Why & Wired: The past is not past

by Tolu Ogunlesi

A year ago today (March 16, 2010), a group of young Nigerians marched to the National Assembly in Abuja, to deliver one message to our ‘lawmakers’: “Enough Is Enough.” It’s interesting to look back and wonder how much things have changed – or haven’t – since then. The Enough-is-Enough message demanded “urgent intervention” in four “critical areas”:

  1. The insecurity in Jos
  2. Electricity
  3. “The invisible presidency of Umaru Yar’Adua”
  4. Electoral reform

One year on, the only area in which any radical change has happened is No. 3. The invisible presidency has fallen. Or has it? Can we honestly say that the replacement for the invisible presidency of Umar Yar’Adua has proved to be significantly more visible, in terms of its impact on our lives?

Admittedly, some electoral reform has taken place – a new Electoral Act passed by the National Assembly, and signed into law by President Jonathan in August 2010; and we have a brand new voters register – but we will have to wait until the elections next month to put these hints of reform to the test.

In terms of national mood, we also ought to acknowledge some change. From not knowing where our president was, or what exactly he was up to, we have moved on to stand on the threshold of presidential elections that, as The Economist recently put it, “may be the most unpredictable since military rule ended in 1999.”

For the first time in 12 years, the Presidency seems truly up for grabs. The hitherto unquestioned dominance of the Peoples Democratic Party, may indeed be about to come to an end.

One thing we cannot afford to do, is forget. “The past is never dead. It’s not even past, American novelist William Faulkner has told us. It is no more permissible to forget the dark days of Sani Abacha than it is to forget the disabling mist of uncertainty that hung over the land just a year ago. All those months we were the world’s fool; one of Africa’s largest and most important countries hurtling leader-less into perdition. Failed states don’t announce themselves more insistently than that, do they?

But no, while Nigeria has all the attributes of a failed state, with rankings (The Failed State Index) to boot; it is not yet a failed state. And April provides yet another opportunity to pull the country back from the precipice – where, let’s admit it, it loves to dance to its own anarchic music.

It is in the spirit of not forgetting that I therefore share the article I wrote (originally for Hi Magazine), about the Abuja rally:

March 16, 2010: The day young Nigerians said ‘ENOUGH IS ENOUGH’

By Tolu Ogunlesi

I have a feeling that we were represented on every early morning flight that made its way from Lagos into Abuja on that Tuesday. On the flight I took there were four of us – three already clad in our ‘uniform’ of white T-shirts and blue jeans. I don’t know if anyone noticed us, but I clearly recall imagining the possibility of an intelligent security network putting two and two together and swooping into action with ruthless efficiency.

Seconds after disembarking, our gang of four took a photo on the tarmac of the Nnamdi Azikiwe International Airport, our plane in the background. The image went online immediately – twitter and Facebook, evidence that the approaching revolution was certain to be ‘televised’. We were in extremely high spirits, cracking jokes and laughing, an attitude that belied the utmost seriousness of what we had come all the way from Lagos to do – to make known, in no uncertain terms, our displeasure with the sort of government that ran the affairs of our country.

The T-shirts we would soon change into bore the message, boiled down to a loaded phrase: Finally young Nigerians get angry. Finally. Young. Nigerians. Get. Angry. Five words that joined hands to bear the frustration of a generation tired of hearing their forebears speak of Nigeria’s “good ol’ days.”

By the end of that day we would be on CNN. The next day we would be in almost every major Nigerian newspaper – two would honour us with their cover pages. But making the NEWS was not our only goal; making NOISE was also very crucial.

Not the kind of noise that characterizes much of the daily lives of Nigerians, that disabling din of an okada chorus or I-pass-my-neighbour generator; or the high-pitched static – designed to be as incomprehensible as possible – that emanates from the corridors of power. No. Our noise was meant to be a different one, balancing rhyme and reason, and deriving a good part of its potency from its unusualness. A noise born of frustration but not defined by it. A noise packaged and labeled and delivered by responsible youth to politicians who were letting us down in grievous ways.

But of course we overestimated the enthusiasm – and concern – of those ‘Big Men’, whose lives are defined, not by what they do (which is nothing) but by what they earn for doing nothing. Four hours – of waiting for them to let us into the premises of the National Assembly, so we could present our ‘noise’ to them – were not sufficient to convince them that we were serious.

They were too busy (with what they have always been busy with) to have time for us. We sang, danced, sat, ranted, made speeches, endured speeches, while we waited for them. But not only did they not show up, they gave their security men a blank cheque of sorts to keep us in check.

When we assembled at the Eagle Square in Abuja that morning (the same Eagle Square where some of the most momentous decisions regarding the fate of Nigeria have been made over the last decade) one joke that soon established itself in our midst was that it seemed this might be one protest in which there’d be more policemen than protesters. Scores of policemen had gathered, like us, and because of us; a clear hint of the seriousness with which the powers-that-be were taking our efforts.

We had of course informed them that we were coming (which they would later deny, despite the evidence we had to the contrary). We had written letters to the National Assembly, to the Inspector-General of Police, requesting for police presence. We wanted them to know that we were not disgruntled youth, not miscreants, not touts. We were not persons looking for what to do with our time – we were responsible young Nigerians who had taken time from work and school and business – to take the first step in reclaiming the soul of our country. Because of all these we were therefore not interested in violence. We knew how the law worked, and we were not going to disregard it in any way.

Let’s admit that there was a certain perverse feeling of pride to be derived from seeing the masses of police officers who had (been) assembled because of us. There were also at least two State Security Service officials who had infiltrated our crowd – one, whom I saw, stuck out like a sorry thumb; a ‘FINALLY YOUNG NIGERIANS GET ANGRY’ T-shirt sitting incongruously atop the babariga that clothed his lean frame.

At the National Assembly the police formed a forty-person strong cordon at the first security post, a few hundred meters away from the complex’s main gate. The message was clear – we could sing and dance and rave all we wanted, but it had to be for our own viewing pleasure. A protest by the young for the young. We were not exactly welcome to bring any grievances to the Very Important People who made the Very Important Laws in the Very Important Chambers of the Assembly.

All of a sudden we broke through the security wall. Don’t ask me how it happened. It simply did. One minute we were all standing there, in front of a wall of unsmiling police officers, the next minute there wasn’t any wall anymore; only a swarm of youth outpacing a band of confused security personnel who were threatening bullet and brimstone and retreating to regroup and seek reinforcements.

That action was the high point of the day. There we were, seeing with our eyes the infinite possibilities of that ‘Young People Power’ of which many of us had only ever dreamed. The two newspapers that put us on their covers used images from that iconic moment when ‘the wall came down.’

We went on to march to the main gate of the Assembly, where, this time, at least three lines of battle-ready police officers were waiting for us, in front of the now-locked gates of the Assembly.

We knew they would go to any lengths to prevent a second humiliation. They looked like they were eager to have us give them a reason to cork their guns and uncork their tear gas canisters. But we were smarter than that. We knew what they wanted, but would not give it to them. We had made our point, for that day, for that hour, for that moment in history. We were determined to return, in the near future, armed with even more passion.

This revolution has only just started; we are too far gone to make a U-turn. We realize that Freedom is earned, hardly ever given. We promise that our footsteps will echo again and again in the corridors of power. We ask you to keep watching those spaces. We insist that the struggle continues…

So help us God. Amen.


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