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The class of 2020 finds its voice

For over 10 days now, young Nigerians have peacefully marched streets across the country, contesting alleged violent treatment at the hands of tactical units of the Nigerian Police Force, calling for justice for victims, sustainable reform and accountability. The #ENDSARS protests are unique in Nigerian history due to the emphasis on their ‘leaderless’ nature, the real time use of technology to crowdfund, coordinate volunteers, counter misinformation, organize food, medical supplies and protective personal equipment and even provide rapid-response legal aid to protesters. The administrative competence of this movement, the diverse cast of sub influencers and actors is acting as a sort of national introduction to Generation Z, a connected and hyper-aware generation, uniquely committed and equipped to driving social change across the world. To everyone just tuning in, we say welcome.

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The trends that have led up to this moment are clear in retrospect. The Covid-19 pandemic has upended economic and social life across the world – forced lockdowns have led to job losses and anxiety but have also reinforced a sense of online community. A worldwide conversation and reckoning around the view and treatment of young black bodies by tools of power is underway and this activism – including the black lives matter movement – has been incubated and energized by the social media platforms which Nigerian youth have especially adopted, as a tool for both banter and activism. Locally, this generation features a class of young Nigerian women and other gendered allies who have challenged cultural status quo, organizing around issues of gender-based violence, mental health, personal development and the right to free expression for women in historically patriarchal systems. This vibrant generation’s prominence is underlined by the rising soft power of Nigerian culture in the global conversation, the rise of creative industries and technology ecosystems as a viable path for economic opportunity and a measure of economic independence from the constraints of the Nigerian system.

Unfortunately, this is also the same generation of young Nigerians who have been stuck at home for over six months due to another ASUU strike, suffering through a 35% youth unemployment rate and a system that seems designed to stifle their creativity and dreams. The same young tech workers capable of building $200million companies like Paystack are profiled and harassed by officers of the law for the crime of having a laptop and dreadlocks. Being young in Nigeria today feels like having the whole world in the palms of your hands, seeing your culture and music travel the world, social media exposing you to new ideas and new cultures and having new opportunities and industries available through the internet revolution – all for the cost of the most basic tools, a smartphone, a computer, but having to negotiate with an un-listening, regressive and oppressive system that not only fails to provide access to these tools, but looks to inflict pain, punish and extort whenever it can.

In the absence of effective local government, institutions like SARS are the closest representations of the reality of the Nigerian state; absent when we need it to protect, provide or educate, but ever ready to profile, extort and brutalize our bodies when we encounter it. You can draw a straight line from this to arbitrary taxes imposed on a digital economy that governments have done little to nothing to support. Young people live connected and progressive lives online, then drop our phones and are reminded at every opportunity, by the culture, by newspaper headlines and by experience, that we are dispensable, we don’t really matter; leaders of a never coming future. There are two responses to this reality. The first is ongoing, a mass migration and a hollowing out of the youth of this country – data published by the Canadian government shows the number of young Nigerians issued permanent resident permits has tripled since 2015. Our black bodies are scattered across Libyan deserts and the Mediterranean Sea.

The second option is to actively organize and demand a system that fits the scale of our dreams, using our unique platforms and networks and technology. It is clear to everyone that this is what young people are doing, and it deserves respect. Our parents, instead of repeating tired stereotypes about what segments of society are involved in this moment, should be encouraging the peaceful display of our civic duty. I have been a straight A student my whole life, but the first time I had a gun pointed at my head was by SARS operatives, the night after my matriculation into university in 2006. Insecurity affects everyone. This movement has gathered support from across the world, Nigerians in diaspora, international technology companies including the CEO of twitter have lent their support. Protesters are cleaning up after themselves, transparently accounting for funds, shunning violence, competently and humanely organizing without seeking recognition. The youth are ready to build the country we want to see, and we want to know that we can trust the Nigerian state to act in good faith.

This is not a political movement, and actors trying to take political advantage are advised to find another issue. There is serious work to be done to ensure Nigeria’s young population is a force for good, and as far as demands go, “stop killing us” should be easy to understand. The pressure has yielded some commendable movement from the authorities, notably state governors who have met with protesters, delivered demands to the President, the Inspector General of Police who has announced some reforms to the force. However, this is just the beginning. We have seen many announcements before (this is the 4th time that the dissolution of SARS has been announced). Young people want to see real change, implementation, policy changes and justice for the 10 protesters who have lost their lives in this period.

This moment requires patience, and leadership from the Nigerian Government. Leaders must restrain the hawkish voices and instincts within their respective cabinets. There is a path we have seen the Nigerian state take too many times, that only begets violence and chaos. The world is watching young Nigerians organize peacefully and with innovation, an egalitarian movement for their right to live. If this moment is handled well, it will be a small victory for the whole country, bringing a sense of ownership of destiny to young Nigerians desperately in need of a reason to belong to this country. There may be many more victories to come.

A sign I saw today poignantly read “How can my whole life dream (sic) be to leave my country?” Everyone can’t run to Canada. We can build the future we want here. This new generation of phone pressing leaders; feminists, tech bros, musicians and comedians, will continue to make noise, because they are Nigerians. Millennials and Generation Z have awoken to our collective responsibility to negotiate a right to live and work in peace in this country. Our leaders have a chance to rise up and meet the opportunity presented here. Everyone should be grateful for this moment.

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