Nigeria’s Chaos Is the World’s Chaos

As the events unfold in Lagos, Nigeria offers us a view of the contradictions that define not just its national order, but the global order as well.
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Lagos, Nigeria on 10/8/2020 © Santos Akhilele Aburime / Shutterstock

October 22, 2020 13:02 EDT

For the past two weeks, the youth of Nigeria have been in the streets protesting the ruling order of a nation in crisis. Having seized on the theme of police brutality that inspired the massive demonstrations this year in the US, they are now challenging their government on a much broader range of issues that will define the future of the country. The demonstrations have grown to monumental proportions, and the government has begun organizing its predictably brutal response.

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The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week on the major accomplishment of the protesters in an article with this title, “Nigerian Protesters Shut Down Africa’s Largest City, Escalating Standoff With Government.” The subtitle reads, “Authorities vow to restore order as demonstrations grow across Nigeria.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Restore order:

What all governments attempt to do in times of revolt, with the aim of returning to the status quo of untenable, organized disorder that reigned before the revolt

Contextual Note

Though the drama has intensified in the course of this week and the outcome is still uncertain, the Nigerian government has already begun to deploy massive force in its effort to end the protests. Despite official denial, it is now clearly established that government security forces fired on the demonstrators on Tuesday evening in a continuous barrage that lasted between 15 and 30 minutes. They reportedly removed the security cameras from the scene and turned off the streetlights shortly before the shooting began. By Wednesday evening, Amnesty International had reported the killing of 12 protesters.

The government did make a gesture to meet the protesters‘ demands when President Muhammadu Buhari proclaimed that the government would dissolve the specific police unit — known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) — blamed for excessive use of force and acts of depraved brutality. To prove their sincerity, on Sunday, the authorities, as reported by Al Jazeera, “ordered all personnel to report to the police headquarters in the capital, Abuja, for debriefing and psychological and medical examination.” But that promise of disbanding and replacing SARS had been made several times in the past and each time the same pattern of behavior and the same culture of violence returned.

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The protesters are now demanding more than superficial reorganization of the police. They want to see concrete acts of justice for victims, including compensation for their families, the creation of an independent body for oversight of the police and “psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed.” Having reflected on the root of the problem, they have also wisely asked for “an increase in police salary so they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of the citizens.”

Whenever a government speaks of restoring order, the order they are referring to is an expectation of docile acceptance of the system of governance they represent. At least some of the protesters appear to understand that order is not the result of calm acceptance, but of systemic coherence combined with consistency about the mission of the police focused on protecting citizens rather than the government and the established order.

Where the government takes “order” to mean little more than a stable structure of power, in which the powerful have the means to fend off various forms of disturbance, the protesters seem to understand that the very idea of order implies systemic coherence. Any stable, functioning system relies on being able to identify, respect and manage complex dynamic principles.

Any reliable mechanical system, such as the rotors of a helicopter, must include a series of mechanisms designed to respond to and compensate automatically for excessive force or tension. Human organizations, from nations and cities to small enterprises, must elaborate behavioral systems that permit enough flexibility to self-organize when states of disequilibrium threaten. They will include hierarchies and laws but also a culture of interaction that involves shared understanding and common reflexes. For anthropologists, that is largely what the idea of culture represents.

The conflict in Nigeria — but the same could be said of the US today — is one between two conceptions of “order.” The first, that of the government, is an order that is imposed. The second, that of the protesters, is an order that is built on principles allowing for self-organization. To some extent, the tension between the two sums up many, if not most, of the dramas affecting democracy in the world today.

Historical Note

Al Jazeera quotes entertainer and entrepreneur Sidney Esiri, who sums up the logic of the events that have taken place over the past few weeks. “We the people, we are committed to peacefully protesting and exercising our rights as citizens to demonstrate for our cause,” he said, “but some arms of government, of different people, have found ways to disrupt this peaceful process and turn it into something violent so that they have the excuse to bring in the military, which is what they did yesterday.”

This reading of the situation was confirmed by Anietie Ewang, a Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Nigerian authorities turned a peaceful protest against police brutality into a shooting spree, showing the ugly depths they are willing to go to suppress the voices of citizens,” she stated. The UN appears to agree: “United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an end to what he called ‘brutality’ by police in Nigeria.”

The prospect for some reasonable, peaceful reestablishment of order seems remote. Femi Adesina, the Nigerian presidential spokesman, appealed “for understanding and calm across the nation, as the implementation of the reform gathers pace at federal and state levels.” But the protesters see that as the old trick of gaining time as the old order falls back into place. The public debate has become a question of time management — in this case, managing historical time. Esiri, better than anyone else in the leaderless movement, articulated the core question when he said to Al Jazeera that the “situation in Nigeria had gone to the point, where you have to look at it and say, ‘if not now, then when?’”

Nigeria has a rapidly growing population that is expected to overtake the US to become the world’s third-populous country in the world by 2050. It is also one of Africa’s richest nations because of its oil reserves, but it hosts one of the highest levels of poverty in the world. “More than 55% of Nigerians are underemployed or unemployed and youth unemployment is even higher, according to official statistics,” cited by The Wall Street Journal.

Whether consciously or not, the protesters against police brutality were inspired by this year’s demonstrations in the US. They may also have been inspired by the visible, albeit inconclusive cultural effects, of the US protests. At least for a short period, they enhanced the status of the Black Lives Matter movement, suddenly embraced by the corporate world and revealed some of the untenable chaos at the heart of a political class that is no longer capable of governing the nation in a stable or coherent way.

These are two powder kegs, dissimilar in so many respects, but both representative of the deep contradictions of this historical moment. No one can guess how things will develop in the coming months in either Nigeria or the US. It has become unthinkable, just in terms of probability, that either nation, however the politics plays out, will manage to achieve what their establishments hope, which is to restore at least a semblance of the old order. History is taking a chaotic and violent turn. In which direction, nobody knows.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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