Law in Contemporary Society

Navigating a Legal Crossroads of Activists and Rulers: Lessons from Lagos

-- By EmmanuelOsayande - 18 Apr 2024

In March 1996, a group of human rights activists took to the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, to protest General Sani Abacha’s perceived repressive military regime, which resulted in a clash with security forces of the junta. This was one instance that illustrated how the city has been ground zero for numerous social movements, particularly activist movements. Indeed, as Africa’s largest city, Lagos provides a remarkable case study of how organized activism developed in metropolitan cities, and what role governance played in such development. This piece assesses how public spaces and rapid urbanization have powered Lagos-based movements, how these groups executed their campaigns, ways that the government has responded to such activism, and some lessons readers can learn from this phenomenon.

The City and Social Movements: In recent years, specific sites within metropolitan Lagos have been rallying points for the large-scale demonstrations associated with popular movements. In early 2012, for instance, a movement named Occupy Nigeria began its campaigns at sites such as Gani Fawehinmi Freedom Park in the city. This movement vehemently pushed back on the removal of fuel subsidy by the Nigerian government; a policy that led to a sharp hike in fuel prices which they believed would have been detrimental to the economic lives of average Nigerians.

Historically, such sites in the city have housed movements that engaged other socio-political issues, not just economic policies. As far back as 1950, an ethnocultural movement led by the Egb Ọmọ Odduw often gathered supporters at market squares in Isale Eko, in their campaign for political reform in colonial Lagos. (Arifalo, S. O. 1986. “The Intensification of Ethnic Political Consciousness in Nigeria : The Rise of the Egbe Omo Oduduwa 1947-1951.” GenèVe-Afrique : Acta Africana). Besides, in the 1980s and 1990s, during an era of military dictatorships, numerous sites in Lagos served as mobilization grounds for the human rights and pro-democracy movements that emerged in the city. In June 1993, for example, the Campaign for Democracy distributed leaflets at a soccer game at the National Stadium, Surulere, urging the spectators to join a planned protest against the annulment of the June 12 elections by the military head of state, General Ibrahim Babangida. The following month, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Surulere in protest, even as security forces of the military state cracked down on them. This is an instance where sites in the city enabled specific kinds of campaigns and calls to action at the grassroots. It also represented how the city was a site of struggle over state power.

One important question concerns why Lagos has seen such a sizeable amount of grassroots activism in its history. While we could consider any number of reasons, rapid urbanization has been a key factor that supported the rise of such movements in the city. Between 1950 and 2012, the city’s population grew from about 300,000 to over 20 million, surpassing Cairo, Egypt, as the largest city on the continent. What is more, in 2014, the UN World Urbanization Prospects named Lagos as the fastest-growing urban area in Africa. Accordingly, this swift pace of urban development has played a key role in supplying the human, financial, and infrastructural resources that have fueled activist movements in Lagos.

Interestingly, social movements in the city have advocated for rights by productively using civic space, mobilizing the popular masses, and constructing collective identities. First, these movements often used public spaces such as streets, parks, and stadia for their campaigns of dissent. They became movers and shakers of these spaces, reinventing them from sites of leisure and mobility into sites of resistance. Secondly, they have mobilized participants and supporters through various techniques such as distributing flyers and posters, soliciting for foreign alliances, and using social media and online technology. Also, these Lagos-based groups, in organizing their social action, often devised creative ways of collectively identifying themselves, including as ethnopolitical, human rights, or pro-democracy movements.

The State: Successive Nigerian governments have responded to the campaigns of such movements in Lagos through several approaches that we can sum up into two: repression and concession. State repression of grassroots activists has been a relatively constant occurrence in Nigeria’s history, despite changes in the country’s political structure. Whether under a colonial, military, or even a democratically elected government, activists in Lagos have been subject to abuse, harassment, and violence by elements of the state. While there have been differences in the methods of state repression in Lagos, some similarities have lingered on. For one, numerous governments have used force and extrajudicial means to curb dissent in the city. These governments have promoted repressive policies, arbitrarily detained activists, and suspended or ignored constitutional rules. In 1984, for instance, the military junta of General Muhammadu Buhari issued the ‘public officers protection against false accusation’ decree which became a justification to oppress human rights activists and opponents of the regime. Incidentally, during Buhari’s tenure as Nigeria’s immediate past president (2011-2023), critics accused his administration of pursuing a similar agenda. For instance, many criticized Buhari’s measures to allegedly silence dissenting voices including initiating a ‘hate speech’ campaign and supporting a proposed ‘hate speech’ bill that, if it had been passed into law, would have carried the death penalty.

Nevertheless, Nigerian governments have occasionally explored avenues of uncoerced cooperation as opposed to stifling grassroots activism in Lagos. Even authoritarian governments have shown that they too can make strategic compromises, albeit for ostensibly self-serving reasons. To illustrate, it was somewhat paradoxical that the military regime of General Abacha, infamous for allegedly committing the most human rights violations in Nigeria’s history, established a national human rights commission in 1995. Although many believed that the commission was ineffective, this remains a classic example of the regime conceding to the pressure of activists, while looking to gain some legitimacy for itself.

Forging Ahead?: Regarding the interplay between activism and governance in urban areas, the example of Lagos shows readers the numerous possible directions for this triadic relationship between social movements, governments, and cities. For one, such movements must continue to adapt their strategies of resisting repression, advocating for rights, and holding the government accountable. They must also address the issue of corruption, as grassroots organizations cannot merely be a means of chasing influence and making a profit. For governments, the rule of law should be sacrosanct, and they must, thus, adhere to the dictates of the Nigerian Constitution. Besides, rapid urbanization in Lagos means that the government must increase concerted efforts to supply adequate political avenues, economic opportunities, and social services to cater to the needs of an ever-increasing urban populace. In a case where Lagosians continuously feel that the Nigerian state has failed them, mass campaigns for good governance will almost certainly continue.

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r5 - 19 Apr 2024 - 18:36:54 - EmmanuelOsayande
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