From the 1965 famous Selma walk in Alabama USA, to the militant resistance in the 1960s during the South African apartheid, to the Salt March in India, to the organized rebellion that engulfed the Arab world in the early part of last decade, and in Nigeria, the Aba Women’s Rebellion of 1929, activism had always been uniquely characterized by mass physical movements, organizing and mobilization. This trend dates far back into history. An early example is the Slaves Revolts of the 1st Century in the Roman Empire where thousands of slaves rebelled under the leadership of the gladiator, Spartacus.

Things have however, changed a lot since then. Activism has become more diverse and is now expressed through several outlets; activism through art and literature, activism through the digital space, economic activism, science activism etc. With these multiple channels, the development of activists’ movements with less physical mobilizing has accelerated, an example would be the ‘Me Too Movement’ that has transcended the borders of nations and taken residence in several countries of the world, including Nigeria, with very little physical organizing.

With the advent of COVID-19, there is news! Activism and advocacy, now and in the years to come will become less characterized by physical movements and organizing. The advent of the pandemic has obviously limited physical interaction which would mean other alternatives will be sought to sustain activism efforts.

The whole world as we know it is currently morphing into what a lot of people will describe as an uncertain future. Everyone, including activists will be forced to adapt. Going forward, the answer appears to be digital activism, which will allow activists to virtually meet, organize, plan, mobilize and take action in their millions through the digital space.

This will however, have several implications for youth activism and advocacy in Nigeria. Maximizing the opportunities the digital space provides for activism is pre-conditioned on access. Before now, it was convenient for a lot of young Nigerian activists to support causes they believed in by joining protests and demonstrations and it can be argued that that a lot of young activists were only involved at this level.

Now that physical gatherings are not fashionable, there seems to be a problem. How many young activists in Nigeria have access to personal computers? It is less than 5% according to the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics. Maybe a lot of them have smartphones, but the other question would be, how affordable are internet bundles in Nigeria? How reliable is the internet connection?

In February 2020, the Cable reported that Nigeria ranks among the lowest 10 in the list of countries with 4G availability, which makes it one of the worst 4G connections in the world. Also, according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), Nigeria ranks among countries with low digital opportunity index scores.

Beyond the issues of cost and strength of internet connection, the power situation is also a major cause for concern. With several cities in Nigeria experiencing daily power cuts, it becomes a tall order for many to actively engage the digital space.

Apart from the infrastructural deficiencies, the human rights context and legal framework on the digital space is a major threat. Attacks on freedom of expression has continued to rise unabated, with several bloggers and media practitioners facing arrests and intimidation for doing their work. There are also repressive laws and proposed bills targeting freedom of expression in the digital space. These are factors that could discourage active participation.

Another equally important concern is digital illiteracy. In a 2019 World Bank Digital Economy Diagnostic Report on Nigeria, lack of digital skill among the Nigerian population was identified as a problem. To effectively participate in digital activism and actions, the understanding and use of basic, intermediate and advanced digital tools are requirements. As long as this disadvantage remains, a challenge is posed to digital activism.

Looking at all these factors, the effect is two-pronged. Advocacy efforts will be affected if activists who are targets of such efforts cannot effectively participate due to limited access to the digital space. On the other hand, youth activism as a whole will take a hit because of the same reason. It is therefore, arguable that during COVID-19 and post COVID-19, youth activism in Nigeria might suffer a slow climb. This makes it important, now than ever, for activists’ organizations and networks to keep the thinking cap on in order to develop strategies that will help mitigate the effects this might have on activism in Nigeria.

By Emmanuel Ayoola
Social Thinker and Activist.