Keynote Delivered at the 2021 January 9 Collective event in Lagos
I wish to begin by expressing my profound thanks to J9C for asking me to give a second keynote at this important event. As someone who has spent the last seven years of their academic life practically living on social media and harvesting the various comedic and artistic practices that support the activism of Nigerian young netizens, I believe the best place to start this keynote is on Twitter. So, if you were on Mr. Jack Dorsey’s platform on the 21st of August in 2019, you probably saw the Twitter handle of the Punch Newspaper, @MobilePunch screaming disturbingly with the news headline: “Canada is stealing our young people.”
In a subversive denunciation of this narrative collusion of the traditional, mainstream media and digital media, a Twitter user responded: “On behalf of young people in Nigeria we reject @MobilePunch. Maybe they are speaking for Ghanaian youths.” But it was the response by another Twitter user by the name of Omo Iya Oni Resi that I found fascinating. In the kind of epistolary clapback you would find only on Twitter, Omo iya oni resi wrote: “Dear CANADA, my availability to be stolen to your country is approved by GOD and man. Please, steal me without any baggages and I am done. Looking forward to your favorable response.”
All joking aside, I believe there are two things that may be said about this story by the Punch and Omo iya oni resi’s supplicatory pushback in particular. Although you might indeed wonder why many Nigerian young people have been running away from the country to Canada in recent years, the tweet actually calls to mind that important intersection of youth culture and digital activism that gripped the Nigerian civic imagination some years ago.
I am of course referring to the viral hashtag #Nottooyoungtorun which recognizes the fact that young people have the right to actively participate in civic and public life, whether as voters or as people who run for public office without any arbitrary institutional or cultural barriers. The participation of the Nigerian youth in governance has been grossly limited in our recent political history, considering how government has largely been structured by gerontocratic forces. To put it differently, our political culture has essentially been contingent on a social logic in which the structures of government and state power are organized around old people. For those who believe digital practices like hashtags which challenge hegemonic power and the normative order never translate into any concrete, offline political action, #Nottooyoungtorun became the answer as the Nigerian government lowered the minimum age for election candidates.
Let me quote the tweet announcing this by an excited President Buhari: “At 2.30pm today May 31, 2018, I signed into law the #NotTooYoungToRun Bill, a landmark piece of legislation that was conceived, championed and accomplished by young Nigerians. The Bill has now become an Act of Parliament. It is a historic day for Nigeria.” There are of course other practical considerations of realpolitk that we may discuss later, but to return for now to Omo Iya oni resi’s letter to Canada, we may be compelled to see how #nottooyoungtorun actually signifies some other meanings. One is the idea that many young people in Nigeria appear to be saying among themselves on Twitter: I am not too young to run. Away from Nigeria. I am not too young to run. Away from the sub-human indignities I am daily subjected to. Away from the misery and debilitating conditions that constantly undermine creativity.
Away from the Naija factor. Never mind that many other young people have created enormous success from the same social conditions that push these youths to run. I shall close with that, but for now this latter sense of the #nottooyoingtorun hashtag can be seen to gesture at the extraverted, outside-looking gaze of the Nigerian young person who assumes a life of comfort awaits them outside the country. But it is the urgent and pertinent political aspiration to bring the energy and invention of youth to the crises of governance in Nigeria that the original #nottooyoungtorun symbolizes. I believe the focus of our gathering today speaks to this latter meaning. By now, you probably have guessed that my interest in the talk lies in deconstructing a viral social media hashtag in Nigeria and connecting it to other recent social movements in the country, especially #Sòrò sókè and #EndSARS. I do this because to speak effectively of an evolved generation, and the explosion of fresh voices in the public sphere, or even the pragmatic next steps we need to be taking, we need to be pay some attention to the digital contexts of social media expressions of speech.
This is crucial if we are to understand, for example, the ways in which young people’s challenge to #EndSARS disrupted the country in the fall of 2020. The #Sòrò sókè generation, as this army of young people designated themselves, can be conceptually understood in several ways, but before I mention some of these, let me say quickly that an evolved generation itself has stood on the shoulders of activist giants from the non-digital spaces of political resistance in Nigeria. From #OccupyNigeria to #BringBackourgirls, every moment of digital activism that has coalesced into the youth-based #EndSARS and #Sòrò sókè have had significant ideological connections to the important foundational activist labors of past members of civil society. As a matter of fact, youth activism online fails when these vital connections to the existing structures of analog dissent are not recognized. So, when Teju Cole, the Nigerian-American novelist declared that Twitter was an African city, it was an affirmation of the mutual links between the digital and the non-digital. To quote Teju Cole:
“Probably the biggest demonstration that ever happened in Nigeria was the fuel subsidy protest a couple of years ago. This is almost unimaginable without the kind of organizing that happens on Twitter, because it makes networks possible and it facilitates that responsive, very quick organizational turning-on-a-dime. On Sunday night you organize something, and on Monday morning people have gathered on the streets, because they have all seen the call online.”
As we reflect on what it means for a generation of young people to have evolved or to be evolving, social media as I see it is, therefore, one major arena of that evolution. Let us be clear, though. I do not believe we need to romanticize technology. You will agree with me that social media has the capacity to both amplify and depoliticize voices. Simply put, since its ambivalence is well known, social media will not save us, especially if not complemented with the praxes of offline political action. But that’s not all. Social media in Nigeria is also precariously haunted the politics of class. Social class is written all over the narrative of digital culture in Nigeria, as Shola Adenekan’s brilliant scholarship in this area reminds us. This means that social media and the voices it facilitates are basically a middle-class affair, as CAN be seen with those abandoning their wall-paying jobs and running to Canada, but that topic is a story for another day.
