it's a two-way street

Dear Nigerian government, you must earn respect not force it

By ‘Tofe Ayeni

Posted on October 23, 2020 17:49

Nigeria Police Protest
A man holds a banner as he demonstrate on the street to protest against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday Oct. 19, 2020. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Nigerian youth all over the country, and in the diaspora, took to the streets to peacefully protest against police brutality from 8 October, in a movement now known as #EndSARS. 

The protesters were reacting to a video that emerged in early October showing police officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) allegedly shooting and killing a young man in Delta State.

Anyone, particularly any young person, or young man, growing up in Nigeria has grown accustomed to a constant underlying fear of SARS. This is not the first time that there have been calls for SARS to be disbanded.

SARS is best known for forcing themselves into cars and instructing citizens to go to an ATM and withdraw large sums of money for them. They particularly target young men driving cars that they think are too nice for them, assuming that these young men do ‘yahoo yahoo’ (fraud). God forbid if that young man also has tattoos or piercings, because to them, people that look like that should not be able to afford iPhones, or laptops, or nice cars.

READ MORE Nigeria: #EndSARS movement avoids pitfalls of ‘leadership’

The problem is that it is 2020 and Nigeria has a young population. The government does not provide work, so people do non-traditional work. Particularly in the tech industry, where they are making good, honest money, and are able to express themselves (through hair, clothing, etc) whatever way they want, since they are not confined by traditional corporate rules.

Infantalisation of the population by the political elite

As of 2019, 43.7% of the Nigerian population was under the age of 14, 53.6% were in the 15-64-year-old bracket, with a mere 2.8% above 65.

However, our current President, Muhammadu Buhari, is 77, and with Nigeria’s culture of  ‘government/public age’ versus real age, we all know to take those numbers with a pinch of salt. The godfathers of our political parties and most of our leaders – traditional, political and religious – are in the minority age bracket of the population. The ‘young’ members of the government, for example, Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, are in their mid-50s.

This has resulted in an infantilisation of the population by the government, made clearer than ever by the administration’s (disrespectfully minimal) responses to the peaceful protests, such as the Governor of Lagos State, Sanwo-Olu who pleaded with ‘parents’ and ‘guardians’ to keep their children off the streets.

Culture of respect

All around the world, public servants are addressed with terms of respect – Mr President, Madam Secretary, Mr Prime Minister, etc. The case is heightened in Nigeria, where we refer to our government officials as ‘Your Excellency’.

When Governor Sanwo-Olu came into power in 2019, he dropped the ‘Your Excellency’ prefix for simply Mr Governor, saying that “if you haven’t earned it, if you haven’t delivered, there is nothing excellent in the Excellency.”

Well, Mr Governor, it is true, you have earned nothing, you have delivered nothing, and there is nothing excellent in your Excellency.

Indeed, there is a tradition of blind respect for elders in the country, however, this does not explain the government’s insistence on referring to the youth as ‘children’.

Politicians (and much of the older generations), feel entitled to respect simply because they are older. They take offence to being questioned about anything, and it is shocking to them that people over thirty years younger than them feel that they have the right to demand accountability.

READ MORE Young Nigerians rise up to demand a different kind of freedom

In Yoruba, a language commonly spoken in the south-west of Nigeria, genders do not exist, but most of how you address or refer to someone depends on their age – for example, there is a word for older sibling, and another for younger sibling, but there is no distinction between sister or brother.

This, in addition to traditions such as prostrating to greet elders, and putting a title in front of the name of everyone older than you, it is clear that respecting age runs deep into our culture.

Why don’t they want us to grow up?

Indeed, there is a tradition of blind respect for elders in the country, however, this does not explain the government’s insistence on referring to the youth as ‘children’. So why does this happen?

I cannot say for sure, but perhaps it is because a large number of the youth still live in their parents’ homes. However, that’s also not their fault.

The government is not our family, they are our employees. We pay them a salary, they have to do their job, and do it to the standard we decide.

