Democracy and Grassroots Activism in Nigeria

by | May 11, 2021 | Engagement and outreach, Equality and Diversity, History, Teaching and Learning | 0 comments

Written by The Nigerian Society, Gerardo Serra, and Steven Pierce

Nigeria is a country with a rich and multi-faceted history stretching long before colonial times, during which kingdoms and city-states thrived. During colonial rule, the Northern and Southern Protectorates were amalgamated in 1914 to form the country as we know it nowadays. Nigeria became independent from Great Britain in 1960 and had several years of military rule before establishing the current federal republic. In this format, citizens formally elect their representatives by popular vote. This system was designed to guarantee the rule of democracy and protect the rights of all citizens.

But is Nigeria really democratic? During the last presidential election for instance, won in 2019 by the current President Muhammadu Buhari, voter fraud and theft of ballot papers were alleged. These types of accusations towards both state and federal elections were not new tore the Nigerian people. In fact, it has become unsurprising for the people to know that the democratic process in Nigeria is deeply flawed, as more people show distrust of the political elite and the government. Even though allegedly the President won the 2019 election 55.6% of the vote, out of the 82,344,107 who registered to vote, only 34.75% actually cast their vote.

Voter apathy has been the main feature of the political life of young Nigerians. People often fear for their lives because of the real threats that are often faced during political campaigns. Numerous innocent lives are lost during the elections and that makes people stay away from participating. This is indeed a great problem. In a country where there is the need to vote for leaders who are credible and trustworthy, having low turnouts makes it much more difficult.

Instead, the President has publicly labelled the current Nigerian youth as lazy. In the meantime, the unemployment rate in the country rose to 33.3% in the fourth quarter of 2020. The lack of job creation has affected the youth majorly. Although many are highly educated, their educational efforts are not rewarded with employment, leading to large-scale emigration.

More recently, the international press was riveted by waves of protest, activism, and mass action that swept Nigeria in October 2020. Picking up on international protests against police violence, activists aimed to abolish the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which had a long history of wholescale violence against ordinary Nigerians. Founded in response to the genuine threat of armed robbery, the squad represented for Nigerian men and women hassle, harassment, rape and murder. The endSARS movement has shone a light on the lack of accountability in governance by President Buhari’s administration. As people have protested to ask for their basic human rights and stop police brutality, the government has continued to falsify the truth and avoided having a real discussion with its people. Both the protests and the grievances they addressed reinforced narratives of Nigeria as predatory, corrupt, violent, and chaotic. At the same time, some coverage suggested EndSARS was the embodiment of a ‘rising Africa’ that, by the sheer force of its demographic composition, can put ‘the youth’ in the condition to bring positive change, and successfully attain democracy and increased accountability. As time has demonstrated, both characterisations are too simple. And yet, this moment of activism in Nigeria, and the country’s ties to a deeply engaged, technologically savvy diaspora, offers new possibilities for hope and for engaged reflection.

This event was held on April 22, co-organised by the Nigerian Students Society and the School of Arts, Languages and Cultures of the University of Manchester. It sought to provide an opportunity for discussion and networking among Nigerians and other interested people in Nigeria, the University of Manchester student body, the Manchester community, and other interested people around the world. It consisted of three Zoom events, taking place on 22 April at 6pm (UK time).

These included:

  1. A video, consisting of edited version of footage gathered from twitter, and from individuals who took part in the October 2020 protests in different parts of Nigeria. This exercise in assemblage reiterates our commitment to focus on marginalized and unheard voices, and to bring a plurality of perspectives and viewpoints on the current Nigerian situation, its genealogies, and its future.
  2. A panel discussion with three Nigeria-based speakers who offered insightful, complementary perspectives on youth, activism, protest and grassroot democracy, followed by questions from the audience. The speakers were:
    1. Prof Olutayo Adesina: Professor of History at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria’s oldest and most prestigious university; Fellow of the Nigerian Academy of Arts and Letters, Adesina is one of Nigeria’s most distinguished historians. He has published extensively on a wide range of topics, spanning from the economic history of agriculture to football and security. He has been a recipient of several distinguished visiting Fellowship Awards, including the Salzburg Seminar Fellowship, Austria; Atlantic History Seminar, Charles Warren Center, Harvard University; the African Visiting Fellow, Rhodes Chair of Race Relations, St. Antony’s College, Oxford University, U.K.; and, Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India. In October 2019, Prof. Adesina was the Distinguished Visiting Guest Lecturer at the Centre for African Studies, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai, China. Prof Adesina placed the current protest movement in its historical context.
    2. Kyra Ame Idubor: After working for many years as a nurse with psychiatric patients, Kyra Ame Idubor set up the charity ‘Bright Chapters – Creating Mental Health Awareness’. Through this charity, Idubor has organised in Nigeria a series of workshops in Nigeria for mental health awareness, and created a platform where the construction of a more democratic society starts from the inclusion and promotion of diversity and mental health awareness. Idubor recounted her experience with Bright Chapters, and reflect on the opportunities and constraints of ‘mental health activism’.
    3. Anthony Osunde: Following a PhD in Chemical Engineering from Imperial College London, Osunde returned to Nigeria to become Heads Sales for a German Multinational Engineering company. In this capacity, he has spent the last 8 years nurturing young engineers in West Africa. Osunde is also the leader of the Music group ARB. He is a keen poet and songwriter and is a 2002 recipient of Poetry.com’s International Poetry award. Endowed with this unique set of skills and experiences– combined with a strong passion for democracy and political change –, Anthony shared his vision for a truly democratic Nigeria, and the role played by music in articulating and defining this alternative.
  3. Live music by Anthony Osunde and his band from a studio in Lagos. Their performance will be streamed on Zoom. In recent Nigerian history, music, political commentary and protest are closely intertwined. From Fela Kuti to Falz, singers have the most sincere critics of the existing social order, and the most imaginative proponents of its alternatives. In this tradition, Anthony Osunde’s work champions a democratic transformation of Nigerian society.

The event was simulcast as a Zoom webinar (35 participants) and on YouTube Live (187 streaming viewers; available to watch here). It received views from across the UK and Nigeria, including SALC students, students and staff from across the university, members of the local community, and many individuals based in Nigeria.


Project duration: 22 April 2021 – Continuing on YouTube

Project leads: Dr Steven Pierce (Dept. of History, UoM), Dr Gerardo Serra (Dept. of History, UoM)), The Nigerian Society

External Partner: Bright Chapters (mental health NGO)

Audiences involved: students, staff, (local) community members

Audience feedback:

“The event was so good… My family was talking about it non-stop last night!”

Funding sources: SALC Social Responsibility Award & SALC Teaching and Learning funds

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