That said, if social media imposes class politics on the fresh voices resisting conditions of postcolonial disenchantment in Nigeria, then we need to ask the important questions about representation in the public arena. This takes me back to the #sororoke generation and how I think it significantly misrecognized its own potentially revolutionary moment. I will come back to this point in my closing. For now, it’s worth pointing out that #Sòrò sókè existed as one of the many rhetorical dimensions of the narratives of #EndSARS and the various struggles over its meaning. #Sòrò sókè is the imperative to speak up, to speak loudly and back at power, but this translation may not even capture the loaded cultural meanings of its deployments in the context of #EndSARS. During the protests, #Sòrò sókè manifested mainly as the linguistic invitation to speak up against the coercive expressions of a police culture that is the material signifier of the ruthless violence of a state that kills its citizens, according to the Nigerian scholars Ebenezer Obadare and Wale Adebanwi.
As young people in Nigeria created spaces to #sorosoke, they resisted a ruling elite whose job has historically been to #jeunsoke at the expense of the country. If #jeunsoke is the politics of thievery and political corruption, #Sòrò sókè was its necessary anti-thesis. For those in the audience who have followed resistance to police brutality online, you of course recall that the movement to #endSARS did not start in 2020. But the level of outrage generated in previous years was not as intense as what we witnessed in last year. What makes this recent reiteration of #EndSARS more vocal and widely circulated may be attributed to a #Sòrò sókè mentality that produced the conditions under which an explosion of fresh voices became possible. #Sòrò sókè was a counter-hegemonic carnival that, as Professor Wole Soyinka wrote, “brought fresh blood into tired veins even as it offered us a rare chance “to watch youths finally begin to take the future into their own hands.”
To #Sòrò sókè, therefore, is the performative vernacular of dissent mobilized discursively against the impositions of police brutality, but it is also to express disaffection with the larger hegemonic structures of culture that constrain youth agency and their power of self-determination. We may also understand #Sòrò sókè as the symbolic displacement of uncritical silence as a gerontocratic political elite continues to expect subservience from the young. But to be clear, the Nigerian young potentially has enormous political power, although it lies in perilous proximity to irrelevance in the framework of actual governance. This misrecognition of its own power takes us back to the issues of representation that was also evident during #endsars. First, the digital ecosystem is not fully representative of all Nigerian youths and all men are really not equal.
There are influencers. And there are those consuming celebrity culture. If we limit our conception of the evolved youth to only those who are online, then our progressive politics will always be undermined by, for instance, the so-called hoodlums—who themselves are embodiments of the reassertion of state power in the public space. More importantly, the #sorosoke generation failed to recognize and affirm the voices of some other Nigerian youths who joined the protests online. I am of course talking here about how the participation of the LGBT community during #endsars was problematic for some so-called, young progressives online. It was troubling to see the voices of vulnerable groups considered as a distraction to the performative rendition of speech against the state and its repressive apparatus.
In other words, the pragmatics of our evolution as young people could not appreciate the insidious connections between police brutality and other forms of injustices. It was as if the power to #Sòrò sókè could be asserted by only a few, anointed young people, while some other young Nigerians were deemed to be neither sufficiently youthful nor Nigerian enough to #sorosoke because of their difference. The pragmatic next steps in youth involvement in nation building would have to include creating an expansive space in which the crusade against prebendal politics and political corruption is not limited by a faux moralism that denies the agency of women and sexual minorities, or the solidarity of the non-digital actors we sometimes exclude. Our dialogue with power cannot leave anyone out. We cannot recreate among ourselves the oppressive systems we wish to dismantle nationally.
I wish to now close by returning to my reading of the #nottooyoungtorun hashtag. Not every young person will run away from Nigeria, unlike the rest of us. Nigeria may have its many contradictions, with its notorious and ambivalent marriage of crises and opportunities, yet it is where many young people are doing some amazing work.
While they may not be too young to run like many others have done, they are actually too empowered to run. It’s their power that is imagined as a threat by the ruling elite. These young people know there is a country that deserves their energy, and they are already responding by building the infrastructures to enable Nigeria’s transformation. If you do not believe me, you may need to go to Yaba to see how young Nigerians are creating digital futures and economies that are attracting huge investments and partnership from Silicon Valley, to give one of many examples. Beyond the zealous and sometimes uncritical support for Arsenal or Man United, or even the willing capitulation to a troubling Pentecostalization of culture that is sometimes divorced from critical thinking, young people in Nigeria are already participating actively in the global knowledge economy, not as mindless consumers but as creators of economic value. If we follow the money, we may find digital subjects who know what a Nigerian analog state does not yet realize—that the future will be built on digital infrastructures rather than mainly on oil capitalism.
Hence, these young Nigerians are not waiting for the next hashtag to perform an illusionary resistance online; neither are they lamenting the curse of a political elite that is Medieval in much of its operation. They are a tolerant, ideologically grounded, and technologically savvy cohort of leaders who know how to get off Twitter when necessary and make solid connections offline and across the board. If there is anything to take away, as I conclude, it is that, despite the issues of representation I have raised, #Sòrò sókè captures the fact that the Nigerian youth is here to stay, here to offer their voice to the production of national narratives, while practically demanding dialogue from government. The #sorosoke generation is #nottooyoungtorun. They will speak and it is too late for state and society not to listen. I thank you for your time.