Black Lives Matter protests in the U.S. can spur change around the world. Youth can play a key role in the fight for equality, says a young African educator.


By Nelson Graves

Young people around the world can learn from the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States to spur change in their own countries, but they should move quickly, even if lasting change will take time to take effect.

That is the message from Faith Abiodun, a Nigerian national who works at the African Leadership Academy (ALA) in South Africa.

A former journalist, Abiodun is a project manager, communications executive, educator, entrepreneur, international affairs analyst, writer and speaker. In his own words, he combines “a hybrid background of journalism, corporate communications, non-profit management and education.”

A News Decoder partner school, ALA seeks to transform Africa by developing the next generation of African leaders. It offers a two-year curriculum to 16 to 19-year-olds.

At ALA, Abiodun is director of Marketing and Recruitment and also director of the International Relations Council. He founded the school’s Model African Union in 2013 and received a master’s degree in Public Administration from Syracuse University in 2012.

‘Youth can create change.’

In an interview with News Decoder, Abiodun said the message from the Black Lives Matter protests for young people outside the United States is to identify similar issues at the local level and to act quickly.

“These movements don’t always come, and they don’t always last too long,” he said. “So if you’ve got two weeks to get global attention, or three weeks, or a month, what is the biggest issue on your minds, and how do you advance society where you are?”

Both his native country, Nigeria, and South Africa have taken steps to tackle racial justices, but more needs to be done, he said. Social media has accelerated the global movement for racial equality, he said, but it will take time to erase inequities.

He urged young people to educate themselves about past and present racial injustices, to question leaders and then to act.

“Young people really can create change, but only if they understand the change they are trying to create, and question the history of the world, and where they’re coming from,” he said.

* * *

ND: So what lessons can young people outside the United States take from the Black Lives Matter protests in the States?

Abiodun: I think the key lesson for people to take from outside the United States is to really observe and learn from what’s going on, to realize that America is going through what I referred to as a reckoning. It’s a piece, like a boiling point. The activism of several generations has now reached a peak, and people are having to realize that this will probably not go away quickly, and the message for young people outside the United States is to really understand what is going on, and figure out the local equivalents of these types of campaigns and figure out what is the big issue of our time, in our country, and what we can do to move the needle, because these movements don’t always come, and they don’t always last too long. So if you’ve got two weeks to get global attention, or three weeks, or a month, what is the biggest issue on your minds, and how do you advance society where you are? 

ND: And what lessons can U.S. citizens take from Africa’s own struggles with racial issues?

Abiodun: So this is actually really important. As I reflected on this issue, I realized the history of our world has been one of violence. Almost every big global advancement we’ve had has come on the back of some sort of violence. That is so unsustainable, because it perpetuates this sense that we can’t figure things out through dialogue, and we can’t move society forward by having reasoning, that we always have to go into some sort of violence. That is not going to work going forward. 

‘You cannot push people out so long and expect them to stay down.’

So as I reflect on what is happening in the U.S., vis-à-vis what’s happening in the African continent, we’ve talked about Nigeria and South Africa as two examples of countries that have this racial divergence on the one hand, and also have had a history of subjugation. The reality is that neither country has actually moved forward the way they could have moved forward.

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A protester holds an emblem in the shape of Africa with the words Black Lives Matter on it, Cape Town, South Africa, 8 June 2020. (EPA-EFE/NIC BOTHMA)

In South Africa, the legacy of apartheid is so debilitating in the country. South Africa now, is the most unequal country in the world, and has been. It has the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor, living in one society. And no other country in the world has South Africa’s combination of that inequality. South Africa has also come up in the news recently and has always been, “This is the rape capital of the world.” South Africa has the highest number of rapes, per capita, per thousand of the population, than any other country in the world. These are little bits of the legacy of apartheid, because all these issues are wrapped up in one. When you are disenfranchised socio-economically, it begins to play out in the kind of education you have, in the housing that you have, in the access to healthcare that you have, and the compliment of the results of that, is that society becomes so fragmented. 

So folks in the U.S., young people in the U.S., have got to be watching and imagining what type of society they want to live in. If we continue to disenfranchise young people, the truth is, the future of the United States is going to be in absolute jeopardy. You cannot push people out so long and expect them to stay down. It will not happen. 

ND: Do you think that like many things in politics, the struggle for racial equality is a matter of two steps forward and one step back? And that activists should be careful not to make maximalist demands, that their demands be reasonable so that it’s not a question of one step forward and two steps backwards? 

Abiodun: Sadly, it feels like that. It feels like, when these demands come through, they feel a little bit like, you can’t have everything you want at once. But the fact that those demands are on the table, means that these are legitimate concerns that people have. And so, yes, it does feel like two steps forward and one step backward, because as human beings, we don’t have the capacity to address all of our issues at once. We don’t even have the energy to want to confront those issues.

‘Don’t kill us,’ is the message from Black Lives Matter protests.

