Above photo: Activist Abiodun Aremu speaks in a microphone as he takes part in a march to protest against the government’s failure to agree on a new minimum wage during a rally in Lagos, on October 30, 2018. Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP via Getty Images.
At the root of Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement is a popular rejection of corruption, exploitation, and the abuse of poor and working-class people.
But the movement is also a rejection of neoliberalism, militarism, and a bloody history of U.S. imperialism and European colonization.
Abiodun Aremu is secretary of the Joint Action Front, a coalition of Nigerian pro-labor civil society organizations. He joins Jacqueline Luqman from Lagos, Nigeria, to explain how #EndSARS is a rejection of neoliberalism, militarism, and the bloody history of U.S. imperialism and European colonization.
Jacqueline Luqman: Massive and intense protests against the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS unit, have been going on for at least four weeks now in Nigeria, but tensions between the SARS unit and the Nigerian people have only boiled over from older longstanding issues. Now, it seems that these current protests are not just against the controversial unit itself, but are also a wholesale rejection of US imperialism and the influence of US policy that many outside of Nigeria may not even be aware of. I’m joined by Abiodun Aremu, secretary for the Joint Action Front in Lagos, Nigeria, to talk about these issues. Thank you so much for joining me, brother Aremu.
Abiodun Aremu: Yeah, it’s a pleasure to join you this afternoon in the US, almost evening in Nigeria, on this issue.
Let me start by saying that what happened, though unexpected, was suspected, because for years, there has been neglect in terms of how the Nigerian state have related to the critical realities and aspirations of the young ones in our country. We want to understand the background to some of these developments, because particularly from the 70s, with the ascendancy of the Washington consensus in terms of the global economic control of the world, Nigeria suffered the first major setback. Particularly in ‘78, when the then-military regime of General Olusegun Obasanjo took the first jumbo loan, which conditioned the Nigerian positions on education. Because in 1978, at the first major crisis—It was the first major police brutality of the Nigerian youths. That crisis of ’78, then known as ‘Ali Must Go,’ was policy by the government to withdraw tuition in education, and commercialization of education.
In fact, that was the beginning of Nigeria being re-ruled into foreign debt enslavement, and the country had to witness it. And by the time we entered the generations of the 80s, the policy of structural adjustment, the IMF and all the World Bank policies, loan policies, become prominent in the economic agenda of the successive regime. And the younger populations were actually the victims of most of those neoliberal policies that were imposed on Nigeria. So between ’78 and through the 90s in particular was the decade in which the Nigerian state came up with policies to criminalize the youth, to undermine viral unionism and academic planning. So because when you look at the generation of ’78 to ’90, they were the generation that was defined, in which youth were clearly defined, on two major plank of struggle: Struggle on the basis of stark differences in the society, and struggle on basis of anti-imperialist agenda.
So the youth were clear, you see, after that point. But you have government policies that were banning unions. They were undermining students’ unionism. And by the time you have the structural adjustment program that increased the high rate of unemployment, government also began a policy of brigandage in the campuses. And those are part of the things that set the place for what later happened, by the time you have the political transition from ’93 up to the present. So you have a situation in which the youth were not only being undermined in terms of independent unionism, in terms of independent organizations. A situation whereby youths are now being criminalized, are now being encouraged into thuggery, into hostage taking, and serious things that were taking place.
So by the time you now have the youth of the Twitter generation who express themselves through online media and engagement, you have a situation in which unemployment has risen to the point whereby the state was no longer responsible to anybody. So the police institution becomes the instrument for repressing people throughout the country. We get no central ID card system. So part of the first challenge that Nigerians have to confront, particularly the young ones, once you are out of school, is the challenge of even identifying yourself as Nigerian.
So police use that opportunity to harass peoples on the road. What every young person has to explain is their source of wealth, have to explain their source of survival, even when it’s clear that the state was not in any way responsible. So the harassment of police had gone to a higher scale, that they are more interested in whatever anybody is doing to survive, and youths become the major victims. And the degrees of popularization of the masses, the degrees of want, the degrees of state irresponsibility, in terms of social welfare care of people, forced many Nigerians that were going outside the country. And for those who went out of the country and find their way back, whether with some means to survive, they become the direct target of the state. In particular, the police institution.