The youth unemployment rate (15-24 year olds) is just under 15%, and even for the jobs that do exist, the pay is appalling. It is not possible for many to survive on their salaries, and so they remain heavily dependent on their parents for quite some time.

Furthermore, the youth are considered to be anyone under the age of 50. 

Case-in-point: Popular musician D’Banj, in support of the protests, said: “As a Nigerian youth, I try my best to never give up especially when it seems the hardest, so I urge you to do the same.”

But D’Banj, at 40 years of age, is not youth…

Ubuntu cannot help us

Ubuntu is a concept of common humanity – that you are a person because of other people. Many African communities grow up in this way, the children are children of all the adults, and the parents are parents of all the children. As a result, it is understandable that the older generation is appealing to the government to stop killing their collective children (although it is again important to note that we are not actually speaking about minors).

READ MORE Coronavirus: Can ubuntu philosophy provide a way to face health crises?

However, the fact that our leaders think they are our mums and dads, uncles and aunties, is a problem. It gives them the perceived power to the right to decide what is best for us, and we have to accept it like children do. I say that we say no, and we are doing exactly this.

APTOPIX Nigeria Police Protest © Police officers stop and search a bus carrying passengers around Lekki toll gate in Lagos Friday, Oct. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

The government is not our family, they are our employees. We pay them a salary, they have to do their job, and do it to the standard we decide. They are the ones that need to listen to us. 

Reactions to the perceived disrespect

Rotimi Amaechi, the current Minister of Transportation, spoke to BBC Africa about the protests. He can be seen condescendingly giggling at the situation, while commenting that the youth, “they are having fun.”

The fact that a minister would say this, as though we were primary school children on a playground, as opposed to youth getting gunned down for no reason, is, although shocking, not out of character for many members of our government.

Bola Tinubu, the national head of the APC, posted a twitter thread, in which he patronises the youth, asking if we expect reform by wave of a ‘magic wand’. After mansplaining democracy to us, he tells us to stop, because we should apparently be grateful for the empty words of the administration; words we have heard many times before.

Sanwo-Olu appealed to the protesters to ‘give peace a chance’, completely overlooking the youth who know the protests were peaceful; that is until they were met with fire arms.

Of all the more shocking, though still expected, reactions was the one from President Buhari who, while being briefed on the protests initially by Sanwo-Olu, laughed. 

Again ignoring the grievances of the citizens, following the massacre in Lekki and other parts of Lagos State, Buhari was unreachable for 48 hours by both the governor of Lagos State, and the population whom he refused to address.

READ MORE Lagos burns after army accused of ‘Lekki massacre’

In fact, he spoke to Ghanaian President Akufo-Addo before speaking to his own Nigerian government officials, and it was Afuko-Addo who tweeted at the Nigerian population first.

When Buhari finally sat down to address the population, he simply made no mention of the so-called Lekki Massacre. It is clear that he does not think we are worth his time or effort, it is clear that he does not think these ‘children’ have the right to demand anything from him.

Is it all bad?

It is true that the government does not seem to care about us, and does not care whether we live or die. That’s not to say that everyone in the administration is bad. However, in a country where 60% of the population is under-30, it is certainly all bad that our political class is so much older. A political youth should not be 20 years older than the average youth.

Respect should be earned, from doing your job, not from your age or socio-economic or political status.

Even well-meaning politicians can not possibly empathise with the citizens, and so they should give way to those who can. The #EndSARS protests took off on social media; platforms that many in the government don’t understand.

In fact, by claiming the InstaLive video by DJ Switch that showed in real time the Lekki Massacre was photoshopped, the government proved that they do not at all understand the technology we are using.

Furthermore, Buhari’s ‘live’ nation address was clearly highly edited and not live, a fact not missed by the young and technnologically comfortable population.

Final words

We need to let go of respect culture, at least when it comes to public service. Respect should be earned, from doing your job, not from your age or socio-economic or political status.

And for that reason Governor Sanwo-Olu, until you answer for the crimes committed against the Nigerians under your care in Lagos State, we will continue to refer to you and about you as simply ‘Jide’*.


*First name of the governor void of any titles. 

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.