Op-Ed: Andrew Akpan, a Nigerian based in South Africa, reflects on class divides among Nigerians and how that has affected the way in which #EndSARS protesters are perceived and treated.
I have personally experienced two incidents with the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), one of which was notably traumatising. While driving with a friend, we were stopped by the police unit and although I wasn't the driver of the vehicle, I was asked to step out of the car. Once I was out of the car, one of the officers advanced towards me to search my pockets. Before I could ask him what he was doing and why, he landed a big stick on my knee—without so much as an explanation. One could say that I was quite lucky compared to the many other horrific stories of torture, maiming and even death suffered at the hands of this rogue unit.
This kind of story is precisely what energised Nigerians to take to the streets of major cities and demand the disbandment of SARS, for weeks on end. The government's subsequent response to the protests unfortunately culminated in the military shooting and killing at least 38 peaceful and unarmed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. What followed this event was a widespread breakdown of law and order through the destruction of public and private properties.
There has been a growing rhetoric that the violence that erupted post the Lekki Massacre was to be quelled by whatever means necesarry. The rhetoric was that those who broke into government warehouses to cart away food items that were supposed to be shared as COVID-19 relief were mere criminals that should be shot on sight. This view found traction among the dwindling middle class of Nigeria whose businesses were affected and who feared that the masses might eventually turn on them. However, the recent activities by the government in which the bank accounts of prominent protesters were frozen, the seizing of passports of those who wanted to travel out of the country, and the labelling of protesters as "terrorists" all show that this assumed difference between the masses and the middle class is non-existent.
There are two groups of people in Nigeria: the elites and the masses. The masses are those who are politically and economically impoverished. They constitute 40 percent of the population or almost 83 million people living below the country's poverty line. The elites, on the other hand, require little definition. However, there is another group that I refer to as the "missing middle class." These are the people who are not rich enough to be a part of the elites but are also not poor enough to be a part of the masses. The recent #EndSARS protests saw a rare coming together of both the masses and the middle class in a struggle that initially started as a fight against police brutality.
"There are two groups of people in Nigeria: the elites and the masses."
As the government cracked down heavily on the protests in what eventually culminated in, what has now been dubbed, the Lekki Massacre, the divide between the masses and the middle class was again visible. It was worrisome to see the condescending attitude and disrespectful language used by the latter to describe the ensuing violence that erupted in many parts of the country, following the Lekki Massacre.
We must be critical of the political move that categorised these people as "hoodlums," "thugs" and "criminals" who should have be gunned down at first sight because they had disrupted economic activities and threatened the privilege of the middle class. And because violence by the state is the fuel that runs the entire system, we should question the prescription that any protest, if it is to be deemed legitimate, has to be peaceful. Protest, in and of itself, is often a response to a violent system. Crime is not in the blood of Nigerians. By labelling a significant number of the Nigerian populace in a specific way, we make it easy for them to be mistreated. History tells us the effect of such labelling in the form of genocides and other egregious injustices against specific groups of our society.
When the middle class was threatened by forces beyond their control (like the break-ins into warehouses and the destruction of private & public properties), we saw them siding with the oppressors and calling on the government to employ violence to quell the unrest. This, on the surface, appeared ironic since they abhorred violence of that same kind just weeks back with the #EndSARS protests. This seemingly inconsistent move could be because the middle class soon realised that the masses see them as being a part of the elites and accomplices to the rotten system.
Some of the destroyed property at different police stations across the state during the Inspector General Police visit to Lagos on November 3, 2020.Photo by Olukayode Jaiyeola/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Together with the political elites, the middle class considers the poor masses to be a bunch of beasts that should be tamed and put under control, particularly when their dissatisfaction tends to be expressed as violence. And what better way is there to "control the beasts" than to use the police to subdue and put the masses "in their place". This is one of the factors among many that birthed the police brutality that now finds it difficult to distinguish between the masses and the middle class.
If we want to build a new Nigeria, our middle class must first transform themselves—be more tolerant and respectful of all people. The struggle cannot be won if we do not change both our language and attitude towards most Nigerians who are poor and systemically disadvantaged. In fact, the struggle against a corrupt government cannot be won if it is not equally led and owned by both the masses and the middle class. We have to find ways of carrying each other along and leading from both ends. This is vital. The middle class cannot take the masses along in any meaningful way if they continue seeing them as "the masses", lumped together in a way that negates their individuality. Haba! These are Nigerian citizens with dreams and aspirations of their own that have been dashed by system beyond their control.
"If we want to build a new Nigeria, our middle class must first transform themselves..."
In my assessment, going beyond police reform to demand political accountability and all-round reform is favoured by the masses and those sympathetic to their plight. However, among the middle class, their only demand seems to be being granted permission toto eke out a living for themselves. This is essentially a class divide.
The question I sit with now and one to which I have no answer is: how do we narrow this divide? I am sure there is no one answer and no one starting place. However, a possible starting point could be for the middle class to broaden their definition of the struggle and join most Nigerians in demanding from the government an enabling environment where all dreams can be actualised. They have to go beyond the myth of meritocracy to realise that the Nigerian system is fundamentally disabling. The masses are not beasts that can be tamed; they are human beings who like everyone else feel hunger, see the injustices around them, and deserve a decent life for themselves and their families.
Everyone must recognise the looming dangers of poverty and inequality and work painstakingly to create a fair society for all people. This is how nationhood is built and strengthened. This is what will give people a sense of belonging in the country and transform the masses into citizens.