So it’s not by accident that the majority of the young ones today are the direct victims of police brutality. So when the latest incident happened, it occurred at a point nobody was expecting any serious reaction from the youth. Because we were at a point that almost the whole country is under a state of being repressed under any form of protest. Because the majority of the protest started up by labor, civil society organizations, are under the threat of being suppressed by the state.
So when the youth protest came, most importantly, fueled by the fact that you have a country with over 40 million unemployed youth, in which state is not in any way responsible. In which state you have the majority of youth are daily targets of harassment, brutalization by the police institution, in particular. It was not unexpected we can have that kind of reaction of what is called the End SARS. And it was that reaction that opened up the youth majorly to understand that the problem goes beyond the End SARS. And so that is why you have the kind of massive uprising that occurred in that three week period.
And you’re already having three categories of youths already existing in the country because of the policies of the government. You have the youth who are product of the generations of the 80s and 90s who are through ideological training, who could understand at the basis of their struggle in society to be class struggle and anti-imperialist struggle. So they are so pained about it, you see, at that level, though they are the minority. And they were the same youth that the state freeze policies on education, repressed in their campuses from expressing their genuine democratic—which are repressed year in, year out at that level.
So you have the second categories of youth who are the youth who are majorly unemployed, many out of schools, but who are being groomed by politicians for thuggery activities, election rigging, and some of those things.
Then you have the youth that I call the Twitter generation, who are majorly in the leadership of that uprising. They could use information technology to spread information, and they could express themselves to access resources in terms of the advantage of information technology to be able to reach out as widely as possible.
So, that was exactly what was at play in that three week period. So when you look at the agenda of the state in repressing that protest, the concern initially—Because majority of some of those who are in the Twitter generation, some of them are children of the elites and middle class. So because even the ruling class element feels so concerned about their own element being repressed in the course of that protest, that was why the state endured for that period that it endured. And that was why when the repression of October 20 came, you could see that there was a reaction which is totally not out of even the state’s own agenda in terms of how to criminalize the protest. Because majority of the Twitter generation youth, ideological youth that were involved in all those three weeks protest, were not those who did what happened as from the 21st of October. They were majorly the same youth that are groomed by the politicians that were responsible for the action and the destruction of public and private properties.
So you see the kind of contradictions that unfolded in that period. That’s why you have the youths of Twitter generation and other youths who are genuinely in that protest beyond the End SARS demand a further agenda, not only on ending the youth or even ending oppression and bad government in the country. So that is the kind of reality you have in Nigeria that unfolded throughout that period in October.
Jacqueline Luqman: Yeah. And I’m so glad you broke that down and exposed the class issues that have been created by what sounds to me like neoliberal policies that we have experienced here in the United States during the same period of time, ushered in during the Reagan administration in the 80s with privatization of public services, and a corresponding demonization and repression of the youth rising unemployment in a marginalized communities. These issues are connected in these very clear one-to-one comparisons for how the United States government implemented the same kind of policies here, and the way this government responded to people, mostly the youth, rising up against those policies with what has happened in Nigeria over the same period of time.
But brother Aremu, you talked about the struggle being realized as being beyond just End SARS by the youth, and they are looking at the broader class implications. And I think a part of that struggle is manifesting itself in the way some people are responding to not only the government not providing PPE, personal protective equipment, for the people during the coronavirus pandemic, but in the way some people are responding to finding out that some in the middle and upper class are actually hoarding those supplies. What is going on around the response to the Nigerian government response to coronavirus in these protests?
Abiodun Aremu: Yeah, you see, I think the protest is a further exposure of the irresponsibility of the Nigerian state. And if you have looked at all the struggle, the product of the generations of the 80s, and that is how I look at Nigeria, is from the 80s, in terms of what has been the context and focus of our struggle, it’s clear. And you see the Nigerian youth role in the struggle in the liberation of South Africa, or Southern Africa. And then you can see organizations like Youth Solidarity in South Africa, in Nigeria, you’ll see the Nigerian role in the struggle for the liberation of Western Sahara. You’ll see Nigeria’s role in all the anti-IMF and various protests on structural adjustment programs that took place in those periods.
