Talking down on speaking up
Beyond the social media firestorm over journalist Trish Lorenz’s book about #EndSARS, it is worth engaging in the debate about wider representation in movement building and protest.
I had just left Lagos after an October 1, 2020 protest against the closing of democratic space and clampdown on activists when the #EndSARS protests started. I returned to Ife, but protests had not kicked off, so I went to the capital city of Osun State, Osogbo, to join the #EndSARS protests there.
The protests I joined at Osogbo had already been attacked by state thugs, while the attacks were partly “supervised” by the police. Those who came out that day came to converge for the protests with a mind prepared for attacks. I remember running ahead of protesters with chants of “Sòròsókè,” to which they responded “#EndSARS.” The air of solidarity was electrifying. After I had concluded my round of leading the chants, a young lady offered me water in appreciation of my efforts. Even though the streets were empty, as most citizens anticipated an attack by the state thugs or the police, we were chanting and jogging, and the energy felt like a funny mixture of passion and fear.
Now, this is a single story. Just like one of the stories in Sòròsókè: The Young Disruptors of an African Megacity. The first I heard about this book on social media were allegations of cultural appropriation by the author, Trish Lorenz. Some alleged that the author claimed that she coined the Sòròsókè slogan, but upon reading, I believe this is a misunderstanding. She actually claimed to have named this young generation of Nigerians the Sòròsókè generation. Nonetheless, it was this debate that got me curious about the book.
Despite reading many interesting quotes from the young people interviewed by the author, the quote that stuck with me from this book was by the late Chinua Achebe:
There is that great proverb—that until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter. [Storytelling] is something we have to do, so that the story of the hunt will also reflect the agony, the travail, the bravery, even, of the lions.
It is hard to turn a blind eye to the effort made by Lorenz to ensure that the book amplifies the voices of those involved in the protests and movement. Yet the effort wasn’t anywhere near enough. A more movement-focused narrative might have considered the wider population of youth in Lagos and Abuja, in the whole of Nigeria and Africa, who are too broken to dream or aspire—youth who are under threat of being picked up at any time by police, of being tortured and brutalitalized, and who don’t know if there will be atomorrow to dream of. Some of these youth protested at Lekki (a middle-class area), but most staged protests at Alausa, Ikeja (the seat of the state government) in Lagos, where they repelled state thugs. They were the majority of the protesters whipped by soldiers at Nyanya bridge in Abuja, and attacked by thugs in DSS Jeeps that shuffled around Abuja. They were the ones protesting in Ibadan, in Osogbo, in Ile-Ife, in Port Harcourt, in Awka. They were the majority.
Granted, it is impossible to interview everybody, but there is a problem of representation when all of those interviewed are “respectable” voices in a protest that was not respectable. #EndSARS brought pain and brought some pleasure: It took extra effort by some of us in Osogbo to stop other protestors from hijacking a bullion van at Olaiya Junction; attacks by state thugs, who manage the transport unions, left some protestors dead, and others injured; people drank and smoked weed on protest grounds, and that did not take anything away from their demands to end police brutality; the state governor’s jeep was hit by an ax after state thugs traveling with him tried to attack protesters in Osogbo; and an elderly person was almost chased away from the protest ground in Ibadan, until he showed the young protesters how he had been an activist from a very young age.
#EndSARS had a few young entrepreneurs involved, but it had a lot of internet fraudsters (Yahoo boys) and many of my peers who survived around the internet fraud value chain, as “pickers,” as crypto traders, as voice con artists. #EndSARS had some artists and lots of unskilled youth who survive doing menial jobs. #EndSARS had some feminists and also young people who came out for social reasons—meeting new friends after the boredom of staying away from school for months, due to the lecturers’ strike at universities and colleges and COVID 19. #EndSARS saw LGBTQ+ placards raised, but also the mockery of LGBTQ+ people on Twitter. #EndSARS made history in fundraising, but also its fair share of accusations of financial misappropriations. #EndSARS had young politicians campaigning for youth to be in power and for organizing a Youth Party, yet the same protests popularized the #NoLeaders slogan.
#EndSARS saw youth caring about the welfare of the middle-class youth. Young men and women defended one another. The Igbo youth united with the Yoruba youth. Young protesters came out in the North and a bloody clash went down between #EndSARS protesters and pro-SARS protesters in Kano—the #EndSARS protesters in Kano were that brave. The Christians guarded the Muslims while they prayed and some Muslim youth joined the Christians while they prayed. I personally raised a placard for the jailed humanist, Mubarak Bala, in a very religious country. I was not challenged by one person to drop the campaign.
It is impossible to make informed progressive decisions if we do not have an honest account of events. Bringing together single stories from the minority, “respectable” side of the Sòròsókè generation is neither balanced nor open-minded. I’d love to hear about the harsh realities of those Yahoo boys, those motor park boys, those sex workers, those cultists, who have been the major target of police brutality and who could have had the means to make better choices for themselves if not for bad governance and a corrupt capitalist system.
My criticisms of Lorenz’s book do not remove the fact that it is a move away from those works that focus only on the “trashy” side of Africa. But then, Africa does not want to be patronized. Africa wants the truth. Both harsh and sweet lies can be dangerous in their own ways.
Every attempt to tone down the intensity of realities expressed during the #EndSARS movement is an attempt to talk down to our generation’s first experience of speaking up and finding our voices. The natural beauty of the Sòròsókè generation is in our rough edges, so there is no need to tone it down.