On October 20, Nigerian soldiers were deployed to massacre the country’s own youths, killing at least 12 people who had peacefully assembled to demand accountability for rampant police brutality in Africa’s most populous nation. Before this tragedy, now known as the Lekki massacre, the #EndSARS movement had drawn tens of thousands of Nigerians into the streets for more than two weeks, bringing global attention to a rogue unit of the Nigerian Police Force, called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, which has a documented history of abusing its power. After promising reform, the government increasingly targeted protesters with violence, and last Thursday, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, banned public protests amid national curfews. Ahead, everything else you need to know about the rise and suppression of Nigeria’s largest protest movement in generations.
What does police brutality look like in Nigeria?
The #EndSARS movement has taken aim at SARS, a tactical police unit assembled in 1992 to curtail violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping. Over the years, SARS has become the most flagrant source of state violence and corruption that citizens encounter. Youths, the demographic propelling #EndSARS, report harassment, bribery, and even kidnappings by SARS officers, who criminalize young people for “dressing like” prostitutes and Internet scammers, merely because they own smartphones and laptops, drive “flashy” cars, or have tattoos and dreadlocks. A 2020 Amnesty International report, “Nigeria: Time to End Impunity,” documented 82 horrifying cases between January 2017 and May 2020 of SARS extrajudicial killings, extortion, and torture methods, including “hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions, and sexual violence.” Citizen reporting sites including End SARS and The POBIN (Police Brutality in Nigeria) Project score more testimonies of abuse.
What sparked the protests?
On the morning of October 3, two days after Nigeria celebrated 60 years of independence, a tweet by Chinyelugo (@AfricaOfficial2) went viral, sounding an alarm that “SARS just shot a young boy dead.” Hours later, mobile phone recordings with the hashtag #EndSARS began trending, documenting the gruesome scene of the unidentified young man’s lifeless body abandoned on the roadside and citizens pursuing the officers, who they witnessed steal the man’s Lexus SUV.
Over the following days, many more Nigerians shared their own harrowing SARS experiences using the hashtag, which actually made its first appearance as a social media campaign and petition three years earlier, after a viral police murder in December 2017. This time around, with the mobilizing power of popular influencers on Twitter, the online protest moved to the streets. Since October 8, protesters in 26 of Nigeria’s 36 states have organized daily mass demonstrations, vigils, a sit-in of the National Assembly, and blockades of airports and major roads—until the tragedy on October 20.
— 'Gbénga Ṣẹ̀san (@gbengasesan) October 16, 2020
How did the movement grow so effectively?
What sets the 2020 #EndSARS movement apart from previous struggles in Nigeria is its inclusive, decentralized leadership and organizing approach. In a broader political system in which women face tremendous barriers to participation, a cadre of young women has taken the helm of mobilizing #EndSARS online and on the front lines, while also coordinating a vast network of mutual aid that has resourced protests across the nation.
Since the protests started, the Feminist Coalition, coordinated by 14 women, has crowdfunded more than 147 million Naira (nearly $400,000) that was swiftly redistributed, with unprecedented transparency, to provide protest clusters with food, water, medical care, security, legal aid, and relief for victims of police brutality and their families. Still, #EndSARS protesters insist, “We have no leaders,” rejecting the elevation of any individual or organization as the face of the movement. For now, this ethic has enabled the movement to sidestep co-optation by the establishment and hijacking by opportunists, which are pitfalls that undermined struggles like #OccupyNigeria in 2012.
A reminder that we've seen more responsiveness, proactive accountability, resilience + agility, innovation, collaboration, and inclusion from @feminist_co than Nigeria has EVER given us. Governance is not rocket science.
Also, please donate, we are all we've got.#EndSARS https://t.co/EKcSaIT8OA
— Chioma Agwuegbo (@ChiomaChuka) October 22, 2020
Why is the government attacking #EndSARS?