So you can single out the Nigerian people. And by the time of the 1999 transition program, what became clear is that the terms of negotiating that transition was on the basis of neoliberal policy. And that is why we have looked at successive governments since 1999—They are government that have worked contrary to spirit and letters of the Nigerian constitutions. Because the Section 16 of the Nigerian constitution, of the 1999 constitution, it’s very clear that government shall manage the major sectors of the economy. So what it means is that the basic economy, the basic industry, the oil industry, the energy industry, are not supposed to be privatized. But contrary to letter and spirit of that, they were privatized. And those are the things that are the roots, you see, of the corrupt atrocities in Nigeria. Because the question that we are fighting corruption in Nigeria is nonexistent. You see, they are all just propaganda, because you cannot fight corruption when the basis of looting itself is the act of what becomes our economy. Because privatization, deregulation, are all policies that are unknown to spirit and letter of the Nigerian constitution.
So by the time you are having the COVID experience, Nigeria was in a state that it was said to be broke. How can Nigeria be broke and depend on another IMF loan? As at 1978, when Nigeria took the first jumbo loan, a dollar was 45 kobo as at that time. So Nigerian currency had a higher value even when some of us were in school. It had a higher value up till 1986. It is the structural adjustment program that began that program of devaluation.
So once you’re having a country who is irresponsible to social welfare—Let me just use the particular instance of education. The Academic Staff Union of Nigerian Universities have been on strike since February. Okay. Now, they have now resolved it. Over what? Over an agreement that was signed with the government since 2009. And as of today, 25% of that agreement has not been completed. So, that is a kind of situation that you have. So you have children, students out of school for the past nine months. You have teachers without payment for the past seven months. So that was a kind of crisis that Nigeria has, and is still having.
So at the time of COVID, you see, COVID only became a further avenue for looting public resources, because government today cannot account for some of, most of, those expenditures. You see, people need to get to the classrooms to understand how many Nigerians can access even the PPE, the personal protective equipment, during COVID. So people have to fend for themselves. Even in times of improved support, and those are the kinds of things that came up during the protest, over welfare material that were now being seen stocked in warehouses, long after they have claimed that the lockdown is already unlocked. So, that is the kind of reality you have in the country.
So the country is deep seated in economic crisis which is imposed out of the irresponsibility of the state to the people. So, that’s exactly what is happening. You are running a government on the basis of looting. A government that is not in any way responsible to the welfare of the people. So Nigeria is pregnant, you see, with a major struggle to redress the economy. Because the question is in Nigeria today, and that is what will be the basis of the final struggle we have in this country, is who controls the economy? And for whose interest? That is the issue. Nigerian economy was in control for public interest. That is why the refineries are not working, because you have a government that is rooted in primitive accumulation of our natural resources. Not interested in adding values to those resources. So the refineries are not working. You see? Major sectors of the economy, they are not working. So everything is almost import dependent for the country to run.
And you cannot continue with such a country where you already have over 40 million unemployed youths. So that is the relationship that you are having currently going on. So the country is pregnant with crisis, and we have to resolve that on the basis of the control of our national productive sector to turn the country around. The questions about elections and all the issues in Nigeria, the question about Nigeria, is what will profit Nigerians? What will profit a majority of Nigerians? What are the interests of Nigerians? Because anything short of running a clear social welfare program that can address the challenge of education, the challenge of healthcare, the challenge of gainful employment, and unemployment benefit for those who have not worked, the country will continue to be in crisis.
So the last uprising is just a smokescreen of what will happen. Because those who are talking about End SARS, if you are relating with the context, within the context of what they are exposed to, there are deeper issues some of them are seeing. Because people are talking about issue of governance. The problem in Nigeria does go beyond governance on the basis of who to vote for. It has to be determined by who controls the economy and in which direction. And that is the challenge even for the youth today, that the struggle we have is a struggle of interest. Which class interests predominate in society? Which class welfare predominate in society? Whose interest in terms of education will the economy serve, will the politics serve?
