actually extra judicial killings, extortion of money, illegal arrests and detention and many other forms of atrocities.
If any proof was needed that Nigerians were ready to fight against socio, economic and political injustice, it lied in the massive support the #Endsars movement received among the population, with layers of the society joining to mount pressure on the government to accede to the demands of the youths. After the labour leaders once again blocked struggle many were inspired by the determined resistance of the youth. This mood would now be of concern for a labour leadership that has lost its soul and it may indeed drive them further away from waging struggles on behalf of the working class. For example, the arson and destruction of property that came in the wake of the brutalization of the peaceful protesters may become an excuse for the labour leaders not to call for mass actions in future. Trust them to say that ‘thugs’ or ‘hoodlums’ might hijack such even though they never ever wanted to do anything that would amount to challenging the power of Buhari regime or moving in the direction of system change.
But for majority of the suffering Nigerian masses, the #Endsars uprising has shown that the regime can be confronted, and with the few concessions won by the protesters, that it can indeed be defeated. There is a sense in which the #Endsars uprising is therefore a marker for the future. For us as Marxists and socialist fighters, it is a vindication of our postulation that a revolution in Nigeria is possible, hence it has become imperative for us to examine the perspectives of the struggle, analyse the lessons and examine the emerging tasks as we attempt to draw a genuinely revolutionary road map from it.
When a struggle is not political but is still political
Described as a non-political and leaderless struggle as it broke out, the #Endsars protest was actually unconventional in many ways, at least within the Nigerian context. But it had the underlining tone of having benefitted from such international developments as the Arab Spring, as the major means of mobilization was via the social media – the twitter in particular after a video surfaced of SARS officials openly shooting in the street some young Nigerians. The youths were also probably encouraged by the protests in America over the killing of George Floyd, which sparked and continued to spark international outrage. Indeed the ‘Black Lives Movement’ kneeling position was regularly adopted by the protesters as they embarked on street protests and occupations across the country.
At the initial stages the #Endsars protesters insisted that theirs was a non-political struggle and actually resisted the participation of groups like Revolution Now, with their liberal radical leader, Omowole Sowore, himself a younger generation activist, at one point prevented from addressing the protesters in Abuja. At Alausa in Lagos, Gbenga Komolafe, General Secretary of the Informal Sector Workers Union, was booed off the podium when he introduced himself as such and was only able to speak a few hours later when he did not disclose his identity as a trade unionist. It also took a while and concerted efforts before our comrades could start directly addressing the protesters at some of the epicenters.
However, like in every other struggle where the law of unintended consequences would always play out, the greater the participation of different layers of aggrieved Nigerians including rural and urban youths, students and even working-class elements, the more the scope of demands expanded with protesters going beyond the specific demand to abolish SARS to that of police reforms. As an example of class solidarity, some of the demands in this regard included better pay and welfare for policemen, with some of the protesters even suggesting donation of food and other items to policemen so that would stop transferring their grievances or frustrations to young people on the streets. The demands also expanded to good governance, end to outrageous salaries of national legislatures, etc. In other words, the protesters were without being that conscious of it, raising questions about the failure of the state under the capitalist system of governance in Nigeria.
What was very noticeable however was the popularity of the struggle the evidence of which lied in the resources raised including money, food, drinks to support the protesters who at a stage had made up their mind to stay at the epicenters of the struggles until their demands were met.
Whatever the character of the movement, the intervention of our tendency was inevitable and we must commend our comrades for the rapid rate at which we raised resources to produce leaflets, special edition of the SD and physically participated. We sold 77 copies of the main edition of the SD and about 250 copies of the special edition, and circulated about 20,000 copies of leaflets. We were active in eight protest centres across the country (Alausa, Lekki, Ikorodu, Sango-Ota, Abuja, Ibadan, Osogbo and Ijebu Ode). A few of our comrades were able to address some of the protesters, which further exposed us to the combined and uneven character of the struggle, politically and ideologically speaking; For example at Ikorodu, a highly populated Lagos suburb where Comrades LA and Azeez intervened, the protesters were hostile to the idea of selling the SD which they thought was an attempt to make money or profit out of their struggle, but the YRC leaflet was well received and even distributed especially after LA had introduced himself as a former young president of the National Association of Nigerian Students (NANS) and former chairman of the Nigerian Union of Journalists in Lagos State. In addressing about three different groups of protesters comprising at least 10 to 20 youths LA was regularly punctuated by different questions by the eager youths ranging from the question of the atrocious salaries earned by legislators, why citizens should pay so much for the electricity they do not get or consume, etc. Comrades had a similar experience in Alausa Lagos, Abuja and Ibadan. Our response to these myriad of questions was essentially to emphasise that the youths must be ready to organise politically and ideologically to change the political system in the country and get rid of elite capitalist politicians, otherwise the problems of police brutality would persist.
