Abuja, Nigeria: In December 2020, former US President Obama made a remark regarding activism. According to him, activism was supposed to be conciliatory and that “snappy” slogans like “Defund the Police” only served to alienate people. The comments sparked a backlash from activists across different causes. According to the activists, the ex-president was wrong. The issues sparked a debate on the language of activism and the larger issue of whether activism should be “nice” and civil. What form should activism take? Who should draw up the rules? Are their issues on which there should be no room for compromise and alienation?
I believe that nobody wants to be out repeatedly screaming on the same issues. So the mere fact that we have to shout loud enough to be heard on so many issues is near proof that indeed there is a problem. This is why many activists believe that the focus should be on solving the problem and not necessarily in the manner in which the victims express their objections. This position echoes the main argument against conciliatory activism. They worry that such calls for civility, compromise and a “toned down” inclusive activism are utilised to silence minority voices and victims who more often than not have protested against the oppressive structures set up by the majority who also happen to be the ones demanding civility.
Personally, I hold the opinion that there is no need to show solidarity to your oppressor because in most cases, no matter how nicely you cry out, they will never hear you. My people have a saying that the cockroach will never win a case presided over by chickens. The problem I see here is that we are looking at civility in relation to activism, through the white lenses that we have all grown used to: an Americanised perspective; white versus black, liberals versus conservative. And as we know, many Americans tend to draw lines in the sand on their various issues, with either side refusing to budge. One might even suggest that this is the reason why a lot of progress is not being made around most major issues Americans are so rigid about, but I digress.
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One major event that has made me interested in the issue of a conciliatory approach to activism was not an American event at all. In the aftermath of the #ENDSARS protest last year, we Nigerian youths started to examine what could have been done better to ensure the least possible casualties as the protests swept through our nation. The protests had been against a notorious police unit that had terrorised young men and women in the country for years so, when the protests swept the country, it was more or less expected that everyone would join in.
What we discovered though was that the rogue police unit for which we protested were some kind of heroes in the Northern part of the country. In the northern regions of the country, SARS apparently applied their brutality in a manner vastly different from what was tenable in other regions of the country because their unit was allegedly responsible for bringing an end to armed robbery. So, when youths across the Southern states banded together under the catchy slogan “#Endsars”, a lot of the youths in the North replied with “Certainly not our SARS”. By virtue of that slogan, our protests as young people alienated a huge part of our demographics and it didn’t matter that we had the best intentions. The miscreant government then weaponised this ‘division of views’ as the crux of their strategy to suppress the protests.
We learnt the hard way that while it is tempting to hold a hard line view and refuse all compromise, sometimes snappy slogans are probably not the best approach. If the goal is to create lasting and sustainable changes in society, then activists should take care not to alienate other members of the same society. “Forceful activism” often fails to achieve widespread acceptance, not because it is not right or justified but because it gives the “oppressor” an excuse for his/her bias. As terrible as this sounds, that is the reality.
This is neither justified nor right but as activists, we need to consider all the angles if we are to win the causes we champion. It is crucial to remember that our goal as activists is to win the argument by bringing positive change, and in activism, winning can sometimes take different forms. I also know that it is a fallacy to think that whoever is not with us is against us. Issues, especially public issues, are never quite that binary and anyone who has gone anywhere beyond social media activism can tell you this.
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Another reason why we have to be careful to not justify the use of uncivilised, and violent means or arguments to further activism is for the sake of our society as one global village. While it may be understandable for instance for BLM activists to tear down monuments of former slave traders still standing today, it should not necessarily be an acceptable means to protest. This is because if the whole society accepts it, then we provide legitimacy for ideologies which may in the long run not be in the interest of society. Activism is not just reserved for causes that you like. It is not just reserved for Black people fighting against racism or women fighting for their rights or environmentalists fighting to stop development projects. And if all of the aforementioned activist groups resort to uncivilized or violent means for their protests, where will that leave us all in terms of the security of our lives and the livelihood of our communities?
In the aftermath of Obama’s comments he faced such overwhelming backlash that had he not been Obama and therefore uncancellable, he would surely have been cancelled. I look at this as yet another reason for us to pay closer attention to our activism. If the first black President of the United States, known for his activism and incredible ability to inspire change, points out something we can all do better in relation to activism, I think it is reasonable to pay attention. The fact that it was easier for many to draw a hardline and chose to cancel him anyway rather than listen, leads me to believe that perhaps he is right.
Perhaps we really need to do better. Perhaps, we need to love the cause more than the slogan.
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Cover image by Erick Zajac.