Those are the basic questions we must all ask, so that we cannot be reduced to slavery within our own country. So that’s why there’s a need for a real struggle for full independence of the country. A country cannot be totally dependent and you expect that country to be free. So, that’s the challenge that we are going through in the country.
Jacqueline Luqman: Hmm. Well, you pointed out that the question for the Nigerian youth is whose interest is the control of the country benefiting? Is it benefiting the people, or is it benefiting another interest? Now, of course, Nigeria is a former colony of foreign interests. So what role in these struggles do those former colonies, or colonizers, have in creating this situation? And what role do they have in the violent repression of these protests in the streets?
Abiodun Aremu: Yeah, you see, it’s important, because if you look at the political economy history of Nigeria, the Nigerian youths, right from the West African Student Union day, it spells clearly what the objective of struggle in Nigeria should be. After the 40s, the objective was about decolonization and independence, you see, and the point of decolonization is not to further make us neo-colonially dependent. So to that extent, all policies arising from globalization that were not the common interests are policies that are inimical to the interest of Nigeria. So by the time the youths of our generation, you see, were brought into the leadership of the struggle, the issues were clear—that our interest must be the defense of the interest of the majority of the Nigerian people. The working people, the artisans, the poor masses.
All those who, in short, that education, health care, gainful employment, social welfare provisioning for everybody, and infrastructural development, are a key major driving source of our society. At the same time, we are not supposed to be economically dependent, whether on policies or anything. So that still remains. And that is why for the young generation, if you look at the policies of the government in that protest, yes, the protest was carnival-like, there were music, there were dancing, those things. That is what the government wants to encourage. They don’t want you to start raising questions in terms of how come Nigeria IMF loan? How come Nigeria World Bank loan? How come the students in the universities are out of school for seven, eight months? How come most of the public institutions, hospitals, have no infrastructure? Those are the questions that have to be asked now.
And that’s why those youths must be encouraged to put their energy now, that first we have to define that we have a country. Because when you have a country that cannot guarantee basic necessities of life, it’s like you don’t have a country. So we cannot continue as a dependent country. Then Nigeria has a role to play in the world, because for us, and as defined by Kwame Nkrumah, which is very clear. Africa is not free, except all parts of Africa are free. Youths of our generation, you see, get into anti-imperialist struggle on the basis of that, that our country cannot be dependent. The last generation can express solidarity with Cuba, extend solidarity with Venezuela. So those are challenges the current generation must also be encouraged to understand, because we have a position on international solidarity, more international community. You see? We have to push more internationalism.
Because the international community today mostly is represented by the imperialist community, which is different from spirit of internationalism. Spirit of solidarity. So those are the challenges, because we must also rebuild Nigeria for humanity. You see, not Nigeria under a colonial power or any global power that will undermine our sovereignty. So those are the kinds of challenges. And that is why what has happened in the last three weeks is just an eye opener for Nigeria’s youths to understand. It is not about contesting election to want to be governor, to want to be chair of local government, to continue to run the same neoliberal policies that will undermine the interests of a majority of Nigerians and begin to serve as slaves to imperial masters.
Jacqueline Luqman: Hmm. I mean, brother Aremu, I understand the connections between what is going on in Nigeria and has for decades, and what’s going on here in the United States. But many of our viewers may not understand why they should care about this uprising, centered around End SARS, but it’s really a wholesale rejection by the youth of Nigeria against imperialism and neoliberalism. So can you explain to our viewers—For someone in Washington, DC, for someone in Baltimore, for someone in Philadelphia who is watching this interview, why should they care about what’s going on in Nigeria right now?
Abiodun Aremu: Yeah. The US government will care about Nigeria. It’s not Nigerian people. There are two different things. Just in the same way I understand the different between the great American people, you see, and the sometimes racist American government. So the point clearly is that Nigeria is the biggest market in Africa for them to exploit. So in terms of different impositions of policies, like the New Partnership for Africa’s Development, which basically an imperial instrument, in terms of making the AU subservient, it is to the interests of imperialism. They will be more interested in what goes on in Nigeria.