However, it was clear that the invisible leadership of the movement who actually called the shots exploited the sentiment against politics and leadership to create a firewall against left activists who could expand the demands to socio-economic issues or call for political accountability. In reality the rank and file protesters were receptive to idea of fighting for demands on issues like fuel price and electricity tariff. This was shown with the warm reception Soweto’s speech got when he was able to mount the podium at Alausa. The video of the speech also had at least 45,000 views and over 12,000 shares on Facebook alone. Despite this huge support, the demands did not reflect in the official demands of the #EndSARS movement because the leadership who were made up of petty bourgeois elements who do not have opposition to the neo-liberal capitalist policies of deregulation and privatization; hope for a ‘better’ form of capitalism if corruption is suppressed or naively believed that it is only after police reform has been won that other demands can be brought forward. Indeed, in some of the messages they massively circulated on social media they openly called for an effective implementation of devaluation, deregulation and privatization.
Moreover, by the end of the protest the need for a political alternative gained an echo among young people. For instance, a so-called Young Democratic Party of Nigeria (YDPN) geometrically grew within a few days of its establishment on social media. Although not yet registered with INEC, nationally, it has over 300,000 members online including about 70,000 in Lagos alone. However, this massive support was built on a wrong basis that the solution to Nigerian crisis lies in the energy and modernity of young people. In other words, according to the sentiment, the failure of political leaders to turn around the country despite its huge human and material resources is a result of their age, not the capitalist philosophy and policies of the successive governments. Nonetheless, unlike at the beginning of the #EndSARS movement, the current mood reflecting an orientation towards a political alternative among youths has opened up a field for a battle of ideas. So there is an opportunity to reach out to young people with our pro-working people political alternative and socialist ideas with a view of winning a genuinely change seeking elements to our ideas and organization. We have to develop a program of how to achieve this using both YRC and SPN.
What cannot be disputed was the fact that the perspective of intervening via YRC was correct. As we can see, YRC is now effectively a leader of the #Endsars movement with the social media platform created in response to the struggle being quickly populated by many youths that we were coming in contact with us for the first time in the course of struggle. We are also beginning to see the prospects of recruiting some of the more politically conscious layers into our ideas and ultimately our organisation.
A movement and its limitations
Every mass struggle needs proper coordination through a leadership that pass messages across, analyses the situation, gathers comrades’ experiences and develop response mechanisms. In other words, a leadership that takes responsibility for acts or actions including those of omission or commission. In this regard, the idea of being leaderless, though probably borne out of fear of clampdown by the state and to avoid opportunism, corruption and betrayal which “leadership” had become synonymous to given the treachery of both the ruling political parties and the bureaucratic labour leadership, was incorrect and it obviously manifested in the approaches adopted which showed some degree of lack of cohesion although the protesters were still able to codify their demands into five – called 5-for-5. These are:
- Immediate release of all arrested protesters
- Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families
- Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days)
- In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation & retraining (to be confirmed by the independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed
- Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens
As stated earlier, SARS was notorious for its arbitrariness and the meting of jungle justice to suspects created enormous hatred for it. Indeed giving the way and manner the SARS went about extorting money from people, one could argue that rogue elements actually hijacked the organisation to continue their business in uniform or that they were consciously recruited to terrorise the working masses as what they engaged in was nothing but organised crime. This perhaps informed the thinking by layers of the protesters that once SARS was removed the brutalities would abate. It was no doubt correct to demand the dismantling of SARS as we also did, but what the #EndSARS organisers didn’t sufficiently grapple with was the fact that in capitalist societies the law enforcement agencies are created primarily to protect the interest of the ruling classes whether in or out of government and the hostilities and brutalities they perpetrate are actually what is expected of them. That is why apart from SARS there are other police units that are as ruthless including especially the various state security outfits. The question of ending police, and state, brutality is therefore linked to the question of the transformation of the character of the state itself but the protesters lacked the understanding that it would take the coming into power of a working people political organization especially resting on socialist programmes to carry out the kind of reforms being demanded.
