An Ocean Between Them: Two Movements, Two Continents, One Long Year

#BlackLivesMatter. #EndSARS.

America. Nigeria.

Systemic racism in the world’s first superpower. Institutionalized brutality in its largest Black nation.

This year, two social justice movements reawakened that brought racism, police brutality, and a critical mass of unjust violations of life to the forefront of global attention. For the world, this development marks a much-needed moment of confrontation and reflection on the evils that we perpetuate in our societies. Without serious discomfort there can be no serious change. For myself, this concurrence of social movements has yielded an unanticipated personal reflection regarding how I view the land of my birth in comparison to the land of my future. How, as a Nigerian immigrant to the United States, I see the divergent paths of growth that both nations are facing. Most importantly, this moment has forced me to reflect on how we form our expectations of different places and how things work in different parts of our shared world. This is an examination of why the contrasts between two wholly different nations inform how they’ve arrived at parallel points of societal transformation.

Black Lives Matter Flag

Justice Reignited

Black Lives Matter, a movement which began in 2014 following the death of Michael Brown and the resulting Ferguson riots, has been working over the last 6 years to spread awareness of and bring actionable solutions against systemic, life-threatening anti-Black racism. The summer of 2020 brought a new wave of activism and global recognition in the wake of the execution of George Floyd. As never before, the reality of anti-Blackness has been impressed upon people in a way that has required individuals to confront difficult truths, take action, and realize that they have to either be part of the problem or part of the solution.

[…] for Black Americans, [George Floyd’s murder was] the most recent landmark tragedy in this system’s sustained assault on our psyches.

End SARS was started in 2017 in response to years of murder, violence, and theft at the hands of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This flagrantly corrupt police unit, created in 1992 under military governance, has a documented history of cruelty and human rights violations against citizens, and activists have been working to disband this menace for years. In October of 2020, footage of SARS officers shooting and stealing a young man’s car in Ughelli, Delta State went viral on social media and spurred a massive wave of protests. The Nigerian government, in all-too-typical fashion, has responded to the cries of their people with suppression, intimidation, and state violence, culminating in an orchestrated massacre in Lekki that left an unconfirmed body count and temporarily halted the movement’s momentum.

Nigerian End SARS Protests – If You Don’t Know, Now You Know | The Daily Social Distancing Show | Source: © The Daily Show with Trevor Noah/YouTube

Both of these movements seek justice for people who are treated with abject indifference by the systems under which they live. In America, Black lives have been deemed as commodities in the best of times and a threat to social cohesion in the worst. From 1619 to 1964, the African people brought to and born in North America were slaves, sharecroppers, and second-class citizens; even after being granted their Civil Rights, the systems that were set up in the 300 years prior have continued to beat them down. In Nigeria, the corruption-plagued government has made an enterprise out of exploiting both the population and the petroleum-rich southern Delta. Independence from the dying British Empire in 1960 has been followed by a long history of coups, military governments, and criminals-in-chief. This story is not dissimilar to those of many other developing nations, yet it strikes as particularly tragic given Nigeria’s status as the world’s most populous Black nation and one of the premier powers on the African continent. The country has experienced bouts of tribal and religious conflict, including the brutal Igbo pogroms of 1966 that led to the Biafran War one year later, but the wrongdoings of the government cross all dividing lines. Those in power with a profit to gain from crushing their own people have done so with enthusiasm and a distinct lack of remorse.

An Honest Explanation of the Nigerian Civil War | The Biafran Story | Source: © NewAfrica/YouTube

A Love That Spans Continents

These are the two places I call home, and both of them hold special places in my heart. A fifth of my closet comes right from the motherland, shipped across the ocean and worn with pride. Every visit back home to my parents comes with the promise of fresh jollof rice and cow foot stew, with some heavenly puff puff on special occasions. America has given me opportunities for economic advancement and the stability of government (yes, even with him in charge). I don’t know what my life would have been if we had stayed, but I do know that I’m fortunate for the people and some of the uniquely American experiences I’ve been able to have in my time.