More importantly, the Africa Command, which has been forced on Africa, on Africa. And these are things that we want to popularize, for people to understand the implications. Because a year after the flag independence in 1960, Britain made that first attempt for Nigeria to sign what they called the Anglo Defense Pact. It took that generation of students who moved all the way from the only university you have in Nigeria, then called the University College, Ibadan, to move to the National Assembly in Lagos to put a stop for Nigeria to agree to that pact. And since then, different policies of Nigeria is very clear. Africa is the centerpiece of Nigerian foreign policy. To defend not just the African continent, but the Pan-African interest.
And that was why January 11, at the extraordinary AU summit in Addis Ababa, the [inaudible] head of state made that statement that “Africa has come of age for any other territory to want to colonize it.” So at that time, for Nigerians, for Nigerian youth, for Nigerian people, it was the height of glory for Nigerian people, in terms of speaking to both our interest could be locally, and also internationally. So, that is clearly the point. You see, for US and other global powers, the interest in Nigerian market is important. You see, that interest determines what happens in the Gulf of Guinea. That interest determines what happened in Nigerian interest in the market.
And you can see clearly even in terms of the politics in who becomes the leadership of the WTO. So they all reflect at that level. So in terms of what the US interest is here—And if you look at currently the Nigerian president, you are having a president with two purposes. A president who in the 80s as a military head of state rejected IMF and opted for [increase]. How come the same president today embraced IMF? You are the president then who could speak on the interest of the Western Sahara. In fact, he was the head of state in Nigeria when there was the declaration of international support led by Nigeria for the recognition of the Polisario Front. What is the policy of Nigeria today on Western Sahara and [inaudible]? So it’s not by accident you have the same president, [inaudible], you see, and signing an agreement with the United States of America.
So there’s the strategic interest of the US there, because US remains a puppeteer government, a puppeteer controlling power for the puppet that you have in the country. You see, and that is the tradition that they want to sustain, which we are not going to encourage at that level. Even when you look in terms of the economic policy, Nigeria has what is called the Defense Industries Corporation. Today, in fighting insurgency and fighting the Boko Haram, 25% of the Nigerian budget is on security. Where are all those equipment and ammunition coming from? The Defense Industry Corporation in Nigeria, in Kaduna, is not producing a single thing out of that. So invariably, 25% of Nigerian income is already frittered away through capital flight because of that dependency. So why would an imperial country like the US not be interested?
So for us, we want a Nigeria that will be able to [inaudible] increasing cost. And that is what will open the eyes of the young ones, too. There’s no reason why a country who is largest producer of oil in the world, does not have a single refinery that is functioning to refine the oil. So you have a situation in which you have more capital flight when you are not producing anything. What do you want to showcase to the rest of the world? So the money that’s coming, that you are putting out. And that is increasing poverty in the country, and almost leading the country into a state of anarchy. And that is what must be avoided. And that is what they want: to create a state of anarchy and beg for international intervention. We must not allow that.
And those are the things that young ones must understand, that the struggle must be clearly defined. It is a struggle based on what our economic interest should be, what our political interest should be. We can not run a presidential system, dependent on a US model. You cannot run a parliamentary system dependent on the British model. We have to define the model that we have to run. You cannot run a country where the universities are not adequately funded. Yet, you have legislators that are having resources worth more than what you can fund the university with, when you can fund the university and [inaudible].
So the challenge that what is more of our interest? Is it education? Is it health? Is it to be able to ensure that people have three square meals? So not to just have few people, in the name of running a democracy that is nonexistent as far to relate to the reality of the common people, who are looting the resources of the country.
Jacqueline Luqman: So, brother Aremu, we are obsessed with our own election here in this country. So I guess people feel like they don’t have a lot of bandwidth to pay attention to international issues. But when we’re talking about the foreign policy that comes out of this country’s government, regardless of who is at the head of this country’s government, people need to make time for this issue. So how can people in the United States support the youth in Nigeria in their uprising and movement against US imperialism that goes beyond the #EndSARS?
