Few moments in the Nigerian experience have appeared to be as bleak, yet potentially hopeful, as the unfolding of the #EndSARS movement that grew organically and culminated in mass protests across the country this October. For two weeks, Nigerians of all persuasions, from across different generations and geographies, demonstrated a sense of shared destiny and linked arms to demand an end to flagrant abuses of power by police officials. From the early days of the peaceful protests, hashtag variants like #EndPoliceBrutality made it clear that citizens understood that the problem went deeper than the excesses of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the tactical unit originally set up by the federal government to crack down on deadly crimes but has since lost its way. Rather, the problem was endemic to the Nigerian police, and any reforms proposed (such as the #5for5 demands) had to tackle the problem from its roots.
It is important to pause and reflect on the reasons why the movement gained so much traction and actually elicited a response from the government this time, after decades of citizens silently enduring dehumanising treatment (it is no coincidence that one of the most popular slogans from the movement, #sorosoke, literally translates to ‘speak up’). It is a case of several factors coming together at once to create a huge spark; however, a key factor seems to be that SARS brutality affected members of the educated, aspiring and empowered classes as much as – if not more than – it did the poor and dispossessed. The obscure profiling code employed by SARS in picking on its victims seemed to tick many middle-class boxes, with children of high-profile citizens also falling victim to harassment by officers of the unit. The usual markers of class did not shield you from SARS; if anything, they made you more prone to their attack. This warped logic turned out to be auspicious for the emergence of the #EndSARS movement, as it meant that the police were trampling upon the rights of a class of citizens who, in fact, have the self-awareness and agency to mobilise and ‘speak up’ against the injustice done to them.
But what about those Nigerians at the lower end of the class and income spectrum; those who face government-sanctioned violence every day but whose struggles are rendered invisible because they have long been relegated to the margins of society? In Lagos in particular, the effects of government’s tendency to criminalise everything are mostly borne by this class of people, many of them informal workers and/or residents of informal settlements. They are routinely accosted by police officers and security outfits set up by the city government with names such as ‘Kick Against Indiscipline’ as they try to go about their everyday lives and are arrested on flimsy charges. In many cases, the victims are only released on ‘bail’, leaving their friends and family members to scramble around for money that is already scarce – never mind that the police force itself has reiterated that bail is, in fact, free. Petty traders are regularly ‘cleared’ off the streets by all manner of task forces as though they were nothing but vermin, even though those traders pay multiple levies to official and unofficial tax collectors and get no benefits in return. Meanwhile, the communities in which many of these workers live are at constant risk of being ransacked and bulldozed in the name of the law, as has happened several times in the past. As in the marketplace, people in these communities acquiesce to ridiculous government taxes just to ward off government-sanctioned harassment, and not as payment for the delivery of any kind of service or amenity.
What does this have to do with the #EndSARS movement? The short answer is: everything. The silver lining in the dark cloud of the government’s out-of-touch response to the protests is that it seems to have triggered a mass political awakening in Nigerians, young and old. Much of the public conversation has now shifted to how citizens can best organise and strategise in the long term, especially in view of the upcoming 2023 elections, with young people clamouring for the formation of political parties that better represent their interests. Away from the limelight, several civil society organisations and think tanks have begun to convene forums for discussion and systematic political engagement, all of them looking to build – and rightly so – on the momentum created by the protests.
The #EndSARS protests may have played out largely on the streets, but they were propelled by technological phenomena such as social media and cryptocurrency platforms – tools that have clearly changed the game in ways that people from previous generations struggle to keep up with. These tools, coupled with good baseline levels of education and empowerment, helped to amplify the erstwhile suppressed voices of the class of young Nigerians previously targeted by SARS. What is less clear is the extent to which this youth movement, as well as the broader conversations that have ensued from it, encapsulate the many other manifestations of state repression routinely experienced by the poor and marginalised groups highlighted above who cannot organise via social media and hashtags. As we begin to forge strategies to move ahead, it will be important to ensure that these marginalised voices not only find platforms for expression but also become mainstreamed in public discourse, so that we can emerge with narratives and structures that are truly inclusive.
This point bears stressing given the reality in Nigeria that people of different classes and income levels have vastly different experiences and expectations of government; so different, in fact, that it often feels impossible to bridge these separate worlds. But this bridging must be done if the change we seek is going to be possible. The urgent question, then, is: how do we make it happen? Asking the question does not guarantee immediate answers, but it does awaken our collective consciousness to begin to see the possibilities for connection.
One possibility is to have the influential platforms that are emerging out of the current movement identify and link up with grassroots initiatives already working to give voice to the oppressed in poor communities. Some of the more dynamic community initiatives benefit from the strategic vision of ‘translators,’ people who may identify as insiders but who have access to the kinds of tools that make dialogue and connection with outsiders possible – perhaps attesting to the transformative potential of bridging. One such initiative has been consistently cataloguing and broadcasting episodes of police brutality within a low-income community in Lagos – the most high-profile being the gruesome killing of 17-year-old Tina Ezekwe by a police officer in the aftermath of a bribe dispute gone awry. In the wake of #EndSARS, the initiative has launched a grassroots campaign that is essentially delivering civic education to residents of the community in language that they find accessible. There is still a lot of room for such voices to be amplified while retaining the authenticity and agency of the people to whom they belong. As a practical example, the #EndSARS protesters’ demand for compensation (#2 in the #5for5 list) that led the Governor to approve a 200 million naira fund for the families of SARS victims should be expanded to the families of all those, like Tina, who routinely have their lives decimated or degraded by various other forms of state violence.
The idea is not to turn this into an act of co-option or condescension by an educated ‘elite’; rather, it is to understand that our experiences as Nigerians, whatever our circumstances, are equally valid and merit equal expression. For many citizens, this reaching-across-the-aisle will likely take practice and a different kind of self-awareness, but it is essential to the new kind of democracy we now know we need to build to succeed as a nation in the long term. If we start now, we may be able to confirm in sixty years that the turning point for Nigeria as a whole was indeed now.