25 October 2020
As the remarkable #EndSARS protests appear to fizzle out in Nigeria following the despicable shooting of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate on Wednesday night, one of the things that stood out has been the conscious attempt by commentators on mainstream and social media to draw a line between the peaceful protests and the rioting and looting that crept up on the back of the protests, or “hijack” the protests as some in the media have described it.
This has seen most of the mainstream media in Nigeria labeling the rioters and looters as “hoodlums” and “miscreants”. Most Nigerians, taking their cue from the media, have adopted those labels. They are plain wrong.
While rioting and looting can be destructive, context is necessary here. French poet and novelist Victor Hugo argued that: “If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.” The “darkness” of Nigeria that drove many to protest about police brutality also resulted in the majority of Nigerians living in conditions of abject deprivation. It is that deprivation that needs little encouragement to take advantage of situations like #EndSARS. As the South African anti-apartheid activist Joe Slovo put it, “to live in an environment in degeneration is to produce a degraded people.” Rather than point at the rioters, it is more helpful to examine the causes rather than the effects – how government failure made millions of Nigerians live in degeneration.
A “hoodlum” is someone who engages in crime and violence, a hooligan or a gangster. The Nigerian commentariat seems to ignore the fact that such a term is more appropriate for the people in power than the rioters on the streets. Human Rights Watch, in an October 2007 report – Criminal Politics: Violence, Godfathers and Corruption in Nigeria, described politics in Nigeria as a “criminal enterprise”, detailing how politicians use violence, gangs and cults to gain power. https://www.hrw.org/report/2007/10/11/criminal-politics/violence-godfathers-and-corruption-nigeria
These are the real “hoodlums”, whose misrule causes the “darkness” or degeneration that leads many Nigerians to rioting and looting. Fela Kuti called them “Vagabonds in Power”. But the Nigerian media has consistently failed in its duty to tell truth to power and call out the real “hoodlums” by their name.
As the rest of the world watches the drama unfolding in Nigeria, with the likes of Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton, former Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and other stars lending their support to the #EndSARS protests, a Nigerian journalist and former magazine editor based in Toronto, Canada made these pertinent points: ‘The rioting and looting by “hoodlums” and “miscreants” (Naija TV’s favourite words) are how the poor, hungry and uneducated conduct their own protests. While it is politically expedient for the educated middle class protesters to dissociate themselves from the rioting, the fact is that they are part and parcel of the whole. In fact, the rioting and looting is what gives protests teeth, and makes them an effective tool of change.
‘It is the fear of the unruly mob and the damage they can do to property and even lives that make the wealthy business interests and comfortable rich people working with the ruling government seriously consider real change. So while the looting is unfortunate, it makes the protests less toothless, less something the government can safely ignore’.
In the song “Burnin’ and lootin” Bob Marley calls for “burnin’ an illusion tonight”. As many parts of Nigeria burn from looting and vandalism, the time is right to burn that illusion perpetrated by the Nigerian media and other bandwagon jumpers that the rioters and the looters are the “hoodlums”, while ignoring the gangsters in government, whose looting and criminality are at the heart of the crisis in Nigeria.