Young Nigerian Protesters Could Transform Struggling Nation Or Split It In Two

The young Nigerians who were protesting at Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos on Tuesday night were not the African touring company of Les Misérables.

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The young Nigerians who were protesting at Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos on Tuesday night were not the African touring company of Les Misérables. Lekki is one of the wealthiest suburbs of Lagos, and most of the protesters were literate, media-savvy youths who reeked of urban cool. The army killed them anyway.

“They removed the cameras 2 hours before, turned off the street light and the LED billboard and deployed soldiers to open fire at the crowd singing the national anthem,” IZZY@theleventh tweeted. “Over 78 people are dead. The Nigerian army then began to put the dead bodies in their trucks.”

The numbers may be exaggerated, but Channels Television has video showing men in Nigerian army uniform walking up to the barricade and firing into an angry but non-violent crowd.

The protests, mostly in southern Nigeria, were initially targeted on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Almost all Nigerian police forces are corrupt and brutal, but SARS specialized in robbing, torturing and sometimes murdering prosperous and trendy young people.

If you were young, had dyed hair or tattoos, and were in an expensive car, you were likely to have an unpleasant encounter with SARS. The protests began two weeks ago after pictures allegedly showing a man being beaten to death by SARS circulated on social media.

Muhammadu Buhari, a military dictator 35 years ago and now back at 77 as Nigeria’s elected president, recognized the danger and acted fast. Within two days he abolished SARS, promising to replace it with a kinder, gentler force, but the protesters have heard that story before, and besides they already moved on to broader targets.

The state claims that the protests were infiltrated by criminals, and in some places that is true, but that’s not why the ruling political class is panicking. It’s because those in power fear a youth revolt that could not only transform the country, but split it in half.

Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation, with about 200 million people, is really two countries. The southern, mostly Christian half, with all the oil and ports and most of the industry, is about 95 per cent literate. Only one of the 19 northern, mostly Muslim states is over 50 per cent literate. Only 27 per cent of southerners live below the poverty line, while 72 per cent of northerners do.

Yet it is young southerners who are on the brink of revolt because it is the political domination of the north that keeps the ruling kleptocracy in power.

Muslim northerners have dominated the army’s officer corps since colonial times, so northern dictators and presidents have ruled Nigeria for 38 of the 60 years since independence. Moreover, the traditional rulers and religious authorities of the north control big banks of voters that can be sold to the highest bidder — often a southerner.

Southern kleptocrats buy votes because it lets them go on stealing: one-third of Nigeria’s oil revenues over the past 50 years ends in foreign bank accounts.

The young men and women in the streets of Lagos may not realize that their rebellion could endanger this system, but those who benefit from it certainly do, which is why their response is so extreme.

What happens next matters a lot, because 25 years from now Nigeria will surpass the United States in population and become the third biggest country in the world. It would be nice if by then it was a stable, well-educated democracy where prosperity extended beyond the south.

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