Like many others, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around everything that’s been happening in Nigeria since early October.
Young people all over the country have been taking to the streets demanding an end to SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has been rife with well-founded accusations of profiling young people (for having dreads, tattoos and even iPhones), leading to brutal and often fatal acts of violence. Basically, SARS are murdering citizens under the guise of stopping crime.
People are tired—no, exhausted—and want a better relationship with the institutions that are supposed to protect them.
However, as the protests continued and the stakes got bigger, this became an overly simple way of describing the full meaning behind the #EndSars protest. Perhaps it started as a way of ending the gross misuse of police power, but it has come to mean so much more. The fervor to end SARS is still there but it also feels like we are collectively on the precipice of something new and exciting. A new beginning for Nigeria.
But my family and everyone knew that being Nigerian in all its totality meant many complex things—things we only admitted to ourselves among each other and behind closed doors.
In real time we are seeing the community of Nigerians domestic and abroad realize that the government has failed us too many times. The amazing thing about this realization is that it is happening everywhere simultaneously. Or at least it feels like it, which is just as important. Satellite protests around the world have popped up in places with significant Nigerian populations: including major cities in the U.S, Canada, and the U.K. It feels like the borders between all of us have shrunk, and this fight is everybody’s fight.
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It’s been almost a month since the #ENDSARS protest began in Nigeria, here in the diaspora Tobi watched with sadness, outrage, and pride as young citizens of Nigeria peacefully protested against a ruthless and oppressive Nigerian Government. Having left at an early age to the US, she describes how her perception of the country evolved as a result of the #ENDSARS movement. This Essay is part of the Too Foreign for Here, Too Foreign for home series. To read the full piece, check out the Link in our bio.
This has never happened in my lifetime. I moved permanently from Nigeria when I was six, and only got snippets of how fractured Nigeria is politically in overheard conversations with my father. Without realizing it, overtime, I adopted his cynicism. Of course I still wore my Nigerian-ness with pride. In America, it’s an easy and almost necessary part of being a Nigerian abroad. But my family and everyone knew that being Nigerian in all its totality meant many complex things—things we only admitted to ourselves among each other and behind closed doors.
When I talked to my dad initially and explained the protests to him, as well as who in our family back home was involved, I did so cautiously. I knew his mixed feelings and I knew that sometimes when talking about Nigeria, disappointment comes easily. To my surprise however, he stayed on the phone and patiently listened. He even asked follow-up questions and laughed, unsurprised, by which nephews of his were involved with the protests. It was as much of an endorsement as I had ever seen from my dad. Perhaps he, like the rest of us, felt like something was changing and things would be different this time.
SARS is not the only problem facing Nigeria. The government still can’t provide the most basic needs for a majority of its citizens, least of all safety for women and femme people who are harassed, raped, and killed. Meanwhile, public funds are still grossly mismanaged or used as huge paydays for people in power. Bribery is an everyday practice, and religious, regional, and ethnic tensions continue to be commonplace. SARS is really just a function of all of those things and so any conversation about its disbandment implicates the government as well. That’s why we see the stifling, the threats, and the violence against the protesters by those in power. Because if SARS falls, as a result of a cross generational ethnically and internationally diverse community of Nigerians, our generation can fully acknowledge their power and decide what else needs to fall to rebuild a better Nigeria. So I stand with the protesters and everyone that is using their voice and presence to make Nigeria safer for the ones there and the ones that dream of coming home.
Nevertheless, as I watched the violence unfold, the recent massacre in Lekki and the brave young generation that is putting their life on the line to make the government respond to their most basic grievances, I feel a mix of sadness, outrage, and pride. I think about all the family members that have been lost to the instability and the poor governance. I think about the luck of being able to escape the instability at such a young age. And yet I also wonder if the idea of escaping has been a myth all along. One does not have to be physically present to be affected by the horror that continues back home. I feel it in the conversations with my family members here and in Nigeria, in the delayed visits back home, and in the pain of losing loved ones. I see it, I feel it, and my heart breaks.
Yet I am also hopeful. If this is really a radical beginning to a new Nigeria, what should come next? What will the rebuilding look like? Dreaming about returning means something beyond going home to visit with peace of mind. Perhaps now, it can also mean going home to stay, build, and see the new change that is coming through. If you asked most of our parents abroad, including mine, they would tell you that they came for better opportunities and the chance to see theirs and their children’s dreams realized. That always sounded noble in my head, but these days I wonder if the truly noble act is returning home after seeing your own dream realized to try to help ensure that this is possible for everyone who doesn’t have the privilege of leaving.
Because of the protests, my future suddenly feels open-ended and tied to the outcome of the revolution brewing in Nigeria. The what-ifs lurk under the disbelief that this is really happening. What if the protests actually work? What if the people refuse to be silenced and the #ENDSARS campaign escalates until its initial demands are just the tip of the iceberg? How do we orient ourselves towards the rapid changes that are happening back home? As I think through the possibilities, I hope others feel confident that there is space for them to think through what this new Nigeria that is taking shape should look like. Although we are not on the ground, we have a right to reimagine what the country should be from different shores. As we continue to protest wherever we can and share news, images, and posts on social media, I hope we remember that this is a moment to seriously think about the conditions that will make it possible for us and our future children to not have to escape in the first place.