To discuss the fall-out of the recent #EndSARS protests which gripped the attention of the world, the Editor hit up writer and activist, Ani Kayode Somtochukwu for a brief chat.
Kanyinsola: By now, the coverage about #EndSARS has heavily discussed the motives and the over-arching themes that influenced the movement. But I would like to bring it down from the general to the personal. What does the #EndSARS movement mean to you as a person and as an activist?
Kayode: The EndSARS movement to me is a revolt against the current system of police violence and oppression that exists in Nigeria. It is a rejection of the SARS unit that has brutalized Nigerians, young people especially, for decades. But it is also a rejection of the brutal colonial institution of policing that is maintained here and the violence that achieves. Especially violence against queer people who are targeted for their sexuality, especially those who have non-conforming gender expressions.
Kanyinsola: I like that you mention that it especially affect queer people because I was just going there. There was a lot of talk about queer people being silenced during the #EndSARS protests. Or at least, homophobes attempting to silence them. What do you think that says first of all about Nigerian youths and also generally about the concept of liberation when many identities are involved?
Kayode: I think it really speaks to the lack of cross-cutting solidarity among young people in Nigeria. The reach of homophobia remains very strong and prominent, especially since the majority outlets for reinforcing them, the government and the religious institutions, continue to promote them voraciously. And so you have a system where young people can’t even show solidarity with queer people when we’re protesting against the same enemy.
And in the general context, this atomization is politically harmful to us for the same reason it is very useful to the capitalist ruling class. It divides us, making sure that we continue to lack the kind of unity that can sustain a liberation movement and propel it to victory. Even in these protests when it appeared as though we were united across religions and ethnic groups, homophobia still managed to cause division. There is no doubt in my mind that if the protests were openly supportive and protective of its queer members, many more queer people would have showed up to protest.
Kanyinsola: You linked the current problem of police brutality to colonial-era sate violence. How do you suppose such generational issue spanning roughly a century can be tackled? And do you believe in the power, or willingness, of this administration to tackle it?
Kayode: I think the only solution that can work at this point is abolition. And I say that because the problem is not the police officers themselves but the NPF as an institution. One very horrible thing about colonization is that we don’t remember how things were before. All of that have just been erased. There is no reason why we cannot approach “crime” through restorative justice, through providing our communities with resources, through community centered care and safety enforcement that is accountable directly to the community and works with them.
At the same time, I have no confidence that the current administration can or will do that. The Master’s tools have never dismantled the Master’s house. Over the years, they’ve made a show, our ruling class, of inaugurating community policing but obviously none of this has any substance. And more to the point, abolition will greatly challenge their power to oppress because the police is a very major tool of their oppression. Also, the politics of abolition will necessitate a holistic system of care that strikes at their ability to amass and hoard wealth.
So the solution isn’t something this administration will put in place for us. Instead to get that solution and through that foster a system of care, love and justice, it would be necessary to remove the class that currently holds state power.
Kanyinsola: Interesting. But all of this would need to be done, practically speaking, by a body vested with some form of power, even if we were to decolonize state power dynamics. Do you believe in a youth coalition to fight these problems? And if so, how do we ensure it is not another replica of the capitalist, neo-colonialist, homophobic and misogynistic status quo is society?
Kayode: I don’t believe in a youth anything.
Kayode: Youth is not an ideology and the capitalist ruling class has people of every demographic to represent their interests. Even a lot of discussion going on now is very centered around reproducing and strengthening this violent system. People are saying that more police should be hired and that police salaries should be increased and that police should be given more equipment to do their that (aka police cars, guns, riot gear, etc). Even within the middle class, the impulse is to protect the system and try to get a seat at the table when it ships be breaking the table to pieces, burning down the room and then focusing on another model that will be fit to purpose.
So for what I believe, I believe people who align their political messaging around being youths are very politically unprepared to even handle that transition. We have seen the power that we have and how much fear this power strikes in the hearts of our leaders so that they resort to extreme violence to quash our movement. And so as we are going forward, we have to be careful about our values, making sure it’s centered around the marginalized, the poor and dispossessed, those begging on the streets, the so called thugs and agberos, only a coalition who centers the most marginalized can develop a useful program capable of creating a solution that won’t end up being a knock off of the same capitalist, neo-colonialist, homophobic and misogynistic status quo.