Having discovered its power, the youths had the erroneous impression that street protests could serve as alternative to working class industrial and political action, which perhaps was one of the reasons they thought the struggle could be indefinite or last till all their demands were met, which was not politically correct. This, linked to the movement’s failure to consciously take up working peoples’ demands and build a wider struggle, produced a dilemma and really a crisis of leadership, or rather a lack of leadership. The contradiction of not acting to build wider active support, in particular strike action, while at the same wanting to simply to continue demonstrating was leading to a blind alley. Sensing this, it was at this point that the government announced the disbandment of SARS, accepted the 5-for-5 demands and set up of judicial panels of enquiry on the atrocities of SARS operatives. At this point the protests could have been suspended in their then form to allow for a comprehensive assessment of the situation and most importantly to begin a serious campaign to draw in the working class which, though sympathetic, was yet unable, because of its collaborationist leadership, to actively enter into struggle. The idea of this movement working to build, at grassroots, support for a 24 or 48 hour general strike as the next stage in the struggle to win a clear program of demands would have given a clear direction. We should also have skillfully posed this perspective, not dropping the demands on the police, especially as youths were also angered by the fact that another would-be brutal outfit – SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactic) – was being created just as SARS was supposedly being disbanded. But what this again reinforces is the need for a mass movement to have democratic leadership and organization whose existence could have created opportunities for robust discussions about tactics and strategies to build and sustain the struggle.
It is worth reiterating that, the limitations notwithstanding, a generation of youths have entered the arena of struggle and in the process fulfilled one of the conditions of a revolutionary situation, which is when the ruled refuse to be ruled in the old way. Our task is to help develop the consciousness of the most advanced layers and win them to the revolutionary ideas of Marxism.
A shaken state bared its fangs
For the thirteen days that the protests lasted, the Nigerian state was threatened and shaken to its foundations. The APC ruling class whose pretense to so-called progressivism was being exposed was particularly driven to the edge because the protests had the potential of snowballing into a pan-Nigerian revolutionary uprising. For a ruling class used to divide and rule tactics, this was in itself a major threat and it was not surprising that the government attempted to regionalise the struggle by getting northern Governors to endorse SARS although even they were unable to dodge the question of the need for the outfit to be reformed.
In the final analysis, what the Buhari government offered was a grudging concession by way of the announcement that SARS was being disbanded. But since the police is a key apparatus of state repression, it was not surprising that the regime also announced the establishment of SWAT and indeed provocatively announced that the recruitment process had begun. Even for the SARS, the pronouncement of the Police IG was to the effect that the erstwhile officers would be reintegrated after a supposed mental and psychological examination. It is worth stating that there are other brutal police sub-groups like the IG unit, the narcotic group, etc., that are as notorious as the SARS and are still operating.
The protests were also an economic threat to the ruling classes especially the private sector ones who are beneficiaries of the so-called public private partnership policies through which the collective wealth of the country are appropriated into private pockets. One of such is the Lekki Concession Company that operates the Lekki Toll Gate, which must have been counting its losses for as long as the struggle lasted. Lekki Toll Gate attracted the largest of the crowds and it was a matter of time for the company to find a way out. The imposition of curfew at short notice, the shutting off of street lights prior to the army invasion of the protest ground, the shooting and the killing of some of them, could therefore have been a product of conspiracy between the Lekki concession company, the Lagos state government, the army and the Buhari government. Further evidence of this is being displayed at the ongoing probe by the Lagos State established judicial panel of enquiry into police brutality and killings during the protest where LCC has testified that its CCTV cameras did not capture the shootings. This and other developments are clear indications that justice may not be served by the panel, whose primary purpose was to help bottle up the anger. It is also a vindication of our demand that only an independent panel of enquiry comprising democratically selected representatives of trade unions, youths organisations especially #EndSARS conveners, students’ unions, professional bodies like the Nigerian Bar Association, Nigerian Medical Association, the media, etc., could genuinely unearth the truth about the brutal assault on the protesters and the killings.
