Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is notorious for conducting gruesome extra-judicial killings, extortion and engaging in sexual abuse amongst other vices. Almost every Nigerian will have a story to tell of being harassed by SARS. If you are poor, you are termed a criminal; rich, you are a yahoo boy, the local slang for Internet fraudster.
The SARS modus operandi is simple: arrest the individual, take the victim to the ATM to get their money, and if you can do that, you might be freed. For those who can’t afford to pay, three possible scenarios await. They either allegedly exchange you with a locked-up criminal, jail you until your family can afford to pay a bribe for a crime that you never committed, or you are killed.
Even though many Nigerians know this reality, the Nigerian government has continued to turn a blind eye to the actions of SARS. Thousands of complaints have been filed with the appropriate authorities against the unit, but despite its official disbanding on several occasions – including this month – it still exists. Eighty-two cases of abuse by SARS were documented by Amnesty International between 2017 and 2020.
But a video of a victim that appeared online in the beginning of October has galvanized what is probably the biggest citizens’ movement in a decade. These grievances over police brutality have joined Nigerian youth together, irrespective of social, religious or economic backgrounds. The movement is claiming to be a leaderless one, and the protest keeps growing with each passing day. As they protest, food and drinks are being donated to sustain the campaign.
Coming together as a feminist movement, young women have been able to raise over N74,727,649.13 (almost US$180,000) in the last week. They have used this money to secure legal aid for those arrested and medical support for those injured in the protests. Since the start of the #EndSars protest, at least 55 protesters have been killed, even though deaths from the attack on protestors at Lekki toll gate that took place on 20 October remains unclear. The audience has also grown through the young protestors’ use of hashtag activism to take the fight against injustice from online to offline.
Is the government listening at last? The ongoing protests have already forced the government to again promise to disband SARS, but not to address systemic issues within the police force. The hitherto silent President Buhari even spoke publicly on the matter and the governor of Lagos joined the protests and carried a placard in support of the campaign. The Nigerian National Economic Council, led by the vice president and composed of the 36 state governors has called for the establishment of a judicial panel of inquiry into police brutality comprised of government and non-state actors. But the protestors are yet to be convinced. They are insisting that new standards must be established and that an implementation plan for any of the proposed reforms be developed before they relent.
And they are right to be suspicious. Increasingly the actions of the state have contradicted their public words. They have fomented violence by deploying hoodlums and thugs to infiltrate the peaceful protests and cause death and destruction of property in major cities across Nigeria. Social media have been used to share videos of hoodlums being ferried around in expensive four-wheel drives and government buses in Abuja and Lagos to name just two cities. Armed with guns and other weapons, the armed hoodlums are picked up by these vehicles after disrupting the protest. Videos have also emerged of thugs receiving as little as N1,500 (US$3) to scatter the protestors. Given Nigerians’ experiences of electoral politics, and politicians use of thugs to achieve election objectives, many suspect these same actors to be behind these efforts.
Worse still transpired in Lagos on 20 October 2020 when soldiers fired live bullets into unarmed #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos causing a yet unconfirmed number of deaths. Although the Nigerian Army has denied its involvement, credible images and videos of the soldiers firing live bullets directly on unarmed protesters draped in national Nigerian flags while singing the national anthem have circulated widely online. The sorry plight of a protester with a Nigerian flag draped in the blood of her people is now the most favored display picture on social medias.
Citizen groups had earlier warned the Nigerian government against deploying the military to quell the protest. Most of Nigeria’s violent conflicts have begun, or are being fueled, by law enforcement agencies’ use of heavy-handed tactics to quell conflicts. The attempt to fight for justice over police brutality has again revealed the brutal nature of the Nigerian state. Instead of protecting its citizens, the government turned guns on them.
And finally, the president addressed the nation after the brutal killing of unarmed protesters at the Lekki tollgate. In a twelve-minute speech devoid of empathy or remorse, the president boasted of his achievements as the best Nigerian government, which has systematically addressed poverty. He asked young people to stop protesting and citizens to go on with their duties. He also stated that maintaining his silence was not a sign of weakness, and that he will tolerate no further nonsense. He rebuked the international community and requested it refrain from making hasty comments, while having never addressed the grievances of Nigerian youth. Yes, Buhari spoke to the nation, but he was tone-deaf to the outcry or sombre mood pervading the country he rules over.
The feminist movement has ceased from receiving donations to fund the protest from the public but have released a final statement on how the remaining monies collected will be spent. These groups of young women provided services the Nigerian government could not offer in two weeks and have taught Nigerian the true meaning of accountability. A feat no Nigerian government has been able to achieve.
The hijacking of the protest by hoodlums, and the vandalization of public and private property, led to the imposition of curfews in ten states out of the 36 states of the Nigerian federation. The protests have stopped, but the unwavering Nigerian youth is now employing other social organizing strategies. In Jos, the youths are involved in door to door civic education campaign. In Oworo, Lagos state, they are on the street, posting informative banners on ending SARs and entrenching good governance. Hashtags are trending on the forthcoming 2023 elections.
The protest may seem over, but it is far from being over. The protestors have called themselves the “Soro Soke” or ‘speak up’ generation. The otherwise silent majority has spoken up: this young generation has evolved and will eventually transform the country.