Friday, December 8

Aisha Yesufu: Valiancy, Advocacy and Resiliency

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Activist campaigns have been driven by a commonality of intentions, the desire for a responsible and proactive advocacy for people who have been victims of human right abuses, political injustices, prevalence of conflicts undergirded by poor social infrastructure, and other conceivable injustices. When organized repression, coordinated prejudices and collaborative injustices leave the people devastated and weaken their resolve, these things place an urgent responsibility on individuals or advocates in the society who can stand up to the situation and remain resolute with their position. Their voices become their weapon which they fixate concentrating on the emerging challenges, refusing all temptations in forms of threat or sacrifice that stand in their way. Human rights abuses are rife in Nigeria and one of the irrepressible voices who has consistently undertaken the responsibility of advocacy against these abuses is a vibrant woman, namely, Aisha Yesufu.

Yesufu was born to Nigerian parents in 1974 in the same country, and came to public limelight when she became a strong powerhouse for the activism campaign labelled “Bring Back Our Girls” in 2014, after the sad incidence of the kidnap of more than 200 Chibok girls in a school in the Northern part of Nigeria. Most recently associated with the nationwide #Endsars protest that drew the global attention to the coordinated brutality of a unit of the Nigerian police–Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)–against innocent youths especially, Aisha came out strongly against the oppressive government institution.

Poised, courageous, determined, and fearless, this activist has outlived and withstood longstanding oppressions, not bowing out to pressure when at the forefront of her advocacy campaigns, sometimes confronted with hard choices. With her very recent involvement which once again convincingly established how bold she can be and also generated heated controversy among people who believe she does not represent a true Muslim woman in the ways she goes about her activism, Aisha Yesufu’s #Endsars campaign demands government to proscribe the rogue police unit as the viable solution to contain their ever-spreading excesses. SARS have been consistently reported for their gross misconduct and blatant rights abuses that manifest in extortion of unassuming and innocent citizens, rape of defenseless females in their custody, and brutalization of people generally. All of this has created such a psychological trauma that was becoming not only to the mind but also too acidic to it. Coupled with the unmistakable disinterest with which the Nigerian government has handled the reported cases of rights abuses by this particular police unit meant to protect the citizen, the #Endsars campaign, rather than douse its flame after the government promised to attend to the yearnings of Nigerian youths, caught fire because of the age-long history of mutual distrust between the government and the citizens.

Indeed, the government had used different vocabularies to end the menace of SARS seven times in the last four years, of course on paper. From broadly reforming in 2016, to reorganizing and eventual disbanding in 2017, to overhauling and the nomenclature-introduction of F-SARS in 2018 as the measure of reform, to total reorganization and comprehensive reformation in 2019, and to disbandment in February 2020. Hence, it was very understandable that, when the IGP and then the president announced the disbandment, the youths were unyielding. It was a similar music to their ears.

Yesufu’s bold remark that she “would not leave the fight against #Endsars protest in Nigeria for her children” instantly became an international sensation for the global audience who have this time around been keenly following the progression of the campaign, myself inclusive. More than it was for a reminder to the people about the deep-rooted status of the said complicity of the government in the repression agenda, oppression, and institutional injustices against its citizens, the expression was meant to be an activism call for a reflection on the country’s apparent gravitation towards anarchy, knowing that the people who should naturally protect the citizens are paradoxically interested in killing them and their voices. Perhaps, this is the interpretation that several global celebrities immediately gave to Yesufu’s piercing words that inspired them to immediately join in the physical campaign, taking the struggle away from Twitter. Alongside another vibrant and savvy woman, Rinu, she led the physical struggle in Abuja where, following Naira Marley’s call-off, many had thought the struggle had failed again – an allusion to the infamous Tuface Idibia’s call over a year ago which didn’t materialize. And constantly, she remained active on Twitter as well, showing that the struggle is both physical and virtual, emphasizing and symbolizing the need for global attention and, perhaps, added pressure. Indeed, it was no coincidence that the decibel of the #Endsars campaign was so difficult to un-hear that Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, immediately generated a vertical clenched fist symbol colored in the Nigerian flag for the protest on his media platform – a gesture that allegedly demanded that he monetarily paused the activities of the platform. Not only that, Jack gave Aisha a seal of approval and recognition of her valiancy and heroism by verifying her Twitter account with the much-coveted blue tick, the first of many alongside Rinu and Mr. Macaroni, a comedian.

