A movement in Nigeria initially focused on abolishing an abusive police unit evolved to a widespread call for equitable society and better governance
Over the past few weeks, the streets of Nigeria have erupted in fury with the demand to abolish the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or SARS — Nigeria’s elite police force unit notorious for abuse of power, brutality, and corruption. The show of democratic force has logged tens of thousands of demonstrators decentralized all over the country, and has garnered international support from protesters in Toronto, New York, Pretoria, South Africa, Berlin, and Geneva. Celebrities and a US presidential candidate have also weighed in, raising the stakes for Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari to give a satisfactory response.
Social Media as Game Changer
The protests were ultimately triggered by a twin case of SARS officers killing two young Nigerian men just two days apart. One was caught on a video that immediately circulated on Twitter, prompting an elevation of the issue from Nigeria to the world’s attention.
Despite the owner of the account having just a measly 800 followers, their initial tweet garnered more than 11,000 retweets. Nigerian social media influencers also used it to catapult the movement to a bigger audience, capturing those from other countries in Africa and other parts of the world.
An Instagram carousel has also appeared online, saying that #ENDSARS in Nigeria is not being covered by bigger media outlets.
In effect, protesters brandished shame and neglect as weapons to gain media attention. It was an effective strategy. #ENDSARS soon trended, media outlets started covering the events intensely, and celebrities followed suit.
Nigerian musicians Davido and WizKid tweeted with the hashtag. Beyonce and Rihanna also injected their influence. In a Saturday Night Live performance, musician H.E.R. used her platform to promote the movement by wearing a black shirt emblazoned with #ENDSARS.
Twitter has been an instrumental outlet to spread information about the movement. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s CEO, even created a new emoji of a raised fist in the colors of the Nigerian flag, as a tribute to the protests.
“[The hashtag] was used to put a spotlight on the issue of police brutality in Nigeria and the campaign was able to create a digitally networked solidarity for alienated individuals which enabled them some form of validation,” researchers Felix Oloyede and Adeola Elega from the Eastern Mediterranean University argued. “#ENDSARS was able to dictate what giant media organizations, both private and state owned, wrote and reported as important.”
#ENDSARS is one of the recent sociopolitical movements wherein social media was used to propel its messaging and compel media organizations to include it in their agenda. It has also helped Nigerians gain sympathy from the international community, and press its government to take necessary actions.
From Elite Police Force to Street Bandits
Created in 1984, SARS was established to counter widespread cases of violent crimes including robberies, kidnapping, and carjacking. They roamed around the streets as plain-clothed officers in unmarked vehicles to crack down on these particularly pervasive crimes. In the early 2000s, SARS also led the response when Nigeria encountered internet fraud through “Yahoo boys.” The squad targeted anyone who seemed to get their cars, phones, and laptops from internet fraud. It was typical profiling, but the crackdown on criminals was enough to salve the public’s resentment against SARS. Officers lined their pockets, and paid it upward to their superiors in a bureaucratic pyramid scheme.
Street crimes went down (though not by much), and Nigeria’s economy grew. Its tech industry also flourished, employing mostly young Nigerians in its ranks. This became a springboard for SARS to commit even more crimes. Young Nigerians (people under 24 make up around 60 percent of Nigeria’s population) would be pulled over or questioned on the streets and get profiled as “internet fraudsters.” Officers would accuse them of acquiring their possessions through illegal means, and they would be forced to pay in exchange for their freedom. This rapidly grew more widespread, and the crimes perpetrated by SARS against young Nigerians started getting more intensely violent.
“If SARS see you as a young person who is successful with a nice car, they will harass you and extort money from you,” an activist named Chinyelugo said.
News of killings, brutality, and other violent crimes perpetrated by SARS, then, isn’t news for many Nigerians. Prior to the 2020 uprising, SARS have had a rotten reputation for decades that Nigerians no longer expect them to provide any sense of security. According to a 2016 report from the World International Security and Police Index, 81 percent of Nigerian respondents admitted to bribing a cop, and authorities are viewed “to use public positions for private gain.” As a result, only 1 percent of thefts were reported to the police.
