I have the particular (mis?)fortune of being in the US at this most crucial point in its electoral cycle. It almost doesn’t matter that I’m here, though; no matter where I might be in the world, it would be nigh impossible to evade the conversations about which old white man will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue until the next leap year.
I’m semi-stuck in the US at the moment because last week almost all flights to Lagos were cancelled, including mine, so I moved it. Nigeria is currently experiencing a level of civil unrest that has never been seen in our 20-year democracy; I was still a child and we were still in a military regime the last time state agencies spent this much time kidnapping and killing civilians across the entire country.
For about two weeks in October, young Nigerians used social media and the streets to protest extrajudicial killings by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Before long, the calls to disband the violent police unit grew into broader demands for justice, accountability and good governance. In response, the Lagos State Government, the Presidency, the Nigerian Army and a political puppeteer who lives on the most expensive street in Lagos colluded to shoot protesters to death.
The message was clear: "This country is ours; the rest of you just live in it."
I remember thinking, as I watched video after video of police and military men shooting young Nigerians to death, that my government is a terrorist organisation. I remember thinking, also, that my government is not alone in being this way. In many countries, state power rarely functions to protect or promote the wellbeing of the people: more often than not, a select minority form the political majority. Our countries are functionally theirs; the rest of us just live there.
Like an undoubtedly large number of you, I’ve watched the US go through the motions of democracy this week, essentially choosing between a president who unapologetically embraces and encourages white supremacist imperialism and one who is more polite about it. I’ve wondered how nothing – not even the preventable death of 230,000 people and economic collapse due to a spectacular refusal to take Covid-19 seriously – was enough to convince half of the US electorate not to vote for the current president.
Seeing the way the deep, deep roots of racism continue to shape politics in this country, I’ve realised that any government, and indeed any political majority, can send the message that the Nigerian government recently sent its people. "This is our country: you just live in it."
Thankfully, none of us actually have to accept this.
This year, people all over the world have rejected such a message. From the US to South Africa, Brazil to Poland, Congo to Sudan to Angola to Chile, people are rising up to hold their governments to account and transform their countries. People are demanding their right to life, to safety and to freedom. People have sent a counter-message: This is our land, too. This is our nation, too. This is our country, too.
You might have noticed that I didn’t send out a newsletter last week. I simply didn’t know what to write. As I tried to come to terms with what I have now learned about my home country, I struggled intensely with despair. My government started massacring Nigerians on 20 October, and they don’t seem keen on stopping. I’ve been struggling, but I’m only one person. Thousands of other Nigerians are still raising their voices. They’re still demanding justice, accountability and peace. People are still fighting, in Nigeria and all over the world, to be free.
As I’ve nursed my heart in the US, I’ve been surrounded by conversations about this election and what it might mean for marginalised Americans, citizens of the scores of countries where the US has a significant military presence, and the rest of the world.
Listening to these conversations has helped me realise there’s nothing wrong with being disillusioned. Many, if not most of the people around me who are discussing the elections, are thoroughly disenchanted with the US as a whole. But even in their disillusionment, just like the thousands of Nigerians who continue to resist my government, they refuse to just accept the message that they are outsiders in their own country.
It feels almost trite to say this, but their dogged refusal gives me hope. People resist even when it seems like they can’t win, because they know they are not here at anyone’s mercy. They’re not unaware of the odds; they just do what they can to improve them. For some people here, that means voting in earnest. For others, it means voting with gritted teeth. For still others, it means divesting from elections and putting their energies elsewhere.
I’m watching marginalised US Americans insist that they’re not here at anyone’s mercy, and taking comfort in the knowledge that that’s what my people back home are doing too. They know that they have power, and they’re using it to make whatever change they can. It reminds me that I can do the same.
This small message of hope is all I have, for now. I’m not here at anyone’s mercy. Neither are you.
Till next time,