Nigeria is a country catching its breath, albeit behind a mask. On 7 October, video footage of the Nigerian police’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad shot a man dead and made away with his car in Ughelli, Delta State. The footage spread online, spurring hundreds of Nigerians to recount their past experiences of brushes with death or unwarranted arrest and extortion at the hands of the SARS unit. Protests spread throughout the country.
Police brutality is a deep-seated problem. Recent reports set the number of recorded extra-judicial killings since 2004 by SARS at over 30,000. But it is hard to know the true figure because there are thousands more illegally detained but undocumented individuals in the police system. Reports from Amnesty International in 2009 and Human Rights Watch in 2005 testify to how long ordinary young Nigerians have been suffering torture, violence, and extortion at the hands of SARS. The hashtag #EndSars has trended intermittently on social media since December 2017 and led to protests in Lagos every year since. The vast majority of Nigerians would agree that police brutality is a major issue – and it has brought them together in a rare show of unity in the recent protests. Demonstrators’ first list of demands included the release of all arrested protesters, an increase in police salaries to help combat bribery and corruption, and a formal inquiry into police violence. Recognising the opportunity for a conversation on other governance issues, different groups added to the list of demands as the protests wore on – but without the same level as much broad-based agreement as the first set of requests.
The protests are driven by a powerful, organic interest among Nigeria’s youth. One major factor is the strike by the Academic Staff Union of Universities, which began in March and meant that many of the country’s young people have been stuck at home, undistracted by lectures and schoolwork. Alongside this, covid-19 resulted in the more privileged young people remaining in Nigeria, unable to travel abroad. This helped them mobilise across class lines. And social media has helped bring young people from different backgrounds together in a way nothing else has, leading to the eruption of smaller protests such as the Market March against sexual harassment in markets, the march against the street harassment of women by the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, and the earlier, smaller #EndSARS protests in 2017, 2018, and 2019 , after which the government announced the disbanding of the SARS units – which of course did not happen. Activism between 2017 and 2019 had already shown how young Nigerians were starting to use social media in increasingly innovative ways – including stepping over the country’s ethno-religious tripwires of suspicion and political tension between the country’s predominantly Muslim northern region and the more religiously diverse south.
One reason for the moderate nature of the protestors’ demands is that past governments have all failed when trying to conduct national conversations around the major reforms Nigeria needs as a country. In general, governments have not even lived up to their promises to check corruption or reduce poverty. Previous efforts, such as civil service reform or judiciary reform, always became mired in short-term political gain, and attempts to secure national agreement on major issues such as constitutional reform have mostly been political exercises to consolidate power. Similarly, abortive structural reform of the police is now a familiar tale told over many decades. All of this has undermined citizens’ trust in their government to get major things done.
Given this dubious track record, recent protest movements have learned to keep their messaging simple. In the case of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, on the kidnap of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram; and now in the case of #EndSARS, simple and tightly focused messaging was key to allowing for broad agreement among people of different ethnic groups and religions across Nigeria. With #BringBackOurGirls, for example, the lead convener of the protest, Oby Ezekwesili, resisted any attempts to broaden the protest messaging beyond its immediate concern of pushing for the army to rescue the schoolgirls. Because the messaging of both of these campaigns was stripped down in ways that anybody can understand without having any other knowledge about the context, they were also able to leverage Nigeria’s diaspora to secure wider international attention from both international celebrities and foreign governments.
The simplicity of the #EndSARS messaging has also been aided by another key factor: timing. The #BringBackOurGirls campaign did not benefit from strong timing: it began in 2014, which was close to the fast-approaching general election the following year. And it touched on the ethnically divisive topic of defeating Islamist insurgents in the country’s north-east and efforts to keep people there safe. But the power of #EndSARS remains undiminished by the Nigerian government’s attempts at politicisation, where it has accused protesters of attempting to destabilise the country. Its failure is largely due to the irrefutability of police brutality, but also because the protests began merely a year into President Muhammadu Buhari’s second term, with no national election in sight for another three years.
The simplicity of this year’s protest demands have buoyed hope among the country’s young people, who hoped that what they are asking for is so small that the government would surely listen and act on it. It was also a sign that the country’s youth had not yet learned the older generation’s cynicism. On 20 October, the military began a clampdown on the protests; shortly afterwards Buhari said the government would not give in to “hooliganism”; and the National Security Council has refused to allow any further protests. There has thus been talk of possible sanctions on Nigeria by the United Kingdom, following violence against unarmed protesters, damning international news reports on the conduct of the Nigerian Army, and state judiciary panels across the country recounting the horrors of violence that happened during the protests. It is not yet clear if there will be further protests in coming months – but, whatever happens next, it is now clear that the government will resist action on even the lowest of hanging fruits.
Saratu Abiola is an advocacy specialist and writer based in Abuja, Nigeria.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.