After initially appearing to be responsive, the Nigerian government drastically shifted to outright repression of the movement. Protesters first reported that the government sponsored agents to infiltrate protests, attack protesters, and destroy property to discredit the movement in the first week. The Feminist Coalition tweeted that their bank accounts were frozen, forcing them to turn to Bitcoin cryptocurrency as “censorship-resistant fundraising.”
Then, on October 20, hundreds of protesters staged a sit-in at the toll gate in Lekki, a rapidly gentrifying area of mega-city Lagos. Livestreams captured a crowd of youths jubilantly sitting on the ground singing the national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag. At nightfall, the chilling sounds of live gunfire and frantic screams rang out, with protesters running for their lives—many still faithfully singing the national anthem. Within hours, the Twitter account of the Nigerian army callously tweeted that stories of the military gunning down protesters were “fake news,” even while survivors shared images and videos of military-grade shell casings and the bodies of slain comrades.
Two days later, in his first televised address in response to #EndSARS, President Buhari called for an end to the protests, stating that the government would not “allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace of the nation.” Even without directly acknowledging the killings, the message was clear: The Nigerian government is prepared to continue to use force to put down the #EndSARS movement.
Has #EndSARS achieved its Demands?
In response to the protests, on October 11, the inspector general of police announced that SARS would be “disbanded” and, on October 13, that it would be replaced with the Special Weapons and Tactics unit, or SWAT. Though this might appear to mark progress in the fight against police brutality in Nigeria, there is good reason to be skeptical of government promises. Since 2015, the Nigerian government has promised several times to “reform,” “restructure,” “reorganize,” and now to “disband” SARS, without prosecuting a single officer for abuse even after passing anti-torture legislation in 2017.
The “#5for5” scorecard that protesters have adopted shows little progress on the five core demands from the government: (1) Release arrested protesters, (2) grant compensation for the families of victims, (3) create an independent body to prosecute officers, (4) psychologically evaluate SARS officers before they are redeployed, and (5) increase salaries of police officers to dissuade them from extortion. The use of force against protesters and lack of meaningful progress on demands to date suggest that disbanding and rebranding SARS as SWAT will do little to transform bad policing in Nigeria.
Our demands are SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely), but the government & its sympathizers are bent on maintaining status quo.
But we stay demanding ✊✊✊#EndSARS pic.twitter.com/5s8r1ya1XO
— EiE Nigeria (@EiENigeria) October 20, 2020
What is next for #EndSARS?
With at least 56 protesters killed in two weeks, a protest ban, curfews in place around the nation, and the thinly veiled threat of further state violence, #EndSARS organizers last week called for protesters to “stay safe, stay home,” as the Feminist Coalition announced that it would cease collecting funds for protests. Though this move has halted the #EndSARS street protests, for now, organizers are already looking for ways to sustain the movement’s momentum. As we have seen with the summer of historic protests against police brutality after the murder of George Floyd in the United States and youth-led movements for regime change across the continent over the past decade including in Sudan, Mali, and Senegal, youths around the world are increasingly resistant to incremental reform efforts and the old political guard, and are demanding structural change now.
This is true of the youths who have led the #EndSARS protests, the self-proclaimed Soro Soke generation, which translates to “Speak Up” in Yoruba. This generation, the first to have grown up entirely under civilian regimes and yet has nothing to show for democracy, has expressed that the leaders have “f*cked with the last generation.” Protesters have called for the resignation of President Buhari under the hashtag #BuhariMustGo and are clamoring for a new youth-led political party, the Youth Democratic Party, ahead of the 2023 elections.
Time will tell how #EndSARS will be able to harness enlivened energy of youth activism. However, one thing is clear: The movement’s non-hierarchical leadership, feminist organizing, and mutual aid herald a future of youth power and grassroots movement building that fundamentally challenges the patriarchal and highly stratified politics that have long plagued Nigeria’s democracy.
We are committed to amplifying the voices of the youth.
“The power of the people is stronger than the people in power” @NigeriaGov #EndSARS #EndPoliceBrutality
Photo Courtesy: @AJEnglish pic.twitter.com/hIzNRigR1W
— FEMNET (@FemnetProg) October 13, 2020
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