Sparked by a video of a man allegedly being killed by a police officer that went viral at the beginning of October 2020, thousands of young Nigerians came out under the hashtag #EndSARS to call for the disbandment of the much-dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and an end of unaccountable governance more broadly. Though Nigeria is no stranger to citizen-driven campaigns as signified by hashtags such as #OccupyNigeria, #BringBackOurGirls or #NotTooYoungToRun, the on the street presence, nationwide popular support and international attention for the #EndSARS movement has been unparalleled in Nigeria’s democratic era.
The protests took their most tragic turn on 20 October 2020, when Nigerian soldiers shot at a peaceful crowd gathered at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, leaving at least two people dead and several more injured. The following day the situation escalated with police stations and other infrastructure and buildings being burned down by mobs moving through Lagos. With the city placed under a curfew, calm has returned to the streets for now but likely not making young Nigerians less determined in their cause than before.
As events keep on unfolding, Abiodun Baiyewu, Executive Director of the Nigerian human rights organisation Global Rights, shares her thoughts and reflections on the protests and their meaning in Nigerian politics.
hbs: Nigerians have been protesting for years against police brutality. Why did the current #EndSARS protests gain nationwide support at a scale never seen before?
Baiyewu: The #EndSARS protests had started as far back as 2017, but gained their largest traction this year. I think this is attributable to a number of factors: First, I believe that most struggles for rights and dignity will eventually reach a tipping point if the campaign is tenacious and consistent. As citizens grapple with increasing insecurity from both organised criminal groups and the law enforcement agencies that should protect them, the #EndSARS campaign has been tenaciously consistent. Second, the spate of police brutality had spiralled to an all-time high and Nigerians felt pushed to the wall. It would seem that with each passing year, SARS became more emboldened due to impunity. As with most post-colonial security forces, their ideological roots may be found in blind loyalty to those in power, and not citizens. But citizens are starting to evolve their thinking around what a democracy should look like, and what their social contract with the state should entail. It was therefore only natural that with time they should resist mistreatment more vocally. Third, social media and the increase in citizen reporting tipped the conversation on this, and gained sufficient momentum to move it from the digital space to the terrestrial civic space. Ironically, the government has over time attempted to gag citizens' dissent in the physical civic space. This led to increased digital advocacy, which then tipped over to the streets!
The protesters have been able to rally a lot of international attention and solidarity. What made this possible?
Globally, police brutality, especially against black people has for several reasons come to the fore this year. First in the United States, and then later across Europe in solidarity. The re-echoing of the global Black Lives Matter campaign in Nigeria has helped to aid international solidarity. At the fore of the #EndSARS campaign are also middle-class young Nigerians who are in their own rights global citizens with some level of influence. In addition, Nigeria's Twitter community has grown and managed to garner international clout. Nigeria also has a large diaspora who are equally concerned that human rights violations are still endemic in their home country. As you will find in a number of countries in Europe and America, they also took the protest to the streets of their second homes.
Government has responded to the protests within days by announcing the disbandment of SARS, replacing it with a new unit called the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), among other things. What do you make of government's response?
The optics of that to the average Nigerian was simply a change of name and not a change in the behaviour of law enforcement officers or an end to impunity. There is a high level of distrust between citizens and government, and this has worsened over the years. Government has failed to implement its promises to citizens; people didn't think this would be any different. Coupled with this, the government has on four previous occasions announced the disbandment and reform of SARS. Unfortunately, none of those announcements yielded any actual changes. People just could not trust what the government was saying. Worse still, the President as the Chief security officer of the country failed to address the country on these issues until three weeks into the protest. Bridging memory, the president has been known on several occasions to deny promises made by members of his administration because 'he did not personally make them'.
Women have been at the forefront of the protests. Why is this so important?
A quick run-through of Nigeria's history will reveal that women have been at the fore of all major civic action that has led to sustainable change in the country. Yet their role in the civic space has been understated by history. I will for example refer to how they catalyzed events that led to independence - the Aba Women's Revolt, the Abeokuta Women's Revolt, the Coal Miners Strike, the Pullen protests etc. In post-colonial times, women like Ayo Obe, a former head of Nigeria’s Civil Liberties Organisation, were the command and control center behind the anti-military rule movement in Nigeria. However, in spite of their contributions, they have not had commensurate traction in holding political office because of the patriarchal nature of the Nigerian society. Although they face glass ceilings in the political clime, this has not limited them from providing leadership within the civic space. Someday this will eventually accumulate into political capital. It is a matter of time.
Do you foresee the #EndSARS campaign to grow into a new and broader movement?
Nigeria has a lot of governance problems and a lot of people are hoping to leverage the #EndSARS movement to address these issues. This however will overburden the movement. The single focus of the protest is widely and deeply felt, and therefore provides for a winnable case. Once you begin to bring in other issues - as winnable as they are - you will stretch the bandwidth and dissipate a lot of energy. I do however think that once the SARS issue is dealt with, other aspects of governance can be addressed using the same 'steam power'. I think through the #EndSARS campaign, people will feel more empowered to take the government on and demand accountability in more sectors.