Abiodun Aremu: Yeah, I think the first way that people in the US, particularly since the US is at the head of the control of the world information order, or disinformation strategy, so to put it, there’s a need to seek for correct information of what is actually happening in Nigeria, and these various interests, to understand the concrete reality Nigeria is going through, because it’s very important. And I think this exchange of information through this interview is one way to be able to understand that.
Secondly is that this struggle is international, because the liberation of Nigeria, the struggle for the independence of Nigeria and other African countries also has to be on the page of solidarity and exchange of information with others, because there are a lot that people have seen on the surface that do not actually bring that one to reality. And I think that we have lot of Nigerians, lots of African brothers, that are also in the Pan-African watch. And I think the more organizations of the people, solidarity organizations, can also engage Nigerians from the point of what contribution they can make to support our humanity. It’s very, very important. Because solidarity should be based on the people’s idea. Solidarity is not just a mere expression of “I have solidarity with you.”
And I think the struggle is not just about what money that people can give, what food that can be provided, or what fanfare that can be provided. That’s not the struggle that we have gone through, because all the struggles that we have gone through are on the basis of sacrifices and [inaudible]. And there’s no freedom without any sacrifices. I went on September 16, at the level of Joint Action Front, and we started a long run struggle on the need for systemic change, so we have that in mind. And then as then, we are refreshed, because for any—What happened was the first time where you see states that will allow a mass of people gathering without attempting to disperse it. It was also because the issues that were raised are issues that the state feels that they can deal with. But when you go into much more fundamental questioning of political existence, the economic questions in Nigeria, the state comes out with real repression.
So there are much more struggles that are going to go on. They are not going to be struggles that people will have time for an expensive lunch or doing dance parties. So it is important for people to understand that the context of struggle in Nigeria now is how we have to reassert our sovereignty, how we have to reassert our independence. So once that is understood, they can understand the kind of support that Nigerians will need beyond fanfare in terms of how to get it.
The US didn’t get it on a platter of gold. Neither did any country get it on a platter of gold. The declaration of American independence was in 1776, but it took almost 90 something years later for the civil war in the US to show clearly that the whole empty declarations of ‘We hold these truths, that all people are created equal,’—It has been shown clearly in what has been demonstrated. Even 300 years later, you have to struggle for it.
So I don’t think that the context of what has happened in Nigeria, don’t expect in any way, in terms of what support and in terms of material will be. I think there are much more support in terms of solidarity, much more support in terms of ideological orientation, much more support in terms of political education, much more support in terms of bilateral, multi-lateral organization to understand that Nigeria will really need a major struggle to reassert the content of our independence; for Nigeria to be relevant to the rest of the global community. So that’s why we define the kind of challenge that is expected, so that we can deepen it more, much more the same way to our bigger challenges in terms of the freedom of people all over the world.
Today, you cannot be talking of struggle for Nigeria and are not concerned about the US blockade of Cuba, or US blockade of Venezuela, or several other countries that the US is addressing. And that is why the election in the US is also much more important to us in terms of what the policy of the US will be against Cuba, against Venezuela, I think, too.
So the freedom of Nigeria is still relevant, as far that the freedom of other people are relevant. So the younger generation must realize that the struggle is not just about Nigeria, it’s also about the rest of humanity. So those are the bigger challenges. And for friends in the US, it is important to understand it, that this struggle is not going to be a tea party. It’s not a struggle of burger, it’s not a struggle of jollof rice. It’s a struggle to really define humanity in this part of the world.
Jacqueline Luqman: Well, as we say in the domestic struggle against US imperialism within these borders, none of us are free unless all of us are free. And that is absolutely true in regard to the global struggle against US imperialism. That includes solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Nigeria, as well as Venezuela, Cuba, Colombia, Iran, and every other country in the world that is in the crosshairs of the beast that is US imperialism. So I want to thank you so much, brother—
Abiodun Aremu: Amandla!
Jacqueline Luqman: Amandla! Thank you so much, brother Aremu, for joining me to talk about the struggles in Nigeria and connecting them to ours here. We wish you well, and we offer you our solidarity.
Abiodun Aremu: Thank you for this audience. After so much effort.
Jacqueline Luqman: And thank you for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in the belly of the beast, Washington, DC.
Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US.