Young Nigerians protest under the spectre of anarchy and genocide
By Onyemaechi F.E. Ogbunwezeh, PhD, October 2020
Millions of young Nigerians have been on the streets for the past two weeks protesting against a notorious Nigerian police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This unit, established over a decade ago to fight rising cases of armed robbery, has metamorphosed into a nest of killers acting with unparalleled impunity. The street protesters – mainly in southern and middle belt cities - also demanded radical social, political and economic reforms to prevent Nigeria from falling into the abyss of a failed state.
As these protests continued, government troops killed close to 50 protesters in Lagos, injuring many more. In Plateau State an End SARS protest culminated in Muslim youths in Jos attacking and killing Christians and burning down a church. Rumours had been planted by government agents of a Christian “uprising”.
With the Nigerian security apparatus turning to violence and sectarian scaremongering, Nigeria - a country of 200 million people – edges closer an anarchic ethno-civil/religious war, resulting in acts of genocide against vulnerable minorities.
A clear pattern of peaceful protest and anti-protest violence has emerged. A North-South dichotomy is clearly visible. Most of the major anti-police protests centred around the major southern cities of Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Aba Port Harcourt and Calabar. Pro-police and pro-government protests were seen in some places in the North.
The reaction of the Nigeria’s northern Fulani/Islamist dominated political establishment was swift. It was quick to delegitimize the protests as a Southern-Christian conspiracy to overthrow a Northern president of Islamic provenance.
This does not bode well for Nigeria.
Conditions for genocide exist in Nigeria. Ethno-religious divides harden; the systematic violence against Christians, especially in the Middle Belt continues; State institutions disintegrate; power is concentrated in the hands of one ethnicity – the Fulani; tribal and regional secessionist groups flourish; the low-density conflicts, the ethnic cleansing and sacking of Christian and minority villages in the Middle Belt, the weaponization of derogatory stereotypes of ‘the other’ is on the rise. All of this comes on top of the ongoing Boko Haram Islamist insurgency in the North-East. These were the kinds of ingredients that combined to create the genocide in Rwanda.
Localised acts of genocide are already an actuality for many Nigerian Christians living in the North and the Middle Belt. Over two million Nigerians are refugees in their own country. Tens of thousands have lost their lives in the full-blown Boko Haram insurgency and attacks by Fulani herdsmen.
Now Nigerian young people have decided to take their destiny into their own hands. One hopes that this will not lead to a further disintegration of the state and fuel further those latent genocidal forces that multi-ethnic and multi-religious Nigeria has harboured since independence. One hopes that the youths of the North resist buying into the narrative that this is a movement to scheme the North out of power.
Taming the youths’ anger is difficult at the moment, but not impossible. Any hope of avoiding further descent into anarchy depends on the government going into full de-escalation mode, by pulling the soldiers and the police off the streets immediately. The government must scrap SARS and the Special Weapon Tactical Team (SWAT), dismiss the Inspector General of Police immediately, and bring to book police officers and soldiers who have killed innocent people. The government should ensure a State burial and compensation for the families of the dead, and commit to dialogue immediately.
Continuing on a trajectory of violence risks turning Nigeria into a failed State, and would embroil her in an ethno-religious war for decades to come. Such a war would destabilize the entire West Africa sub region, send seismic waves of refugees to flood Europe and the rest of the world, and unleash another brutal genocide that would make Rwanda look like the antics of spoilt kids in comparison.
Nigeria has already experienced one full-blown genocidal conflict – the Biafra Civil War of 1967 – 1970. The Nigerian authorities and their international partners must do their utmost to prevent another.
Onyemaechi F.E. Ogbunwezeh, PhD, is Senior Research Fellow at Christian Solidarity International (CSI)