I was 17 when I joined my first protest march against the excesses of military rule as a first-year student at the University of Lagos in 1990/91. In the years to come, there were many more struggles for social justice that would tug at the hearts of the young men and women of my generation.
By the time I turned 20 in 1993, I was already a veteran of many struggles.
I rallied with Segun Maiyegun, the dreadlocked, indefatigable President of the University of Lagos Students’ Union and leader of the National Association of Nigerian Students when he led Nigerian students to protest Babangida’s draconian rule.
I fought side by side with Omoyele Sowore, another dogged fighter who as President of the University of Lagos Students’ Union (ULSU), led Nigerian students in putting up principled opposition to the annulment of the June 12 elections in 1993.
By the time I turned 21, I was President of the University of Lagos Students’ Union. Like those who had gone before me, I fought battles big and small. I fought for the rights of students to walk and live without fear on their own campus. As a Senator of the National Association of Nigerian Students, I joined with other student leaders to continue the fight for the actualization of the June 12 struggle and put up principled opposition to General Sani Abacha, when he began to take Nigeria down the path of tyranny, perfidy and dictatorship. By the time I graduated from University with a First Class Degree in Chemical Engineering in 1996, I had seen my fair share of detentions, torture, rustication and harassment.
Every person of conscience who was in Nigeria’s schools in the twenty years between 1979 and the return of democracy in 1999 had a lot of battles to fight. Whether it was the struggle against the excesses of a corrupt civilian regime, draconian military rule, the menace of cultism on campuses, dilapidated infrastructure in tertiary institutions, the annulment of the June 12 1993 elections or the emergence of a brutal dictatorship, my generation had no lack for struggles and fights of principle.
My activism took me across Nigeria. I was on campuses across the nation – organizing, mobilizing, protesting, and picketing. I joined with principled men and women in the labor movement and the human rights community to push Nigeria’s struggle for democracy a little further. The faces and names of the people that I met along that journey have remained with me, etched forever in my memory and my consciousness.
Like the activists of my day, I was a familiar face at the law offices of both Gani Fawehinmi and Femi Falana – who were both Senior Advocates of the Masses, long before their peers recognized them as Senior Advocates of the Nation (SAN). When the Abacha regime put out a capture order on me because of my role in leading the student movement against his government, I was forced to go underground and had the opportunity to live in one of several safe houses for activists in Lagos, run by one of the most consistent men that I know, Aremu Abiodun – a labor leader that remains active in struggle till this day. I met many more activists there.
As I read the names of those who have raped and plundered Nigeria in the last 20 years, I am struck by the fact that these men and women are of my generation. We could have been in school together. Some might have been ahead of me, some behind. Even those who are older than me are of the same generation as the labor activists and the human rights crusaders that were with me in the trenches, fighting for the soul of Nigeria.
But I do not know them.
I do not know them because as young people, they were not on the picket lines. They were not participants in any of the struggles that consumed my generation. They never sacrificed for Nigeria – not a year of schooling, not a day of freedom, not the pain of torture - nothing.
And because we do not know them, we could not tell their character when they appeared as adults on the national scene, pretending they were here to serve. You see, character is like body odor. It is formed early, and it sticks to you and follows you everywhere you go. It lingers even when you are gone. If these men and women who now plunder Nigeria had been with us in the trenches, we would have known their smell.
But they were not there. They were absent from the theater of struggle.
Yet, somehow, someway, these men and women who lived their youths in blissful ignorance of the challenges of Nigeria, are now being called upon in their adulthood to nurse an injured nation back to health. These men and women who did not deem Nigeria worthy of their youthful vigor are being asked to revive her in their waning years.
Dr. Malcolm Fabiyi is a former President of the University of Lagos Students’ Union (ULSU). He is the coordinator of the Governance Advancement Initiative for Nigeria (GAIN).