Constant omnipresent duality is the hallmark of life as an immigrant. Living in one place and being attached to another doesn’t define or determine you, but it does grant an additional layer of perspective, especially when it comes to cultural matters and major current events. The United States of America and Nigeria are an ocean—literally, economically, geopolitically—apart from each other. Nigerian-Americans make up a strong part of the global diaspora, and America is regarded in an elevated, albeit complicated, light in the Fatherland, certainly higher than our old colonial master. They are both important countries, but the hierarchy is as clear as the Atlantic waters between them, the same waters that once connected their peoples—a truly horrific exchange.

I’m thankful to know both places, and I’m thankful they’re both part of my story, but the problem with multiple loves is that singular perspectives become hard to maintain. Life in a developing nation and life in a world power are not the same. The human condition—people living in communities, loving others, striving and working and growing—is universal. These things exist everywhere, but the conditions in which they happen change the experience. Income inequality is abhorrently rampant in both societies, but the baseline quality of life here eclipses that of my homeland. Rampant gun violence plagues the United States, and there are countless people who fear for their loved ones’ safety, but none of these quite approach the scale of Boko Haram. Even as a Black man in this country, with all of the ugliness and problems and literal danger that come wrapped in that package, the objective fact is that my life is better because I’m here.

It was never the Nigerian citizenry that made me doubt the country’s future; it was the leaders they are forced to live under.

The duality of my experiences has resulted in certain expectations, similar to the common ones Americans have about the developing world but tempered by context. Our national mythology is built on baseless, blind exceptionalism. We expect that certain things, bad things, happen in other parts of the world, but not here. We expect that terrorism and horrific human rights abuses and failed governments happen in other places, but not here. When we find out that our country suffers from many of those same ills in a milder form, people are generally unable or unwilling to deal with the full truth of it. With the flawed expectation that bad things happen exclusively in other places comes the equally ignorant expectation that good things do not. Our society is free and developed enough to allow the possibility (key word: possibility) of real change, but not over there. Our people are driven and spirited enough to work for the betterment of their communities and nation, but not over there. We have the power to make our lives better, but over there, they’re helpless.

These are some of the fundamental mistruths that both Black Lives Matter and End SARS began the difficult work of breaking through.

End SARS protests

Justice, freedom, equality, and affirmation of life have always been universal needs, and meeting them has always required community action. Societies grow through the consistency of their peoples’ desire for improved lives; when progress is too incremental, when things stay too bad for too long, that desire more often than not explodes into conflict. At this very moment, millions of people worldwide are launching, continuing, actualizing movements for the rights of the societally, economically, and politically marginalized. Voices that have been beaten into silence scream the loudest, and the events that transpired over the summer of 2020 marked one of those pivotal moments in our shared journey towards an equitable reality.

The Real American Nightmare, the Nigerian Dream Deferred

To say that I’m thankful for the renewal of the Black Lives Matter movement would be to attribute something positive to its catalyst. What happened on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis has haunted the conscience of the American people in a way that’s only comparable to the Rodney King beatings, the aforementioned death of Michael Brown, and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Moreover, for Black Americans, it’s the most recent landmark tragedy in this system’s sustained assault on our psyches. When that footage was released into the world, when people were forced to confront the reality of state-sponsored streetside executions, they reacted with the kind of righteous, mind-altering rage that forms the basic elements of real change.

Black Lives Matter Protests Around the World | Source: © Great Big Story/YouTube

Days of rioting and demonstration turned into weeks, then months, of worldwide protest against systemic racism, anti-Blackness, and police brutality—in France, Germany, South Korea, Israel, Australia, Italy, Hong Kong, Brazil, the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, and Nigeria, just to name a few. Social media served as a fertile breeding ground for rapid coordination and support between Black Lives Matter activists, conscious citizens, the media, and everyone else tuning into the conversation. A global movement born in the midst of a global pandemic brought people out of their homes—figuratively and literally—to make their voices heard.

In all honesty, I didn’t expect it. I expected a few days of anger and national media attention, after which the country would do what it always does when confronted with its original sin: wait. Wait until things settle down, wait until there’s something else to talk about. Wait for the next Black life to be snuffed out for an unconscionable reason. The fact that people listened, that for the first time in my lifetime I felt that people were truly beginning to understand the unfathomable scale of this issue, filled me with a hope that my adoptive country, and the world at large, could finally take the necessary steps towards justice.