No sooner had this global awareness become widespread that the #Endsars activism campaign took the version of Black Lives Matter movement, a rallying ground of support for the victimized African-Americans. Through the voices like that of Aisha Yesufu, the Nigerian government understood that the current generation of Nigerian youths appeared to do differently what has been known with protest infrastructure in the country.

A careful observation of the trends of Yesufu’s activism campaign will reveal that she has been very consistent and never deviated from the ethos of advocacy and democratic principles which she has come to be identified with. Her involvement in the Bring Back Our Girls movement from 2014 is a revelation of her love for the freedom of the female demographic in Northern Nigeria who have remained victims of systemic rights abuses because of rigid religious views and other practices. Perhaps, one needs to understand the deepness of gender suppression in that part of the country to appreciate the boldness of Aisha Yesufu. In what Aisha once confessed to while granting a correspondent an interview, by the time she was 11 years of age, virtually all her friends (females) who are of the same age bracket, had been married off at that tender age and that made her journey to get education a lonely one. When she was 24, nearly all the girls that she had grown up with were then becoming grandmothers. To experience this obvious injustice against the female gender ruffles her mind and gives her a disturbing mindset. In a country that is heavily divided by religious and ethnic identities, she needed to acquire maximum education to channel her rejection of the crude maltreatment against her gender through appropriate mediums so that she could challenge the hydra-headed structure, or perhaps system, which has almost normalized that anomaly.

To contain this consuming problem, she became very imposing in her campaign against known Nigerian government agencies in 2014 by investing her time, energy, money and other resources to make her voice heard against the brutality imposed on the girl child. Although her coming into limelight was a product of accumulated involvements which she had done unnoticed before the event, her name became a household material after continuously making marks in her activism campaigns. Added to the realization that the female child receives less social and political values and attention from that country’s region, she immediately projected the probable conditions that the abducted ladies could be embroiled after the abduction saga, and her reaction was to stage advocacy for their guaranteed safety and release, perhaps. For her irrevocable commitment for the struggle, she was attracted to a body of transnational advocacy groups who share similar ideological and social stands against the oppression of the females and other similar rights abuses. Recording such level of success in the campaign, where obviously she was a co-campaigner, Aisha Yesufu was able to connect deeply to the larger body of international advocates, seeking to make life better for the oppressed and tormented. Her voice, in collaboration with others, has been able to bring about calculated success especially with regards to the Bring Back Our Girls movement. Afterwards, a number of the captives were released and regained their freedom after an uncommon persistence.

To many people across the globe, there is less success attached to activism campaigns other than the euphoria of accolades and encomiums which are accorded to the advocates. While this is in part truthful, it undermines the actual integrity of protest and activism which is underscored by the unpopular social changes that are not casually linked to the protest infrastructure on the surface. First, it is to be understood that the irrepressible voices of advocates have always been a major force in the enhancement of desirable change as important stakeholders who determine social activities are usually conflicted by their loud stances and are thus pushed to make policies that would be fair to the people generally. For example, the sudden increment of government attention on the security architecture that caters for the safety of the girl child in the Nigerian environment is a testament to the awareness of the government officials of the underlying danger inherent in their continued aloofness to public outcry, especially knowing that social advocates like Yesufu would always be there to contend with. It was reasonable therefore that when changes occur in the society through policies that are inspired by activism advocacy, the success of their stance may not be concretely measurable, but it obviously cannot be denied that they are purpose-driven. Apart from the immediate attention of the Nigerian government towards the retrieval of kidnapped girls that birthed the Bring Back Our Girls movement, the security of schools was exponentially tightened.

Another identifiable attribute of Aisha Yesufu’s advocacy concerns lies in her ability to employ her confidence and resolve to measure Nigeria’s capacity for democratic leadership. Her campaigns are solidly about social emancipation, in the context of the Nigerian Leviathan. After the abrupt end of colonial dominance, the majority of ex-colonies were left with an inheritance of a political style called “democracy” which became the template with which their political engagement would then be conducted. However, the colonial identity had, prior to this time, created an acrimonious and divisive political atmosphere which naturally made it difficult for true democracy to thrive without corresponding challenges. This is immediately realized few years after independence in the occupation of the Nigerian government by the military. Ever since this incidence, the country has witnessed the alternation of democracy and military government, making it difficult to enjoy or celebrate a decade in either system. All these, therefore are expressions of the fragility of the Nigerian democracy, only to be tested and evaluated by occasional interventions that question its originality. Since 1999, the country has maintained an unprecedented stretch of years into a democratic leadership, challenged intermittently by epochal events. Under this impression, the voice of Aisha Yesufu has been conceptualized as a measurement for the tenacity of Nigerian democracy, bringing out her activism campaign under President Goodluck Jonathan, a reasonable and fair democrat, in 2014, and then General Muhammadu Buhari, in 2020.

