Classes, Repression, and Exploitation: Understanding the Anger Driving the #EndSARS Protest Movement

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Feature photo credit: Oluwakayode Abimbola

By Jaye Gaskia

Setting the context
NIGERIA’s ruling class has been haunted by a spectre in the last several weeks; the spectre of the possibility and potential for a mass revolt of impoverished and hard-pressed citizens and exploited classes.

Comrade Jaye Gaskia

That spectre was eventually let loose with a vengeance when the anger of youths burst unto the streets, birthing the #EndSARS protests, which over the course of two weeks grew into a rebellion of such a massive scale that it has become the life-defining determined mass self-activity of a generation.

But we have to understand why the glowing embers of dissent became fanned into the blazing flames of a wild forest fire.

As of May 2020, Nigeria’s official National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) reported that 40.1% of the population, that is 82.9 million people, were living below the official poverty line. The NBS, in reporting, stated that “In Nigeria, 40.1% of total population were classified as poor. In other words, on average four out of 10 individuals in Nigeria have real per capita expenditures below 137,430 naira ($352) per year,”

The modern Nigerian state has been significantly shaped by its colonial origin as an occupying and pacifying state, requiring the use and deployment of repressive policing, security and law enforcement agencies and institutions.

Furthermore, according to the NBS Q2 report, the unemployment situation had also worsened, with the general unemployment rate rising by 4% from 23.1% in Q3 2018 to 27.1% in Q2 2020, while underemployment rate rose by 8.5% from 20.1% in Q3 2018 to 28.6% in Q2 2020. The implication being that composite unemployment rate had risen by 12.5% from 43.2% in Q3 2018 to 55.7% in Q2 2020.

The situation is even more deplorable among young persons aged 15 to 34 years of age, with youth unemployment rate rising by 5.2% from 29.7% in Q3 2018 to 34.9% in Q2 2020, while underemployment rate amongst the same age group rising by 2.5% from 25.7% in Q3 2018 to 28.2% in Q2 2020, meaning that composite unemployment rate among youths had risen almost astronomically by 7.7% from 55.4% in Q3 2018 to 63.1% in Q2 2020.

From the foregoing, it can be seen that 2 in every 5 Nigerians are living in poverty, with roughly the same proportion, that is 2 out of every 5 Nigerians of working age are either out of job or in precarious poverty inducing employment; while among young persons, more than 3 out of 5 youths aged 15 to 34 years are out of job.

This is the context within the successful mobilisation of youth anger and grievance for about three weeks can be properly understood.

The hike in fuel price and electricity tariff, and the raising of tax rates and implementation of new taxes, had created an atmosphere of deep-seethed anger and increased the grievance levels of the working peoples. There were several organised protests against these unjust and unpopular measures across the country, including a massive campaign and mobilisation to pressure the labour centres to take strike action and organise protests. This campaign had succeeded in pushing the NLC and the TUC into declaring a general strike and mass protests which was to have commenced on the 28th of September 2020.

The historical and class character of the State
It is also important to understand the character of the Nigerian State, and why this has contributed not only to the failure of governance, the imposition of economic hardships, the often ruthless nature of the exploitation of the working classes, and the consequent repressive character of the state engendering citizens distrust, the alienation of the people, and the high propensity towards the resort to brutalisation of citizens and the violation and abuse of citizens’ rights by the security and law enforcement agencies in general, and the police and its specialised crime fighting units and task forces, such as the discredited Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit in particular.

The modern Nigerian state has been significantly shaped by its colonial origin as an occupying and pacifying state, requiring the use and deployment of repressive policing, security and law enforcement agencies and institutions.

This inherent character of the State to rely on the use of force to maintain ruling class hegemony and enforce ruling class economic policies which have also tended to disproportionately favour the ruling class, impoverish the working classes, leading to the concentration of societal wealth in very few hands, was further accentuated under more than three decades of authoritarian military dictatorship.

The consequence of this is that the ruling class has become disconnected from the working peoples, becoming imperious in its relationship with them, acting with impunity, and emboldened by its total control over the wealth of society and levers of power of society to spawn a culture of corrupt and ostentatious living.

#EndSARS protests and the movement it spawned
Against the background already outlined above, which can be considered as the structural and systemic factors at the root of the youth rebellion, we can also identify a number of more immediate triggering factors that helped to drive the youths unto the streets.

In the weeks before the #EndSARS protests, the federal government had imposed fresh and additional burdens and hardships on the people, with the twin price hikes in cost of electricity and cost of fuel. In a country with poor electricity generation, distribution and transmission capacities and infrastructures, as a consequence of which the overwhelming majority of households and businesses are either not connected to the national public grid, or do not receive sufficient supply for their needs, the bulk of the electricity required to power households and businesses is self-generated.