Therefore, both at the political and economic levels, it was a panic-stricken state that first sent armed thugs to attack the protesters, and when that failed due to the heroic resistance put up by them followed up with the deployment of soldiers under a supposed security exercise called ‘Operation Crocodile Smile’.
Across the country and in Lagos in particular, the level of arson was unprecedented suggesting that there were elements of intra and inter class settling of scores. More importantly however, the government deliberately allowed the mayhem to teach the protesters a lesson, establish the basis for clampdown, set the populace against protesters and make the idea of protests, even of the peaceful type, unpopular. It cannot be ruled out that sections of the populace may turn against protesters in future and one of our tasks therefore is to continue to counter the various false narratives through proper documentation of what actually transpired.
But again and as always with the law of unintended consequences, the use of thugs has in turn opened a pandora box of anger as the untamed community of urban youths and lumpen elements have been let loose on the society while the underlying hunger and anger in the land has led to the invasion of warehouses in search of Covid-19 palliatives, a phenomenon that has again exposed the lie by the government that its phony programmes of trader moni, farmer moni, have improved the lives of the people. While the violent protests that followed the main #Endsars were partly in response to the Lekki shootings, they were in the main a demonstration of anger against the Buhari’s government anti-poor economic policies and the entire ruling elite.
But as a revolutionary organization, we must also be conscious and wary of the threat that the deployment of thugs could pose to future struggles, particularly working class struggles.
At the same time we need to have more discussions on the growing army of youths that have become cultists, drug addicts and who in the times of struggles could play reactionary roles as we have seen in the #EndSARS protests.
Perspectives on Tasks
Some of the tasks emanating from the #EndSARS protests have been mentioned or outlined in the previous sections of this perspective document. Obviously, we need more political discussions on the lessons and the way forward.
Politically however, we have to be prepared for the backlash that would follow and indeed has started. This includes continuing police and military brutality, freezing of the accounts of the identified organisers of the protests, etc. Giving the role we have played and are still playing; it is also not ruled out that we can become the targets of the state along the same lines as above.
Beyond #Endsars and its fall outs, we must be prepared for the era of struggle that will unfold as the economic policies of the Buhari government continue to translate into greater sufferings for the mass of the people. The 2021 budget for example is largely based on continuing borrowings and debt servicing and the federal government recently announced that some agencies do not have money to pay November salaries. Beyond increases in the price of fuel and electricity, it cannot be ruled out that the government may embark on massive retrenchment of workers. Same thing may happen in the private sector where demands are already being made for bailout by some businesses. Here too, Covid-19 and post #endSARS violence are ready excuses for wage cut, casualization and even outright lay-offs.
Meanwhile, there are immediate tasks for the YRC including the development of a youth charter or youth manifesto that graphically captures the concerns of the #Endsars protesters and other youth related issues as emerging from post #EndSARS protesters.
The question of how we integrate the youth question into our core areas of ideological and political work in DSM and SPN needs to be properly discussed. For the SPN in particular, our programmatic outlines and slogans should be more transitional in nature and include the ones that resonate with the youths and the masses of the people as seen in the protests. These include but are not limited to:
- End to jumbo pay for political office holders
- Decent jobs or unemployment benefits
- Adequate funding and democratic management of public education
- Making electricity affordable for the masses
- Renationalisation and democratic control of the power sector
- Reversal of fuel price hike and building of adequate refineries
- Free health care for workers. women, people living with disabilities, youth as a step towards free health care for all
- End of unjust levies, taxations on poor market women and men, artisans, etc.
The question of an alternative political platform of the working class, youths, farmers and peasants has also re-emerged in the aftermath of #EndSARS protests and we are already participating in discussions relating to this. It is important we have internal discussions on this especially ahead of 2023 and vis-à-vis what may be or not be of SPN.
Finally, we need to come out with a major perspective document on the #Endars uprising and the lessons
The #Endsars protests and the aftermath have again demonstrated the failure of the capitalist system in Nigeria by exposing the worsening of the poverty situation of the citizens. Truly, from what we have seen, it is either socialism or barbarism and we must rededicate ourselves to the challenge of the revolutionary transformation of Nigeria along socialist lines.
This document is an abridged version of the lead off by Comrade Lanre Arogundade at a national organisers’ meeting of the DSM