When we begin to philosophize her activism campaigns by enlarging our scope of evaluation and appreciation vis-a-vis her tweets on democratic principles and good governance, we would see her position as something beyond fighting against the rights abuses that she represents; indeed, she is someone who has remained fearless, undaunted and fanatical in her quest for responsible and accountable leadership in beloved country, Nigeria. We would most likely see her protest culture as an attempt to measure if truly Nigeria has become a democratic environment where the voices of protests and oppositions to government’s policies are not greeted with familiar violence. These are difficult but necessary ways by which a people’s development can be measured. For example, her level of confidence and perseverance would have obviously experienced a downturn perhaps if the incidence of that kidnap happened under a military dictator had experienced similar activism. A government that is intolerant of mass participation or reactions to events would not condone any incidence of protest or activism which can disrupt existing peace or incite people against the government. Now this is where the activism advocacy of Yesufu deserves the international accolades it has received in recent days over her involvement in the #Endsars campaign. General Muhammadu Buhari was a “baptized democrat” whose idea of leadership was once determined by military fiat and decrees. That is to say that he is susceptible to taking a very quick reverse gear to his old self (and style) in the occasion that the situation is getting out of control. And interestingly, he probably still has military personnel who would honor an old friend’s “distress” call. These and many other factors are on ground, yet Aisha Yesufu took a leading role to question his government and urge him to accede to the yearnings and demands of the teeming Nigerian youths calling for the proscription of the SARS police unit.

One may want to question the source of her confidence and emboldened determination in a place where government’s most predictable response to activism is the increment of their oppression. We must concede that her relative success in activism advocacy comes at a cost. For one, there have been Nigerians of extreme religious dispositions who call for the regulation of her voices by clamping down on her using all means conceivable. To others, a more unfriendly method must be employed to silence her. The reason for the growing antagonism against Aisha is not because of the rightness or otherwise of her advocacy campaigns; rather it is a question of gender and religious sentiment. The majority of the people who argue that she does not represent an ideal definition of a Muslim woman do so under the ignorance that Yesufu’s model of Islam is domiciled in the Northern part of Nigeria where the patriarchal sentiment against females is mixed with religious explanations to discourage female voices. And laughably, these blocs of individuals believe she comes from the Northern part of the country and could be subjected to the familiar silence which females experience in that region. Conversely, for those who believe she should be shut down because the environment does not encourage a voice like hers to have a husband, they are usually ignorant of her blissful marital life, nurtured and developed by both her and her husband. And interestingly, they are blessed with children.

To put it succinctly, therefore, it won’t be an exaggeration when comparison is drawn between Yesufu and great women in history who have made commendable efforts to confront human rights abuses and fight for a just cause. Drawing inspirations from what women have done across the globe and then to change the sociocultural conditions of their environment, this woman has displayed especially important strengths through her determination to further her advocacy campaigns. Without any doubt, she has placed herself on the global map of relevance as an African woman who is not clamped or inhibited by social and religious injunctions to make contributions to the advancement of the society and its betterment too. Her name immediately comes to many minds when people are in urgent need of an immediate savior in the face of intimidation, human right abuses and other form of prejudices conceivable. One can hardly predict the deepness of the penetration of her voice in the heart of leaders who are moving away from their democratic responsibilities. Even when they decide to respond using more oppression, it is a clear sign that they are disturbed by her resolve and her irreversible commitment to social justice. They have come to terms with the understanding that their use of unpopular methods for containment of her voice does not always work, because like the proverbial dust in Maya Angelou’s poem, still she always rises! Do please join me in saluting Aisha:

#EndSARS and the Power of the Raised Fist

Soro Soke and the Valiancy of Speaking Up

Toyin Falola
University Distinguished Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair
The University of Texas at Austin