By Dami ADEBAYO
Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement has been hailed as a new generation’s attempt
to challenge the status quo. Its ability to transform online disaffection by its youthful population towards offline protests and direct action has resulted in it being treated as the most formidable opposition to the Buhariadministration.
While this is not the first movement to have transformed online angst into visible activism on the streets of urban centers (there was #OccupyNigeria in 2012 against the petroleum subsidy), the depth and breadth of people and organizations (such as the Feminist Coalition, Gatefield Media, and Amnesty International, among others) that participated in and backed the protests is unrivalled. #EndSARS has mobilized
the middle class—a group notably
indifferent to Nigeria’s political elites’ machinations or, at worst, active collaborators with them.
Discussions on where #EndSARS
could and should go have excited political commentators, members of
the movement, and the general public especially after the end of most
protests across the country.
An interesting suggestion that has
gained ground is for the movement
to carry out mass education programs to the working class and the urban poor, ostensibly to inform these groups of the repressive nature of the political elite. The reasoning behind this approach is insinuations that these groups are the Achilles heel of efforts to challenge the elite.
The belief that members of the working class, urban, and rural poor elect members of the political elite solely because they have been able to mobilize them either on ethnic terms or by financially inducing them has allowed this idea to gain currency. Since the nation’s return to democracy in 1999, the middle class has collectively stepped away from the electoral space.
This is evident in its inability to create a party platform that can attract the working classes. The working and urban
poor, on the other hand, are more likely to vote, be party members, participate in the democratic process, and to protest injustices that impact them disproportionately.
The purported renaissance of Nigeria’s middle class post-1999 was expected to entrench democratic norms and ideals. The proliferation of local civic society organizations to tackle endemic issues, such as corruption (Budgit, NEITI), the electoral system (YIAGA) and bad governance (EIE), seemed to emphasize
the emergent possibilities of citizen
action toward creating a more representative governance system.
In reality, Nigeria’s middle class
are unwilling to act, despite bearing a significant brunt of the political class’s governance programs that have ensured their decimation and impoverishment—such as those that have reduced public sector spending, results of which are
clearly apparent in the nation’s poor
healthcare system and substandard
educational facilities; others that
have sought to perpetuate corrupti
on, such as the security vote system
that sees state governors spending
public funds that are not subject to
legislative oversight or independent audit. The regressive agenda
of gender inequality goes beyond
mere utterances (the current Nigerian President once stated that his
wife belongs in the kitchen and the
bedroom in a meeting with German
Chancellor Angela Merkel). Nigerian
women suffer some of the highest
maternal mortality rates, with legal
structures still restricting their basic
rights and only four percent of elected officials are women.
Yet, the middle class has imbibed the belief that less government is better and has set out to interact and participate with governance in a “limited capacity.”
Those that participate appear content to serve as technocrats to provide intellectual backing and lend professional gravitas to the repressive policies pursued by the state. The middle class has championed the status quo by preaching the gospel of economic development in spite of the government by highlighting the various
problems that the country faces.
They erroneously promote the belief that the country’s economic
stakeholders have earned their positions as a result of their business
savvy or prowess. Their determination to view the country’s dire economy through rose-colored spectacles
and dismiss the structural realities
of the Nigerian state—where a clear
majority of economic activities fo
cuses on seeking to profit from government dysfunction are upheld.
Quite often they go as far as highlighting the various handicaps, but position them as business opportunities that can be solved by foreign direct investment, limiting the role of the government to create an “enabling environment.”
The refusal of the middle class to
tackle the regressive agendas of the
ruling elite has led to the latter being
let off the hook: The middle class is
instead viewed as the tool that functions in the subjugation of the working class. In fact, they are the visible representation of a country that
is designed to work for a few at the
expense of many. The historian David Motadel rightly notes the activities of American and European middle classes, which have actively championed conservative nationalism and authoritarian leadership
over centuries—in essence, positing
that middle classes in Africa are also
disinclined to push for democratic
Yet, in Nigeria, middle class activist history is a little more complicated. While the nationalist movements resulted in power being handed over to a political elite, the actual struggle comprised of various groups, especially those formed and manned by middle class members who utilized western social and political ideals in the fight for independence. Coleman’s study of Nigerian nationalism notes that middle class individuals, such as Herbert Macau
lay, an engineer and journalist, and
Ernest Ikoli, also a journalist, founded and led political organizations
and movements while training and
mobilizing countrymen around the
values of nationalism. Funmilayo
Ransome-Kuti’s Abeokuta’s Ladies
Club (later the Abeokuta’s Women
Union) took on the Native Authority
System administering British indirect rule. During the struggle for democracy this professional class built linkages with organized labor and provided intellectual support for the movement. Individually and collectively, through groups such as the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Nigeria Bar Association, the middle class worked to reform the electoral process, reformbinstitutions of governance, and build networks to protect these reforms.
Some might argue that we owe our
fraught but enduring democracy to this iteration of the middle class.
It is clearly in the interests of the middle class to rid the country of a political elite that has shown that it is not only anti-intellectual, but also willing to cannibalize the cosmopolitan culture and entrepreneurial economy that the middle class holds dear.
– Adebayo holds an undergraduate degree in International Relations
from the University of Leeds and a
master’s in Political Communicati