In early October 2020, a youth protest alleged police brutality with the hashtag #EndSARS suddenly took many Nigerian cities by storm. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was set up in 1992 as a heavily armed elite police force unit to tackle violent crime including armed robbery, kidnapping, and carjacking.
Human Rights groups, including Amnesty International, have for many years documented alleged SARS abuses of civilians including extortion, rape, and extrajudicial killings. Over the years the police have repeatedly denied the allegations. The present #EndSARS protests started after a video surfaced that showed a SARS officer allegedly shooting a man in Delta State before driving off. This video set off peaceful protests across the country. However, unlike previous protests with clearly identifiable leadership structure which was susceptible to being arrested and charged to court by the government, this protest movement decidedly insisted on not having a central leadership. Rather, using social media and propelled mainly by young people, cutting across class lines, the protests have been largely peaceful and very coordinated.
The initial demands made by the protesters included the disbanding of SARS; release of incarcerated youth; justice for deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; setting up of an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct within ten days; and the psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers.
In the intervening days after the protests began, the Nigerian government announced that it was disbanding SARS. The government also pledged to investigate the allegations of misconduct against police officers. However, the nationwide peaceful protests continued unabated. The reason for this could be because, several times since 2017, the government had announced the dissolution of SARS in reaction to public outcry over incidents of brutality, only for the unit to later continue. Therefore, the protesters were very skeptical that the government was going to disband the unit this time around.
Another possible explanation for the protest continuing on could be that, given that protesters already have other underlying issues and grouses against the government and having now received national attention over the #EndSARS protests, the protesters may have wanted to highlight those issues too by prolonging the protests. Significant among these underlying issues is the current rate of youth unemployment and the sense of hopelessness that this has engendered amongst young people. This is particularly the case among recent university graduates who are having difficulty finding gainful employment. According to Nigeria’s National Bureau of Statistics, in the second quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate among young people (those 15 to 34 years old) stood at 34.9% as opposed to 27.1% for the general population. There is also a general perception that President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has not done enough to improve the economy. This has further reinforced the perception of indifference and insensitivity on the part of Buhari’s government to the plight of Nigerians. Nigeria’s economy has been in recession since the middle of 2019, a situation that has been made worse by the decline in oil prices in late 2019 and early 2020, and further exacerbated by the lockdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
What began as a relatively peaceful nation-wide protest two weeks earlier took a decisive turn for the worse due to what happened at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on 20 October 2020. At noon, the Governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced a 24-hour curfew that was to begin at 4pm of that same day. At about 7pm, according to eyewitness accounts, protesters who had ignored the curfew and were gathered around the Lekki Toll Gage noticed that the lights and the CCTV cameras around the toll gate were suddenly turned off. The protesters started singing the national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag, in the hopes that nothing bad will happen to them. But a few minutes later, Nigerian soldiers allegedly emerged from gun trucks and started shooting live ammunition on the peaceful protesters. Amnesty International has since reported that at least 12 protesters were killed in that incident and many were injured. This incident generated widespread condemnation, including from the European Union, the African Union, the US State Department, and the United Kingdom.
On 22 October 2020, after a few days of silence, President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation and called for the protesters to leave the streets because their demands had been met by the government. But he made no mention of the Lekki Toll Gate shootings and this further angered the protesters. From that point on, what had until then been relatively peaceful protests took a turn for the worse with the burning of public buildings including police stations and banks. Many government warehouses suspected to be used in storing food items originally meant for distribution to the public to alleviate the hardships of the coronavirus pandemic were broken into and looted. Also, two jailhouses in Benin City, the capital of Edo State, were broken into and over 2,000 prisoners were set free.
Arguably, what started as the #EndSARS protests with the express objective of ending police brutality has now been broadened to include other underlying issues such as economic hardship, maladministration, and respect for the rule of law. Furthermore, it is now clear that no presidential address or pledges will satisfy the hunger and expectations of the reawakened youth. This is because the youth appear to be tired of empty speeches and promises. Poverty and economic hardship, it appears, has been weaponized and the youth, who have felt entrapped in it, seem to now have broken free.
Feature image by Tobi Oshinnaike