I also didn’t expect, in all truth, that Nigeria would experience its own moment of reckoning. My relationship with my birth nation is loving but complicated. Once, when I was a child, I told my mother that I wanted to return to Nigeria one day and work there. She shot me down immediately. When I asked why, she said that the government didn’t let good, smart people get ahead; the only thing that mattered was how much you could pay in bribes and how many you could find to pay off. Corruption is in no way a uniquely Nigerian issue, and like other states where it’s rampant, the people find ways to work around and through it. My people are ingenious and inventive, driven by a culture that holds an extreme, all-consuming regard for achievement and family values. We thrive despite the conditions we find ourselves facing, despite the fact that over 300 ethnic groups were thrown together by the British and left to figure out how to build a state to which no one asked to belong. Despite the fact that, in their stead, we have a government composed of fractured groups of competing elites whose only interest in life is securing more revenue from Big Oil while their poorest face inhumane conditions. The Nigerian work ethic is world-leading when left to its own devices, and the youth of Nigeria in particular are achieving spectacular feats for themselves, their families and their communities. It was never the Nigerian citizenry that made me doubt the country’s future; it was the leaders they are forced to live under.

How the End Sars Movement Could Change Nigeria Forever | Source: © NewAfrica/YouTube

For most of my life, I didn’t see my homeland as a place that could get better. The power to change and self-determine is the birthright of Western powers and those nations that they choose (unilaterally) to give it to; this is the mindset that Americans are indoctrinated into, and that I, to my current surprise and shame, adopted over time. It’s something that I might never have broken out of if it hadn’t been for the End SARS movement and what it means for the future of Nigeria.

The nation’s history informs its current direction. After gaining independence from Britain on October 1, 1960, the newly formed Federal Republic of Nigeria installed Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa as its inaugural Prime Minister. Like any new nation, Nigeria experienced major growing pains, along with rampant factionalism between over 300 competing ethnic groups (the most dominant being the Yoruba, Igbo, and Hausa) threatening the regime—but PM Balewa achieved major victories on the international stage (negotiating the Congo Crisis, helping to create the Organization for African Unity). Then, in January of 1966, PM Balewa was murdered in a military coup and replaced by Major-General Johnson Aguiyi-Ironsi, who was later killed in a counter-coup and replaced by Lieutenant-Colonel Yakubu Gawon in July of the same year.

This is a nation divided on so many levels but unified by common pain.

The ascension of Gawon, a northern Nigerian Muslim (the country is majorly divided between a Muslim north and a Christian south) and the first non-Igbo leader of the country, coincided with brutal anti-Igbo violence during which a minimum estimated 8,000 people died (some estimates as high as 30,000). These events led to the secession of three Igbo-dominant states and directly into the Biafran War, which ended in 1970. The cycle of coups continued until the installation of Lieutenant-General Olusegun Obasanjo in 1976, who spearheaded the creation of a democracy-focused constitution. President Alhaji Shehu Shagari was elected in 1979 and re-elected in 1983, amongst claims of rampant election malpractice (to put it nicely). He was then replaced by Major-General Muhammad Buhari, and the military rule continued anew. In 1993 Ibrahim Babangida attempted to put on an election, but after polling data showed that his opponent would win, the military annulled the process. This led to the ascension of General Sani Abacha, the last of the significant military rulers in Nigerian history.

On November 10, 1995, two years into the reign of Abacha, a young Nigerian activist and writer named Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed following a show trial by the state. His crime was speaking out against the government and Royal Dutch/Shell for their inhumane, brutal exploitation of the Ogoni people and the oil fields they occupied. International outrage followed, and Nigeria was suspended from the Commonwealth of Nations until 1998. Saro-Wiwa’s execution proved to be one of, if not the, last straw, and in 1999, following the death of Abacha, the last military-ran election was held which saw former military commander Obasanjo elected president. A 20+ year streak of “elected” regimes followed, bring us to the current president: former military commander Muhammad Buhari.

