Almost 2 years ago, I watched the same movie play out almost to the letter. At the time, I was still resident in Nigeria and a nascent protest movement was getting off the ground. Or on the ground depending on how you look at it. #EndSARS was a purely youth-driven protest movement that saw the entirety of Nigeria’s youth across ethnic and political divides unite in pursuit of a single reasonable and achievable political goal – the end of police criminality and brutality.
Naturally, the Nigerian establishment was alarmed at the new phenomenon of pan-youth political action, so it did what empires always do. It fought back.
First came attempts to discredit and compromise the leaders of the movement. Quickly, it became apparent that there were in fact no “leaders” and the protest was every bit as decentralised as it claimed to be. No matter, because like every self respecting establishment, the Nigerian empire saw this only as a temporary logistical setback. Different ways to kill a cat and all that. So it changed tack from trying to discredit the non-existent leaders to discrediting the entire movement as a whole. And this is where a certain group of people came into the picture.
Segun Awosanya – Daniel Kanu Redux
Back in the 90s when Sani Abacha was planning to transition himself into a civilian dictator by holding sham elections where he would be the sole candidate (way ahead of you, Paul in Kigali!), Abacha’s strategy included use of youthful provocateurs, patsies and astroturfers whose job was to either organise a false image of public love for General Designer Sunshades, or to provide a pretext for a crackdown on any groups opposed to his self succession plan.
One of these provocateurs was a fellow called Daniel Kanu, who led a briefcase political action entity called “Youths Earnestly Ask for Abacha” (YEAA). Kanu was the visual opposite of all that Abacha was – young to Abacha’s broody age, Christian to Abacha’s Muslim, southeastern to Abacha’s northwestern (or so Abacha claimed anyway), and media friendly to Abacha’s media-averse, menacing persona. If he was able to stage his so-called “Million Man March for Abacha,” this would provide a visual pretext for Abacha to claim he had widespread support, and thus push forward with his plan despite foreign opposition.
Thankfully, we never got to know how successful Kanu’s scheme would have been because Abacha dropped dead unexpectedly one day in 1998, and Nigeria got a second chance. But as the rise of Segun Awosanya, alias ‘Segalink,’ Reno Omokri and other professional astroturfers and provocateurs shows us, Kanu’s legacy lives on. Take Awosanya for example, who was able to successfully plant himself at the narrative centre of #EndSARS by portraying himself as its “convener” – a nonsensical title for someone who neither started the movement nor “convened” anything in his life.
Using Kanu’s blueprint from the 90s, Awosanya cleverly hid his pro-regime intentions once the on-street protests kicked off by pretending to be concerned about the safety of protesters. When the attempted emotional gimmickry failed, he then bared his fangs and moved on to outright blackmail, accusing protesters of being “insurrectionists.”
For a regime that had clearly been looking for a pretext to send in the troops and reprise Tiananmen Square, this was the narrative excuse it had been waiting for, and the date “October 20, 2020” has since gone down in infamy. He would later even ratchet up the blackmail by blaming the protesters for their own deaths, claiming that they “soaked his hashtag in blood.”
The devil has no new tricks
Here we are in 2022, and the latter-day Daniel Kanu regens are at it yet again. This time, the target is yet another pan-Nigerian youth movement with a reasonable, achievable political goal. For those who have a functioning pair of eyes and ears, it is clear that the groundswell of support for Peter Obi across Nigeria’s youth population is not necessarily even driven by Peter Obi himself. It is actually more about what he represents in the minds of young Nigerians, versus the other options presented to them.
After 7 unbroken years of calamity under Retired General Toothpick in Aso Rock, young Nigerians from across the entire country are clearly tired of the status quo, and Peter Obi – whether he even agrees or not – represents a change they want.
The past few months have seen completely organic youth-led displays of support for Candidate Obi in places like Kogi, Delta, Sokoto and Lagos – it really does not get more diverse and broad based than that. Unsurprisingly, many have drawn parallels with #EndSARS, leading to the also unsurprising attempt by the Nigerian Empire to reprise the script used on innocent young protesters against innocent young voters. The cast and crew are almost the same as the last time in fact. Once again the youth of the country are on one side, while the self-styled “convener of #EndSARS” is on the other, ably assisted by “Wendel Slimlin,” or Reno Omokri as he sometimes chooses to be known.
Just like the antecedents from the 90s and in 2020, these two provocateurs – a thoroughly undistinguished real estate agent and a preacher who was once a media aide for a 1-term president, have busily set about the task of gaslighting, strategic dishonesty and narrative blackmail to portray themselves as somehow important in the ongoing conversation, and to typecast Candidate Obi’s groundswell of organic support as some sort of violent, insurrection that needs to be put down. The poorly-disguised campaign of dog-whistling recently went to the extent of paying for Awosanya to get a full page colour interview in a major daily newspaper, as though this were someone who has any actual political capital worth dedicating political newsprint inches to.
The difference this time though, is that the likes of Awosanya and Omokri have vastly underestimated the extent to which young Nigerians have been frustrated and pushed to the wall over the past 7 years. If they imagine that they will have their way by appealing to a non-existent, contrived standard of political discourse which they themselves do not adhere to, they are making the same mistake that Daniel Kanu made in 1998 – the mistake of overestimating themselves and their own importance in the larger scheme of things.
Young Nigerians who want a change from the status quo and have vocally chosen Candidate Obi as their vehicle – sometimes even to his visible abashment – by and large do not really care what a realtor with dyed hair and a randy delinquent dad think about their electoral choices. It is also impossible to call in the army to massacre Peter Obi’s supporters because they are too geographically dispersed and numerous for any kind of crackdown to be logistically feasible. The latter-day Daniel Kanus are fighting a lost war, but they don’t seem to have realised it yet. Ultimately, two things will emerge from the 2023 election:
1.) What will determine the outcome will have exactly nothing to do with the malicious attempts by dishonourable people to smear an entire movement after failing to land dirt on its designated leaders, and
2.) Young Nigerians have decided what they want. Even if they do not get it next year, it is only going to be a matter of time now.
Which means for the likes of Awosanya and Omokri, time is running out.