By Henry Srebrnik, [Charlottetown, PEI] Guardian
We live in a globalized world, and this is especially true if you are an academic. At UPEI, international students make up a very significant part of the student body. They bring different points of view and knowledge to the classroom.
I’m always glad that they make up a large part of my classes. But their problems are often those taking place back in their home countries.
Many Canadians are unaware of the recent spate of protests in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria, revolving around police brutality.
Nigeria is home to more than 300 ethnic groups, including three dominant ones: the Igbo in the south-east, the Yoruba in the south-west, and the Hausa in the north. Northerners have ruled the country for 38 out of the last 60 years, mostly via military coups. The Igbo tried, but failed, to secede from the country in a brutal war that lasted from 1967 to 1970.
Conversations usually revolve around which ethnic group gets what, when, and how. Or how fairly a person from one group was treated compared to one from another. It’s called “getting our piece of the national cake.”
Large protests in the country began in early October, with mostly young people demanding the scrapping of a notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). As the #EndSARS hashtag went viral, the demonstrations grew in size, demanding broader reforms in the way Nigeria is governed.
In an attempt to quell the unrest, the SARS unit was dissolved on Oct. 11, but the protests escalated after shootings in the nation’s biggest city, Lagos, on Oct. 20, when according to the rights group Amnesty International, security forces killed at least 12 people.
Lagos and other parts of the country saw buildings torched, shopping centres looted and prisons attacked.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari called for an end to the protests in a televised speech, urging protesters to stop demonstrating and instead engage with the government "in finding solutions.” He admitted that almost 70 people had been killed in the protests against police brutality.
Officials introduced a curfew in Lagos state, and the governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, published a list of 23 police officers who were charged with various offences. He indicated he had published the list to show he was “rebuilding Lagos and ending police brutality.”
President Buhari’s address to the nation missed the point, according to blogger and columnist Japheth Omojuwa. Buhari called for an end to the protests and the beginning of a dialogue, but he refused to apologize and “will be remembered for threatening Nigerians just because they asked their government to commit to justice.”
Meanwhile, I received an email from an excellent student in one of my courses, informing me that her parents, who live near Port Harcourt, in Rivers State, were in danger. The city is in the Niger Delta, the centre of Nigeria’s oil industry.
She wrote that “there is a massacre happening in my hometown right now as I type to you.” Some criminals that took advantage of the protests to end police brutality had been moving from house to house killing people and setting houses on fire, she explained. Fortunately, a few days later, her mother managed to re-establish contact and told her they were unhurt. But for days she had little else on her mind. I asked her if I could mention this in an article on Nigeria and she said yes.
The region has suffered extreme environmental damage from decades of indiscriminate petroleum waste dumping. Protestors have been jailed and even murdered, among them the environmental and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who was executed by the military 25 years ago.
His "crime”? His attempts to save the land and water of his fellow Ogoni people, a very small ethnic group within Nigeria, numbering less than a million in a country of more than 200 million.
After his death, several Ogoni parties brought about lawsuits against the oil giant Shell for their role in both Saro-Wiwa’s trial and execution and in their treatment of Ogoni lands over the past decades.
Meanwhile, many Nigerians are looking forward to the 2023 presidential elections and using the lessons learnt during the recent protests to field a candidate to campaign on issues relevant to this youthful nation, where more than 60 per cent are under the age of 24.