#EndSARS: Understanding Nigeria's Emerging Active Citizens

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Tuesday, October 20, 2020 / 12:44 PM /  OpEd by Abiodun Awosusi / Header Image Credit: Imole Tobbie Balogun


The nationwide protests calling for police reforms in Nigeria are timely. A recent analysis on African Arguments shows that a number of factors may be responsible: accounts of brutality, failed attempts at previous reforms and the power of a leaderless youth-led movement. While the government has announced drastic reforms, the movement is unabated in its incessant demands to end police brutality and justice for victims. The protests are likely to have a snowball effect on the consciousness of citizens, especially young people, who become increasingly active in demanding quality services across other sectors from public and private sector players. The emergence of these active citizens particularly the Millennials and Gen Z individuals has important implications for reforms across all sectors. Citizens and leaders need to pay attention to major trends shaping this call for a better governed country.


First, Nigeria's demographic landscape is changing with a large adolescent and youth population. According to the World Bank, 53.6% of Nigeria's population is between the ages of 15 and 64 while children between the ages of 0 and 14 constitute 43.7% of the population. Millennials (or Gen Y) generally refer to young people born from the early 1980s to mid-1990s (1980 - 1995) while Gen Z are born from mid 1990s to 2010 (1996 - 2010). Despite wide global variation about the exact age range for each generation, millennials are currently 25 - 39 years old while Gen Z are about 10 - 24 years old.  A 2020 Statista demographic analysis of Nigeria shows that these two generations collectively represent 50.9% of the total population with more Gen Z (31.8%) than Millennials (19.1%). They are digitally connected and communal. These youthful generations form the fastest growing percentage of Nigeria's current workforce. They are also the worst affected by workers' strikes at educational institutions and youth unemployment. The protests are part of an unfolding generational shift and genuine demands for a better country where every human life has value.


Second, the dynamic of social activism is evolving rapidly. Millennials and Gen Z are mission-driven and highly connected through existing information and communication tools. They form a large portion of users of social media with a growing number of influencers who shape public opinion. Both generations are adept at using new digital tools to gather and share information, and form alliances (like the feminist coalition) to achieve specific objectives. While youth activism is not new, social media has changed the rules of the game and playground. It accelerates convergence of voices on particular themes and helps mobilize domestic and global support for common causes. Social media acts as a fulcrum, balancing the dynamics of activism online and offline in a coherent way. Across the country, these tools have been harnessed to make valid cases for social justice and youth empowerment. The #NotTooYoungToRun movement successfully ensured the passage of a landmark law to allow young people participate in politics before the 2019 elections.

The #EndSARS movement has forced government to disband the dysfunctional police unit and commence a series of police reforms. This growing activism is not likely to be a one-off event.


Another major trend is that young people are leading thriving business and social enterprises. Millennials are harnessing rapid mobile and internet penetration with digital commerce and new technologies to build a robust technology ecosystem that attracts significant investments from domestic and international players. Leading enterprises such as Paystack, Flutterwave and Kudi are accelerating financial inclusion for businesses and individuals. Health enterprises such as LifeBank, 54Gene, Helium Health, MDaaS and Doctoora are developing innovative tools to solve problems across the healthcare value chain. Technology is transforming education on Pass.ng; remote engineering training at Andela; job search and placement via Jobberman; and human resource management on Seamless HR. Young people are also changing the agriculture, mobility, media and tourism landscapes with great products and services. This progress contributes  not only to job creation but also a gradual shift in source of economic power from traditional oil-based model to skilled use of technologies, capital and human resources to create value in productive sectors of the economy.


In addition, government revenue source is changing with significant implications for government-citizen interactions. Imagine a post-oil Nigeria where government relies more on non-oil revenue with a variety of taxes. That future is closer than you can imagine. The pandemic has weakened efforts to generate revenue to finance government plans necessitating additional borrowing. Reduction in oil and non-oil revenue has shrunk the fiscal space. The country spends more than half of total national revenue to service debts - most debts are from domestic sources. Progress on recent tax reforms has been hampered by shocks to various sectors of the economy with a looming recession. Despite the massive need to spend more to save lives and livelihoods, revenue growth is stunted by the coronavirus crisis. The awareness of these issues among young people is increasing. Evidence shows that citizens who pay taxes tend to demand better governance and efficient management of public resources. This requires proactive engagement of the populace, transparent governance and delivery of excellent services.


Besides, effective citizen engagement is crucial in a post-COVID Nigeria. The coronavirus pandemic has had devastating socio-economic impacts across the world particularly in Africa where there is limited opportunity for large stimulus packages. Although the region has recorded fewer deaths than other parts of the world due to an interplay of several factors, its economies have been badly hit by the crisis. The World Bank projects the region is heading for its first recession in 25 years, with anticipated rise in unemployment rate and number of poor people. A historical analysis of previous pandemics across the world shows that epidemics accentuate existing tensions and socioeconomic woes. The pandemic may therefore be one of key triggers for these protests as similar calls for social justice in other countries have increased since the pandemic began. These calls enable concerned citizens to present genuine demands. They can also allow responsive governments and institutions to act swiftly to initiative transparent reforms while limiting further negative economic consequences of COVID-19.


Lastly, resilient recovery from the coronavirus pandemic requires macroeconomic and social stability. Implementation of government's plan to limit the socioeconomic effects of the pandemic requires a secured environment. A safe and conducive business climate can support the viability of private enterprises to sustain jobs and employ more people. In addition to recent reforms, a responsive police force that protects all citizens irrespective of religion, tribe, gender and socio-economic status is a key part of an enabling business environment. A truly reformed police force sends the right message to businesses, investors and development partners. Without fear of harassment, kidnapping and theft, citizens especially young people can enthusiastically engage in productive economic activities. Safety and stability is not only important in the oil fields of Niger Delta but across the entire country where citizens can live, work and thrive.


A new Nigeria is emerging - a perfect time to reinforce the second stanza of the National Anthem:

Oh God of creation

Direct our noble cause

Guide our leaders right

Help our youth the truth to know

In love and honesty to grow

And living just and true

Great lofty heights attain

To build a nation where peace and justice shall reign


About the Author

'Biodun Awosusi is health economist at Health Systems and Development Enterprise. He is a TEDMED2020 Research Scholar and MIT Technology Review Global Panel Member. Previously, he was health financing advisor at Clinton Health Access Initiative; research consultant on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded Learning for Action across Health Systems at Oxford Policy Management; advocacy manager at ACF International; and technical officer on the USAID-funded Program to Build Leadership and Accountability in Nigeria's Health System. He was the Nigeria Coordinator of the multi-country Rockefeller Foundation-funded Health for All Campaign for Universal Health Coverage in 2014. 'Biodun holds master's degrees in International Health (University of Oxford) and International Management (University of Liverpool) with a bachelor's degree in medicine and surgery from Obafemi Awolowo University. 

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