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On the 24th of July 1846, Henry David Thoreau pioneered the art of lawful protest in recorded history when he refused to pay his taxes because he did not want to be a party to the funding of the Slave Trade and Mexican War being waged by his home country, America. For this, he was thrown in jail on the charges of tax evasion for being a troublemaker. When his dear friend and fellow writer Raldo Wald Emerson came to bail him, he asked Thoreau;
‘Why are you here?’
Thoreau, ever a man of principle, responded with his own question.
‘Why are you NOT here?’
It was Henry Thoreau’s belief that what he termed “civil disobedience” was the right of every citizen and a means to checkmate the government when the balance of power appeared to be slipping away from the people. This tradition will later be echoed by none other than the great Martin Luther King Jr. in his quote,
‘I became convinced that non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as cooperation with good. No other person has been more eloquent and passionate about getting this idea across as Henry David Thoreau. As a result of his writing and personal witness, we are the heirs of his legacy of creative protest.’
The life of Thoreau had been over for +100 years before Martin Luther was born, and the life of Martin Luther has been over for about 55 years at the time of this writing. Still, this tradition of creative protest continues to not only endure, but also to thrive. In 2020, Nigeria perhaps saw its first creative protest in the fully formed digital age, and just like the tradition of creative minds being at the forefront of these movements historically, Nigerian creatives turned out en masse to lead and foot-soldier this movement.
For many days, the protest followed in the footsteps of non-violence across the many regions of the country, though with the media focus and spotlight on the Lekki tollgate, which seemed to be the stronghold of the creative backbones. One can almost close their eyes to time travel through the sonorous voice of Timi Dakolo, or perhaps you prefer the strong admonishments from the otherwise comical Mr. Macaroni. If you listen well, you can still hear the music in the background, but more importantly, you can taste the hope in the air. A hope that would be cut short by the sort of state violence that was not as kind to the protesters as the dogs set on black Americans that called for their civil rights. Certainly not close to the kindness that saw Thoreau thrown in jail at an affordable bail by a fellow writer. It is one thing to be jailed, another to have dogs set on you, and another to have military grade weapons aimed in your direction in the presence of uniformed men in off-road vehicles.
The justification of this was centered on the narrative that what started off as a civil protest had devolved into anarchy leading to theft and willful destruction of property. Needless to say, the notion of military action on domestic soil stands in violation of the very purpose of an army. But then, it is such systems heaped with constant violations of civil codes that birth these protests in the first place. Perhaps this is a good time to point out that before the military option was approved, financial violence had taken place with accounts linked to leading protesters being frozen, and oh, how can one forget the freezing of their passports to restrict movement. Thanks to technology, the blockchain was quick to provide an alternative for funding and as for travel, bravery had to step in.
The question of if the protest had crossed the line from a civil rights activity to a free for all mayhem is one that begs contemplation. Conceptually speaking, what is a protest if it does not make the subject of power somewhat uncomfortable? Labour strikes for example grinds the economy to a halt, hunger strikes popularized by Mahatma Gandhi brings attention to an issue that turns scrutiny to power. But what happens when the subject of power is quick to turn a blind eye resisting all sense of discomfort? An infinite amping up of protest activities until a riot explosion, or perhaps a reorientation of the entire approach? What happens when the subject of power becomes the instigator of violence and has enough hold on the media to manufacture a
narrative while simultaneously shutting down personalized information highways like social media to help maintain a stranglehold on “truth”.
In Nigeria, we chose a complete reorientation, burying the pain of state violence deep in our hearts to be unleashed at the polls. The result was an election like no one could have predicted, new and young voters turning up like never before to make a statement of choice against what felt like state capture by a rather oligarchic party. Again, this effort was thwarted by the state with an election marred with violence and so many other forms of disenfranchisement accumulating to outright numerical manipulation as was witnessed by foreign observers and anyone that can read what has been tippexed or struck-through with multiple images circulating online. On the heels of all these irregularities and what some parties believe to be a stolen mandate or a civil coup, prayers have been sent to the courts to intervene in protection of the constitution.
As at the time of this writing, Nigeria hangs in a balance of uncertainty with the slogan “All Eyes On The Judiciary” becoming the watchword of a people hoping to witness social and political justice amidst strong doubts of its possibility. The threat of civil unrest continues to loom with the lines between violence and peace shrinking as poverty enters the equation with the recent removal of fuel subsidy and a rising dollar rate that spells hyperinflation if care is not taken.
The question still remains, how far is far enough when one is fighting for their right to civil participation in the country they call home? What measures can be taken when it appears even the most trusted instruments of state might have fallen prey to a democracy that leaves one feeling as choiceless as they are powerless. At Ignite, our commitment to the rule of law directs that due process is always followed, and we praise candidates that have called for calm in the midst of rage. However, we would like to draw the attention of the people in power about the danger of toying with citizens that already feel like they have their backs against a wall. There is much to be reexamined regarding the use of state violence and how it can breed more violence. Find out more about how the Nigerian citizen can protest within the lines of civility with a fireside chat after the screening of Emerging Voices, a Political Journey in Nigeria by TASCK – a documentary that explores the state of our nation and the participation of the average citizen to ensure much needed progress.
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