Nigerian Civil War | The 1966 Bloody Coup, Biafrans, Political & Tribal Tensions | Source: NEBO TV/YouTube

I’ll stop the lesson there.

This is a history of false starts and false promises. It’s a dark tapestry of a backdrop for the ravishing of natural resources, sectionalist violence, economic instability and It’s a series of disappointments that cast a cloud over hopes for something different. Independence Day marks the end of our nation’s ownership but until that power to govern is used for the service of the people and not their governors, that freedom is being squandered. This is a nation divided on so many levels but unified by common pain, and it is in this pain, in this shared history, that I find my hope for the End SARS creating change for Nigeria.

In the midst of 2020’s global protest momentum, Nigeria was given and fully capitalized on a rare moment of pure defiance. By itself, video of the October killing of the unidentified man over his SUV was just another of the 82 suspected cases of torture, ill treatment, and executions that Amnesty International had recorded since January 2017. On some objective scale—if tragedy can be measured objectively—the sparking event of the movement wasn’t even the worst thing to happen in Nigeria that year: Boko Haram claimed responsibility for the December kidnapping of 200 schoolboys from a boarding school in the northwestern state of Katsina, and long-ongoing violence between herders and farmers continued to worsen. While the activities of the national SARS unit affect Nigerians across all societal fault lines, some regions have higher priority concerns. And yet, despite all else, the transformative power of social media, especially among the country’s young people, turned one among many tragedies into the first of what I hope are many battles.

Witnessing the youth, activists, the downtrodden, the tired, and the poor stand up and take to the streets, to watch so many citizens face so much danger to speak out against wrongdoing, was transformative. A nation that, not unlike our own, faces deep division along cultural, social, and generational lines came together against their oppressive government and the murderous thugs it enables to wreak havoc. The scars of war, of sickness, of gross negligence, and of that oldest, most infected wound of colonial rule, are finally on the path towards sustainable healing. The people of Nigeria took the eye of the world and forced it to look upon their plight, on their strength, on their determination. The world, and myself, saw the beginnings of what I hope to one day call a truly unified nation.

Where We Go

The reawakening of the Black Lives Matter movement added an essential political fault line to a society that sees hyper-division on every major issue. As a decentralized force, Black Lives Matter has no stated political affiliation, but I think it’s fair to say that a small victory for the movement was won when Joseph R. Biden was declared President-Elect in November (and December, and January). Does this change in our nation’s highest office bring us anywhere closer to achieving true racial justice? That’s a matter of debate fit for an entire collection of pieces. What I do know is that it shows, at the baseline level, that enough people in our society reject the racist, xenophobic, backwards vision that propelled us into four years of increased strife. It’s a a very, very small start, but it’s the best we’ve had in years—and I, for one, am relieved to have it as the real work continues on the ground in our communities.

Voices that have been beaten into silence scream the loudest, and the events that transpired over the summer of 2020 marked one of those pivotal moments in our shared journey towards an equitable reality.

22 deaths at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 21st were the height of the Nigerian government’s violent response to the protests, but even more insidious were the account freezings and asset seizures of prominent activists. These are the tactics of a government desperate to keep control, one that knows it can only hold out for so long. The End SARS movement started on the grounds of ending police brutality, but since then has accomplished something far more important: it has developed infrastructure that future movements in the country, and across the continent, can utilize. It’s reminded the Nigerian people of the power they hold, of what can be gained from fighting.

2020 will not be remembered as a good year, but if enough people take enough action and commit to the change that found new life, then it can go down as a highly transformative year. It can go down as a time of global realignment of societal morality. It can be remembered as the year that defied our expectations of where the battlegrounds of justice are and of how much faith we can allow ourselves to have in our eventual inevitable victory. For me, it was the year I learned that people’s capacity to fight for their rights isn’t limited to the first world or to massive, tragic revolutions. It was the year that expanded my belief that Black Lives Matter whether they’re a threatened minority or a disenfranchised populace. My people, our people, all people, share that all-too-human quality of hope and determination. The roads may be long, and we might arrive there at different times, but in this interconnected, rapidly changing world, at least we can walk them together, oceans be damned.

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