Yesterday, I was reading the charter for liberation released by the Coalition for Revolution and I think that’s a very good example of how a political program can reach out to everyone and truly stand opposed to this system. It’s not a youth platform but it proposed young people having a say in the development of their curricula and being able to democratically unionize without outside interference, it included a program for releasing all those that have been falsely or unduly imprisoned and creating a humane prison system focused on restorative justice, with the goal being abolition. It had stuff on environmental justice for people of the Niger Delta, reproductive healthcare, free healthcare at point of use, etc. So that kind of holistic program that really digs deep and strives to empower the dispossessed, that is how we ensure we get something different.
Kanyinsola: The Lekki Massacre, coupled with President Buhari’s speech afterwards, led to the suspension of the streets protests. Some see the move to leave the streets as a big blow to the momentum of the campaign. Do you think we could have done anything differently or responded in a different way that would have averted the eventual decision to flee the streets? Was there a strategic misstep? Or is this best thing we could have done?
Kayode: Yes. I definitely think we could have done better especially before the massacre. I think the government was able to exploit poverty so effectively because the movement did not go out of its way to reach out to the poor. I know I was seeing pictures like “I’m a techie, not an agbero” and things like that and that was very emblematic of the middle class thinking they could just ride their momentum to victory. I’m not saying this would have prevented the massacre but it would have definitely made the movement more resilient.
I also think the way the protests tapered off following that violence was much expected because we didn’t really have any plan in the event that that happened which is on itself another misstep because we know our government. This is the type of thing they do on the regular. Odi, Zaki Biam, the killing of Shiite protesters, none of this is new. But I don’t think the middle class ever thought that something like that could happen in a place like Lekki.
But at the same time, I think this stall gives us time to think, to plan, to restrategize, and to test how useful, the proposed reforms of the government are before reorganizing to continue to fight.
Kanyinsola: Thank you very much for that. A lot of people seem rather reluctant to entertain such admission. But I think it is important to discuss the remote possibility that we could have been better. Do you think we should have had leaders? That is an ongoing debate. Some say a system of leadership would have done the movement some good and established focus. But I also remember reading an interview with BLM cofounder, Alicia Garza, in which she said an MLK-style leadership is outdate for current times and that decentralization is important. What is your take on that?
Kayode: I don’t know where I stand to be honest. I understand the pros and cons. On one hand, we need quite bit of centralization and coordination through which to debate and then present out demands through a united front. But on the other hand, the protests lasted two weeks and there wasn’t any time to test and have that discussion of someone who we chose not only trust to not seek out, but could also trust to have the right ideas.
If we had a leader, we might have ended this protest after that first time the IGP announced that SARS had been disbanded but then because we didn’t, our protests weren’t properly planned and coordinated along certain political pressure points. So I do believe in leadership and it’s necessity in revolutionary movements but I don’t know that that would have either worked out well here, given the context.
Kanyinsola: But the cynicism aside, what significance does the campaign hold for you in hindsight? I say this considering efforts were “led” by an all-woman Feminist Coalition, the youth spoke up with disregard for authority and queer protesters like Matthew Blaise and yourself came out with pro-LGBT placards.
Kayode: [heavy sigh] I think one of the biggest significances of this protest is that it kind of unraveled a lot of myths that Nigerians believe, and a consequence of such myths is that Nigerians live in a kind of fatalism where they look at their social problems as inescapable. The protests showed how powerful we could be if we come together and that it is not an idealistic notion like we had thought. People from almost every sector — including LGBT people who were not even welcome — came out to lend their voices against the common enemy. It also laid down the framework of what queer resistance could mean for queer Nigerians going forward. The last protest I went to before the massacre happened, I received a lot of threats from people saying they would hand me over to the police or give me to thugs to beat . They did so to protesters all over the country including Lagos and Abuja. For instance, in Abuja they attacked Amara’s group…they tore their placards. Even with all of these, queer people refused to leave the protests. The problem remains queer people are bring targeted by police violence specifically for our queerness. This created a model of courageous resistance in public spaces. I am not sure something of this scale has ever happened before in this country.
About the Feminist Coalition, I have some criticisms about the de-facto leadership. But the women of that organization handled these things so transparently and efficiently. All the donations they received, they accounted for everything. I cannot state enough how impressed I was by the transparency. I believe all of this speaks to the significance of our organizing power here in Nigeria. That organizing power is very necessary if we are ever to break the hold of the oppressive class. It is something we should look back at with some sort of pride.