So my perspective of where we are right now, is that the people, the activists, do not need to temper their requirements or their demands. They don’t have to temper them. Maybe they have to pace them out, and say, well, we’re looking at a 5-step approach to the type of reparation we look to achieve, maybe step 1 is this, step 2 is that, step 3 is that. So, really pacing things out allows people to focus, take a bite-sized approach, to addressing these issues. 

But again, as I mentioned earlier, all of these issues are so intertwined. And people right now aren’t protesting for equal access to quality education. That’s not on the table right now. They’re simply saying, “Don’t kill us.” Once they achieve that one, they’re gonna say, “By the way, we don’t have, you know, the same funded school districts as some other kids have. We don’t have the same access to universal healthcare that some other people have. We don’t live in the right type of neighbourhoods. We don’t have the right type of clean water.” All of these issues are so intertwined, and so the fact that these complaints remain, it means that we haven’t defined yet a just society. The race to attaining a just society, is going to be a long one. 

ND: You’re from Nigeria, one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. How has Nigeria sought to maintain social harmony and promote equality? 

Abiodun: The Nigerian government, over several generations, the governments have put in place a few policy-driven approaches to address racial equality. 

On the one hand, you have what we call the federal character principle in Nigeria, and that means that because we are this diverse nation with all kinds of ethnic groups and personalities, that there will be rotational sharing of power, and power cannot swing from one region to the other region, and in the federal appointments, etc, so that principle of federal character was one of the attempts that was made in government. Has it worked 100%? No. Like any government-driven policy, it doesn’t really achieve all its objectives. 

‘Nigeria is living in fragile peace.’

The government has as well put in place what is called the National Youth Service Corps in 1978, and this means that everyone who is a graduate of a tertiary institution will have to spend a year doing national service in a different part of the country from where they are. So if I’m from the Yoruba tribe, I’ll perhaps go spend some time serving the country in the Hausa region or in the Igbo region, so kind of moving people around so that maybe by being around people who are a little bit different than you are, you begin to assimilate their cultures, and you see them as equal to you. 

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Protesters against rape in Lagos, Nigeria, 11 June 2020 (EPA-EFE/AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE)

We also put in place what is called the Federal Government Colleges, that kind of bring children together from different parts of the country, to go to school together. 

These measures are, on the one hand, a little bit token measures. On the other hand, they are attempts, genuine attempts, to structure a just society, an equal society. Neither of these policies has achieved 100% what has been set out to achieve. And you find out that there are still huge levels of suspicion from one tribe to the other, and there are still many many attempts to — people in one part of the country don’t feel as safe if there are foreigners within that part of the country. 

We are living in what I call a fragile peace. But, again, these are the elements of peace that we have to strengthen rather than abandon. Each of these attempts were well-reasoned and designed. We just have to keep going, so remarkably for everyone and fortuitously, Nigeria hasn’t broken apart. But those tensions are very, very, evident, and the challenge we give to everyone is, continue to strengthen those bonds of peace and continue to strengthen those things that hold us together, rather than things that separate us. 

ND: Now, you live in South Africa. How successful has South Africa been in turning the page on apartheid, and what are the main challenges to racial equality there now? 

Abiodun: So South Africa’s post-apartheid structure is, on the one hand, an attempt to even the playing field for people who were previously subjugated. Remember, the laws of apartheid were in place for 42 years. That’s a whole generation. And we are only halfway through the first generation post-apartheid. I mean even before the laws of apartheid came into place, we’re going back almost a century of white domination in the country. So, the movement from that world is going to take a long time, if the efforts are sustained and delivered.

‘South Africa will take time to emerge from apartheid.’

But when you look at the reality today, the fragments of society, the components of society that were very, very fragmented are still fragmented with cosmetic changes to them. You look at education on the one hand. All of the top universities in the country, South Africa has the best tertiary institutions in the country. They were mainly white enclaves. These universities were the spaces where white people had the chance to go and study and research and all of that. And that remains the case. And now you are seeing a gradual reentry into society of Black people whose parents perhaps never went to school, and they’re requiring bursaries to go to school now because, again, if your parents never went to school, chances are they don’t have good jobs, chances are you didn’t go to a good primary school or secondary school, chances are you can’t afford education.

So if you pick just education as a component of society, the Black man is having to fight twice as hard to have any kind of access. Again, because your parents can’t do after-school lessons with you at home. And so the efforts are there, while the results will just take so long to come into place.

You pick housing as another one. The suburbs are really, really well taken care of. But the vast majority of Black people still live in townships. And those are townships where you’re not likely to get proper electricity, proper running water, access to healthcare facilities. 