For instance, available electricity for transmission to end-users have never topped 5,500 MWs, usually averaging 3,000 MWs; and this in an economy which is the largest in sub-Saharan Africa, and which is powered by more than 55,000 MWs conservatively. Thus the bulk of households and businesses and offices depend on self-generated electricity with the overwhelming majority of these relying on fuel-powered generators to generate their electricity needs. Businesses in Nigeria, under the aegis of Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), report that in the 2019 financial, they spent nearly N80bn on self-generated power, accounting for nearly 40% of their cost of production, thus making their businesses less competitive.

The hike in fuel price and electricity tariff, and the raising of tax rates and implementation of new taxes, had created an atmosphere of deep-seethed anger and increased the grievance levels of the working peoples. There were several organised protests against these unjust and unpopular measures across the country, including a massive campaign and mobilisation to pressure the labour centres to take strike action and organise protests. This campaign had succeeded in pushing the NLC and the TUC into declaring a general strike and mass protests which was to have commenced on the 28th of September 2020.

The abrupt call-off of the general strike and protests after the capitulation of the labour centres had led to increased levels of frustration among citizens and compounded the anger. It was only a matter of time, when a spark will trigger a massive forest fire.

The protests called to mobilise popular grievance were repressed by the police, and acts of police brutality continued to take place in the environment of dissent, frustration and anger.

Enter the #EndSARS protests which was organised to protest against police brutality and call for comprehensive police and policing reforms.

The protests soon became massive and caught popular imagination. The organisers effectively utilised the social media to organise and mobilise. Whereas there were several groups involved in the mobilisation, the emergent and growing movement was dispersed, decentralised, and lacked visible leadership and coordination.

And as the protests became a movement, it became a franchise, and narratives of the movement being leaderless and unorganised began to be floated and embraced by the movement and the organisers. This apparent reason for the success of the growth of the movement also became its Achilles heels.

The character of the movement
The movement embraced youths of various classes, and was in reality led by the youths of the upper middle classes who exercised ideological and financial hegemony over the movement. However, youths of the working classes thronged to the movement and became its base, proving a grounding for the movement and an anchor to the exploited classes.

It was this mixed character of the movement that enabled the active engagement and intervention of organised left and other social forces with the protests and protest movement. This engagement was both that of solidarity, active participation in the protests and active engagement with the ideas and demands of the movement, ensuing the beginning of a debate about the direction of the movement, and its organisational strategy and tactics.

A reckoning with history
As it is now known after watching the movement on the street blossom and grow, and frightened by its pace, the ruling class acted true to character and forcefully suppressed the movement with the Lekki Massacre to set an example.

The Lekki Massacre came after several, ultimately unsuccessful attempts to use organised thugs recruited from among deprived, impoverished and alienated youths, and sponsored by the state and the ruling class to attack and disperse the protests.

This suppression of the protests in its initial phase, and the temporary retreat of the movement from the streets under the veil of threats, has now created a vacuum enabling and unleashing the anger of deprived and alienated sections of the youths on the properties and businesses of the ruling class and institutions of the state, in particular the institutions that aid state repression – the police, the courts and the prisons.

On an interim final note, it is important to note that the movement has achieved quite a lot. It forced the State to disband the hated SARS unit, forced the State to commit to and establish judicial commissions of inquiry to probe and investigate allegations of police brutality.

But more importantly, it has led to the awakening of a younger generation of the working classes and the people of Nigeria, learning to take action, to make demands of society and the state, and learning to organise and mobilise and work together.

And even though at the inception of the movement, it proclaimed that it was non-political, by the time of the Lekki Massacre, the movement had become political and the protesters had become radicalised.

Thus, like the generations before them, who were politically radicalised by the Ali-Must-Go students uprising of 1978; the students uprising in response to the ABU massacre of 1986; the youth uprising and citizen rebellion of the 1989 nationwide mass anti-SAP protests; the anti-military resistance which became consolidated in the June 12 movement; and more recently, the January Uprising of 2012; this generation of Nigerian youths have found their own radicalising political awakening defining moment in the #EndSARS protests movement.

This movement, by the way it grew, and the lessons it has taught, has the potential to birth a radical pan Nigeria youth movement, with a different vision for Nigeria, one of country with diverse peoples, united as a society and committed to building a more inclusive and equitable society.

And herein lies its greatest potential achievement!

Feature photo credit: Oluwakayode Abimbola

Comrade Gaskia is a member of the leadership of Socialist Labour (SL) in Nigeria, and a member of the national leadership of Alliance for Surviving Covid-19 and Beyond (ASCAB)

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