This article was originally published on Common Edge.
For the past two weeks, cities across Nigeria were hit by protests against the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit setup in 1992 to fight armed robberies. The anti-SARS protesters are calling for the unit’s disbandment, due to its high-handedness, extra-judicial killings, extortion, and numerous human rights abuses.
Tragically, the protests came to a brutal climax on October 20, with the shooting of protesters at the Lekki Tollgate by gunmen believed to be agents of the Nigerian state. This led to casualties, which are currently a subject of controversy: the Lagos State government concedes that two persons lost their lives; groups like Amnesty International insist the figures are much higher.
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Protests are relatively common in Nigeria, but nothing on this scale has been seen for several decades. A common trait of the EndSARS protests is the almost instantaneous appropriation of public roads, a situation that creates tension between protesters and other residents. This flashpoint—between citizens who want to be heard and residents who need to go about their business—is caused in large part by the paucity of open public spaces in most Nigerian cities. Protesters are forced to commandeer roads since there are virtually no open spaces large enough for these kinds of public gatherings. In Abuja, protesters at some point took over the airport road, cutting off access to a vital commercial hub, stranding residents and travellers alike. Similar disruptions occurred in just about every city where protests were held.
Nigerian cities have been shaped by a variety of factors, many of them in conflict with one another: the peculiarities of local politics, a half-century of British colonial rule that abhorred all forms of protests, and several decades of military dictatorship when dissent was illegal. I believe this urban hole in our cities—where functioning public spaces might logically reside—is quite deliberate. Both our colonizers and our dictators shared a disdain for protests and civil disobedience. Hence they felt much better served by the absence of these spaces. Even for a recently built city like Abuja, which was bespokely designed to correct the ills of Lagos, Nigeria’s erstwhile capital city, this crucial urban component remains woefully absent. Ironically, Paris was the model on which Nigerian authorities modeled its new capital city. Bureaucrats and designers here wanted to recreate the wide Haussmann boulevards, with colonnades of trees and public squares. It is curious, and yet not entirely surprising, that authorities then discarded this important placemaking element. The official logic is obvious: no public spaces, no public protests.
Historically, the absence of public spaces in our cities has been a way for colonial and post-colonial authorities to maintain power. Denying the local population a spatial outlet for protest created a culture of suppression and a collective cultural docility: What’s the point of protest if there’s no place to protest? Sadly, this urban legacy remains to this day, and it subtly and inexorably erodes our budding democracy. Nigeria simply doesn’t have cities equipped to handle dissent: Protests have often been a nightmare for both protesters and other city residents. The only public square in Abuja, Eagle Square, is fenced off and used for state-sanctioned events only; access is granted at the pleasure of the authorities, at whom these protests are usually targeted. Even worse, our pedestrian-unfriendly urban centers often make it impractical to lead itinerant protests. This inevitable tension between protesters and motorists is fundamentally an urban design problem.
Today, African nations are emerging from years of military dictatorship and strongmen politics to become full-blown democracies. It is crucial that city authorities across the continent accept this reality: they owe citizens the opportunity and avenue to air their grievances. Public spaces are not just a mark of urbanity, but a core attribute of democracy itself. They must be incorporated into African contemporary placemaking, giving everyone a sense of belonging and civic participation, an opportunity to have their voices heard. This urban reality would set them boldly apart from the epoch of military dictatorships and the European colonialists before them.