South Africa will take a long time to fully emerge from the scourge of apartheid. But, as it is in the United States, as it is in Nigeria, everyone has got to be deliberate in pushing hard. So the question really is, “What is the role of the white person, who might feel, ‘Oh my gosh I feel sympathetic to what these guys are going through, but I can’t do much.’” On the one hand, you have to really humble yourself to understand that the playing field is not level, and we can’t simply “move on.” I’ve seen people in the U.S. being tempted to say, “You know, slavery was over many years ago. Why can’t they just simply move on?” They can’t. Because the foundations of society were built on inequality and injustice. So the average white person in the U.S. perhaps has an educated parent, perhaps — I’m really guessing here — or perhaps comes from a more resourced background. On the flip side, the other person does not. So if you were to simply move on, it means that you have a better starting block than the next person has.

And so we have to figure out what is a truly just society that allows each person to attain and push for the attainment of the full realization of their potential. And if that means we have to over-invest in a certain population for a period of time, if that’s what is going to take to even the playing field for everyone, then that is the right thing to do. And so, South Africa is having to over-invest in that population that has been subjugated. But it’s not enough. And it’s going to take a lot longer to get there. 

ND: A question on social media and the movement for social justice. Does social media make a global movement for racial equality more likely? Or are country-specific situations too different to permit a coordinated movement? 

Abiodun: It does make it more likely, to be honest. You know, for instance, I will perhaps not have heard much about the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar if it weren’t for social media. I probably wouldn’t have picked up anything about the Uighur Muslims in China, you know, if it weren’t for social media. Probably the world wouldn’t have really got on this George Floyd movement as quickly as it would if it weren’t for social media. So the world is very different today, and we can’t separate social media from the era before social media. It is what it is right now. 

‘Social media can be a force for good.’

And what it does, is that it gives us access to information much quicker than we would have ever gotten prior to that. It also exposes us to a diversity of voices. All of a sudden we are picking up analyses much quicker than we ever would’ve picked them up. It also corrupts our spaces, our social spaces, because you also have access to really, really weird opinions that perhaps freak you out. As a young person or as an adult, you think, “Oh gosh, these guys are way over line.” What it does is, it brings our consciousness to a level that perhaps we never would have predicted prior to now. 

How much action does social media spur? It has the tendency of giving us an illusion that things are happening, therefore we don’t have to do anything. Right. So if I see movements, I see protests happening on social media, I think, well there’s someone else doing it, maybe I don’t have to do anything. On the other hand, it can really galvanize me to think, well, it’s happening on that side. How do I create a parallel movement on this side as well? 

So I think it has more of a force for good, but the true nature of a global movement will have to be tailored to each region. If South Africans picked up placards now to protest the death of George Floyd, that makes less sense than protesting the killing of a lady, Tshegofatso Pule, who was found hung from a tree, eight-months pregnant, only last month. That is injustice happening here in South Africa, and South Africans have to take inspiration from the George Floyd protests in the U.S. and find local application for their own challenges. The whole world can’t protest George Floyd, because George Floyd was specific to America. But we can be inspired by the movement post his death, to tackle local challenges where we are. I think social media really enables that for all of us. 

ND: Last question: What are some things a young person, wherever they are in the world, can do to promote racial equality? 

Abiodun: First of all, you know I say this a lot, you can’t change the world if you don’t learn about it. And so we all have an obligation to learn as much as we can. We’ve got to humble ourselves and realize that there is so much going on that we have little understanding about. And so we need to humble ourselves, to learn. 

‘Youth: First, learn.’

The second thing we have to do is ask questions, even uncomfortable questions. We need to question where we’ve been. The truth is there’s really nothing new that happens these days. Much of it has happened in the past. The history of the world has been extremely violent. So while we are appalled about some of the violent streaks in the world today, it’s been far worse in the past. And you’re seeing now, for those who are watching news in the U.S., you are seeing the return of hangings, and you’re wondering, it’s so barbaric to hang someone from a tree! But in the 1920s, that was the way of life, a very sad way of life.

So if we don’t educate ourselves enough, about how terrible, how despicable that era was, we will not be as appalled in this generation as we should be. And so my ask for young people is, humble yourself to learn. Expose yourself to be ready to learn. Don’t be quick to talk. Don’t be quick to shoot things down. Don’t be quick to propose solutions. First, learn. 

Secondly, question deeply, and question the people who choose to not even answer you. Don’t stop questioning. And when you are done with that, you need to figure out how you can act. We’ve seen the efforts of young people to protest gun violence in the U.S. They’re not the loudest of advocates, but they’re effective advocates, because they had classmates who were killed. We’ve seen young people lead protests against climate change. We’ve seen young people in social media campaigns. We’ve seen young people get shot in the head in Pakistan, Malala Yousafzai, for campaigning for education.

So young people really can create change, but only if they understand the change they are trying to create, and question the history of the world, and where they’re coming from.

THREE QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:

  1. Does Abiodun think those protesting for racial equality should temper their demands to avoid a backlash?
  2. What has Nigeria done to address ethnic divisions in the country?
  3. Do you think the Black Lives Matter movement will bring lasting change to your country?

Nelson Graves is the founder of News Decoder.

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