Reading #EndSars in 2020, one might assume the hashtag is trending to inform about the dreaded coronavirus related Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) disease which ravaged the world from 2003. But not in Nigeria. #EndSars refers to a Nigerian a protest movement against police brutality. Although protests have been on-going intermittently in recent years, they gained increased momentum over three weeks ago and have resulted in violence and deaths in the last week. The #EndSars movement, started as a Security Sector Reform movement and has morphed into a cry for good governance in Nigeria.
Since its establishment in 1820 under colonial rule, the Nigerian Police has always been quite militarized and started as an instrument of enforcing the decisions of the then British colonial masters and then subsequent Nigerian governments since independence in 1960. With deteriorating socio-economic conditions and after several coups and political unrests, including a civil war 1967-1970, armed robbery became rampant from around 1989. As a response, in 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police was formed as a dedicated unit to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes. The squad functioned under different conditions from the regular police, wearing plain clothes, carried specialist weapons, operated mostly covertly in unmarked vehicles and were also used as a rapid response team.
In those early days, hardly did law abiding citizens ever encounter the SARS, and they were quite effective in tackling particularly armed robbery. Gradually, SARS became more visible in daily life, with men in plainclothes carrying sophisticated weapons in public, mounting roadblocks, stopping public and private vehicles for ‘stop and search operations’, then the extortion began. SARS men, yes almost exclusively men, began to stop young people, both men and women, particularly those in expensive cars, dressed in trendy clothes, or those who have body tattoos or fashionable hairstyles, carrying laptops or expensive phones. The justification of the SARS for harassing and extorting seemingly well-heeled Nigerian youths is because cybercrime is very prevalent in Nigeria. Cybercrime, known in the Global North as ‘Letters from Nigerian Princes’ and ‘Business Email Compromise’ and locally in Nigeria as ‘Yahoo’ or ‘419’ (from Section 4.19, of Nigeria’s Criminal Code outlaws the practice) is rampant in Nigeria. Eventually, the SARS men became more violent and dangerous than armed robbers and have been known to brutally beat and detain innocent citizens and many times allegedly shot several innocent people to death. This continued for several years, and in response to various outcry over the years, the government promised and announced largely ineffective reforms.
Enter the Social media
The outcry against SARS became even more vociferous as the usage of social media increased in Nigeria, wielded by young people who documented and shared the alleged atrocities of SARS documented on social media platforms. In response, since around 2006, the government has promised reforms at least five different times and made what some have called ‘cosmetic attempts’ in that direction.
In early October this year, particularly graphic images appeared on social media of SARS brutalizing young people in various parts of Nigeria. Nigerian youths became fed up and moved their certainly peaceful offline protests to the streets of major cities in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, Abuja, and in several other States across the Nigerian Federation. With the use of social media and the graphic images young people organized their protests and especially tech savvy youths used social media to gather money for the protests in the form of Bit Coins, US dollars, the Nigerian Naira and other forms of donations. The youths were heavily mobilized, started garnering international support from the international media, international figures, sports and music personalities, institutions and international celebrities of Nigerian and non-Nigerian descent, international organizations and various critical and prominent segments of the Nigerian population, which finally got the attention of the government.
The #Endsars protest launched a #5for5 demand, asking for: 1. Immediate release of all arrested protesters. 2. Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families. 3. Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days). 4. In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed. 5. Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens. Literarily hundreds of thousands of Nigerian youths were on the streets demonstrating in various parts of the country. The government had to respond to this overwhelming demonstration of people power.
State of Play
SARS was disbanded after a few days of protest. The government is setting up a new team, purportedly not including former SARS officers, which is called the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), currently in training. It is questionable if this new arrangement will result in a positive change, as a restructuring and reorientation of the policing system towards an improved security sector and governance reform is needed.
To end the demonstrations, a curfew has been imposed in Lagos and several other parts of Nigeria as the government and politicians see the protests as a threat to national security. The President and Governors of various states have made several positive noises about reforms, however it remains to be seen if these reforms will be effective and how they will eventually result in solving the challenges. The protesters refused to back down, and by the 20th of October, hoodlums, street thugs and looters, some rumored to be sponsored by the government, had turned the otherwise carnival like peaceful protest into violent protest, into an orgy of looting and pillage with media houses associated with political alignments, shops, ATM machines, government facilities and properties of known government officials and relations attacked, looted and burned down. This was the direct fallout when men in army uniforms and other police units opened fire with live ammunition and killed protesters at the Lekki Toll gate in Lagos and other places on the night of 20 October ostensibly to enforce a 24-hour curfew imposed by the state governor earlier that day. It is pertinent that those responsible for the egregious human rights abuses, particularly the killings of protesters, are held accountable by the government.
#EndSars is only symbolic for the challenges of the security sector in Nigeria. Other police units, including for example the anti-riot ‘mobile’ police unit (known as “kill and go”) as well as other security agencies are guilty of the similar. The underlying issue of the whole protests is the crisis of governance, including security sector reform and various economic challenges that young people are confronted with in Nigeria. The protest hints at the possibility that people power might result in a change for the better, in addressing the grievances of the youth and in the governing of the affairs of the Nigerian State.
Nigeria is the largest economy in Africa and has a population of close to 200 million people, with a large educated, sophisticated, unemployed and under employed youth bulge. It has massive soft power on the African continent and its diaspora, with its movie, music and sports industries. The #EndSars protest is led purely by youths, fuelled by social media, and organized without a formal leadership structure. In the previous years of the political history of Nigeria, the ongoing protests are the sort of environment that would have inspired a military coup. The #5for5 demands of the #EndSars protest resulted in an immediate concession from the government, however the implementation of their demands remains to be seen. The style of the #EndSars protest may inspire copycat youth-led, social media-fuelled, and leaderless protests across West Africa, ushering in a new type of protests in the region.