An Uprising Against Government’s Neglect
Human rights group Amnesty International, meanwhile, accounted the more severe cases of violations by SARS. They found out that SARS directly perpetrated at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment, and extrajudicial killings in the country between January 2017 and May 2020. The petty crimes of extortion, profiling, and harassment, and the more horrific cases of abuse of power, are what led to the fury the world is currently witnessing from the Nigerian youth. SARS, once a respectable organization, has degenerated into a state-sponsored unit that terrorizes civilians.
The neglect has given birth to a populace infuriated by its own government. Starting on October 6, Nigerians have been gathering to protest all over the country, usually drawing big crowds. Thousands have rallied in the big cities demanding for “respect for human rights” and “a more equal society.” The movement has also garnered support from internationally recognized figures like John Boyega, Beyonce, Rihanna, and H.E.R.
On October 11, the president of Nigeria, along with Inspector General of Police Mohammed Adamu, communicated the disbandment of SARS. However, this did not satisfy the protesters, who pointed out that this had been promised before. Furthermore, the corrupt officers would also not be dismissed from duty, and would only be reassigned to other teams and divisions.
Anger grew even further when the head of police announced three days later that, while SARS had been abolished, a new unit would take its place: the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. Protests have continued since, defying all sorts of warning from the president and state-imposed curfews by different localities.
#ENDSARS demonstrators also released their five additional demands from the government, as follows: (1) the immediate release of arrested protesters; (2) justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for bereaved families; (3) the setting up of an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct; (4) psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbandment officers before redeployment; and (5) the increase of police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of citizens.
Buhari has not been fazed by the protests. He has emphasized, instead, the need for law and order, and his military has issued thinly veiled threats towards protesters. In a statement on October 15, the Nigerian army warned “all subversive elements and troublemakers” that they will “defend the country and her democracy at all cost.”
“[They are] ready to fully support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order and deal with any situation decisively,” the statement added.
Five days later, the most brutal episode of the protests unfolded — a seeming follow-through of the administration’s previous warning.
Thousands of protesters gathered at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos despite the curfew imposed by State Governor Babajide Sanwa-Olu. As darkness fell, streetlamps went off and witnesses said they saw CCTV cameras shutting down. The protesters locked arms in fright, held the Nigerian flag, and started singing Nigeria’s national anthem. Shortly after, tear gas and live bullets rained. At least 12 died, though the count could be higher. Hundreds were injured.
On October 21, Pres. Buhari promised to seek justice for victims and their families, and that the government would adopt reforms proposed by the demonstrators. Just a short while after, however, Buhari would change his tone as he upholds the need for law and order against activism. “I must warn those who have hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine, and well-intended protest of some of our youths in parts of the country, against the excesses of some members of the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad. . . . I therefore call on our youths to discontinue protest,” Buhari said.
Governor Sanwo-Olu also said that they will deploy the military if required. After weeks of protest and utter condemnation from the United Nations and African Union, Buhari and his administration continue to hold ground.
Experiencing firsthand a violent and deadly crackdown from Buhari’s military, the protesters dissipated almost overnight.
“The past two weeks have been tough for many Nigerians, most especially the last two days,” the Feminist Coalition in Nigeria said. “Many lives have been lost and properties destroyed at the height of what started as peaceful marches for the end to police brutality. . . . Following the President’s address, we hereby encourage all young Nigerians to stay safe, stay home, and observe the mandated curfew in your state.” Activists have curved due to the government’s excessive use of violence.
However, the #ENDSARS movement has made a big impact in Nigeria’s political field. Better governance, an equitable society, and an end to police brutality have all been floated by protesters — setting the tone for the kind of politicians they will be vying for in the next elections. Though the initial underlying issues may have not been entirely solved, the resistance from young Nigerians offers a great warning for the Nigerian government: Make reforms, or see us in the streets again.