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The massive protests in Nigeria, explained

What is the SARS unit, and why do Nigerians want to #EndSARS?

- October 25, 2020

On Oct. 20, Nigerian soldiers shot at protesters at Lekki Toll Gate, killing at least 10. Protesters were blocking a highway in Lagos, the country’s largest city and commercial capital, to draw attention to their struggle against police brutality. That night, soldiers and police attacked protesters across several parts of Lagos and elsewhere. Amnesty International reports at least 38 Nigerians died in the clashes, with dozens more injured.

The sequence of events leading to what Nigerians call the #LekkiMassacre suggests this appears to be a carefully planned attack. While protesters were on the road, dancing to songs from a live DJ, the Lagos state governor imposed a curfew, to start at 4 p.m. The protesters refused to leave. Next, operators of the toll removed all CCTV cameras from the toll booths and the lights cut out. Soldiers arrived and opened fire between 6:45 and 9 p.m.

Why are Nigerians protesting?

Police authorities in Lagos established the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in the early 1990s to combat armed robbery in the city and its suburbs. SARS later became part of Nigeria’s national police strategy to fight armed criminals. But the unit then began operating without any form of accountability, critics claimed, and regularly engaged in human rights violations against Nigerian citizens. Victims’ verified reports show SARS officers regularly engaged in extreme brutality, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, armed extortion and kidnapping. Complaints about the unit received little or no attention from political authorities.

Since 2017, youth groups have been peacefully protesting SARS. In 2018, Nigeria’s federal government set up a committee to investigate complaints against SARS. The committee’s findings were never made public and SARS officers faced no consequences for their actions. The ongoing protests have also led the Nigerian government to announce the dissolution of SARS. But protesters demand concrete steps to end all forms of police brutality and justice for crimes committed by SARS, before leaving the streets.

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Nigeria’s #EndSARS protesters, who are largely young adults, are part of a wider global movement against police brutality. Akin to #BlackLivesMatter in the United States and the #ThisFlag movement in Zimbabwe, the #EndSARS social media hashtag became a rallying point and a basis for organizing protests around Nigeria.

The recent protests broke out on Oct. 3 when social media users shared reports of the shooting of an unarmed youth by SARS in Ughelli, a town in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta. Beginning in Lagos, where celebrities, designers, artists, tech experts and others in the creative sector took to the streets, the protests rapidly spread to 21 cities across Nigeria. One reason for the protests is because many Nigerians have firsthand experience with SARS.

The government has criminalized Nigeria’s youth

Nigeria is a young country — more than half of its total population of about 200 million is under 30. Since his 2015 election, President Muhammadu Buhari has repeatedly described urban youths as lazy and unwilling to work, calling on them to find jobs in rural Nigerian agriculture.

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Young Nigerians, particularly those in urban areas, are influenced by the knowledge economy and instead gravitate toward the opportunities that come with growing access to technology. Young Nigerians have excelled in the tech industry. But this digital aspiration is also their undoing — Nigerian police often target young people who are carrying laptops, smartphones or other gadgets, accusing them of being Internet fraudsters.

An absence of intergenerational dialogue in Nigeria exacerbates the differences in attitude. Buhari’s generation and older Nigerians remain fixated on Nigeria’s oil and agriculture sectors. Oil wealth fuels clientelism in Nigeria, in which powerful, wealthy patrons trade resources for the loyalty of their clients.

But younger Nigerians see ways to earn money beyond oil. The tech and creative sectors require talent, not respectability. Young people who can create wealth on their own terms do not need powerful patrons like their parents and grandparents did. This generation is beginning to develop the confidence to challenge the patronage politics that shape all aspects of everyday life in Nigeria.

The disconnect between the tech-savvy young generation and older, patronage-driven Nigerians has become clear during the #EndSARS protests. As the protests took off, a network of tech activists rapidly set up a national online response system to provide food, emergency first aid, ambulances, legal aid and support for hospital bills without resorting to any form of state patronage.

Suppressing protests is nothing new

The #EndSARS protests are not unusual in Nigeria’s history. Historically, protest is one of the most common forms of political engagement for young people, who are often marginalized from the centers of power in Nigeria. The government has responded to past protests with violent repression.

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President Buhari, who previously led Nigeria as a military dictator in the mid-1980s, suppressed all forms of civil protest. In the early 1990s, the government crushed protests by pro-democracy activists. Human rights groups reported journalists were jailed, and government forces killed activists, prompting many young people to flee the country.

Why is #EndSARS happening now?

Although Nigeria transitioned to civil rule in 1999, democracy has yet to take root in the country. While Buhari’s 2015 election marked the first peaceful transfer of power in Nigeria’s history, electoral outcomes are still often determined by violence. Judicial corruption and interference from the executive and a weak legislative arm remain realities in Nigerian democracy. Although Buhari campaigned on ending corruption and insecurity, corruption has become more common than ever — his appointed anti-graft chairman, in fact, was fired for corruption. The government also has not been able to stop Islamist extremist group Boko Haram from terrorizing Nigerians in the country’s northeast.

This context stifles innovation that is central to social mobility for disadvantaged but talented young people. It makes it nearly impossible for young people to get justice when SARS officers violate their rights, given the absence of guaranteed mechanisms to protect young people and punish police brutality.

Buhari’s own history as a dictator also may have made a government-backed violent response to protests all but inevitable. How Nigeria’s younger generation responds to the Lekki Massacre and other violence committed by soldiers under Buhari’s leadership will determine Nigeria’s future. Talented young people may use their innovation and creativity to sustain the struggle for a better Nigeria. Or, as was the case in the 1980s, they will leave the country for places that encourage innovation and creativity.

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Tarila Marclint Ebiede is a political scientist who has studied in Nigeria and Belgium. He has conducted extensive research on political violence, insecurity and peace building in Nigeria.