PEACE partner Idris Ola seeks to raise awareness of Nigeria’s #EndSARS movement protesting police brutality and corruption across the country
Ola is the Executive Director of WOCAPSS-Africa, a women’s cancer nonprofit based on Lagos, Nigeria
The sudden and unprecedented youth uprising in October this year marked the beginning of what promised to become the Nigerian Spring, or even African Spring. Characterized by intellectual agility, innovations, lofty ambitions, and competitiveness, the Nigerian youths have sadly also been an enigmatic figure of political docility, at least, until October 2020.
It all started with calls on social media for an end to police brutality, especially the notorious police squad, the “SARS”, following trending video on social media showing extrajudicial killing of a young man in Delta State, Nigeria. After 3 days of online rage, some of Nigeria’s popular musicians such as Falz, Runtown, and few others followed up this virtual outcry with a call for a walk in Lagos to demonstrate their anger and show their dissatisfaction with Government’s response to police brutality. What was planned to be held by few people, surprisingly turned out to host several hundreds of young Nigerians.
Beside the unfavorable multiple taxes for small businesses and youth unemployment in Nigeria, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had been the greatest tormentor of Nigerian youths over the past decade. Created in 1992 to curtail the endemic armed-robbery in Nigeria during the late 80s and most of the 90s, the squad enjoyed huge autonomy to operate, just like special agents in the United States’ CIA or other secret service outfits (except that the SARS are an open terrorizing unit). They never had to wear police uniforms nor secure court warrant to search your home, your phone, or even your panties. All in the name of making them efficient in dealing with the nuances of the equally lawless robbers.
But there came a problem since around the mid-2000s. Robbers were no longer “armed robbers”, at least among the elite robbery squads. Instead, they have invested in “armed technology” and fintechs to carry out their day-to-day business. With less calls for rapid response to robberies, the SARS grew less busy with the serious tasks and were forced to chase petty thieves. There, perhaps, they realized the full extent of their autonomy and the power it confers on them against easy targets; an average Nigerian youth.
In attempt to combat cybercrimes in Nigeria, every young Nigerian has become a potential suspect in the eyes of the SARS officials who constantly harasses and intimidates the youths which fall into their claws. They literally assumed every passing young person is one, especially if you have an android phone, or more suspiciously, an iPhone or dressed in what is considered too fashionable in the African sense. A desire to look more handsome in dreadlocks, few tattoos, or some crazy jean outfits is an invitation to scrutiny, perhaps in the most inhumane way, by the SARS. It’s been running for so long and there seems not be any end within sight. People have been killed unjustly, spend months or years in jail without any trial, or even kidnapped; subjecting their families to an unending search for their loved ones. Nigerian youths have had their belongings forcefully taken from them, blackmailed, sexually and physically harassed, tortured, and executed without any court injunction. It just follows natural law to revolt when the only choice left is to die. Either way, you may end up dying after all. Nigerian youths finally agreed not to make the deaths and molestation easy anymore.
Thus, by a single heavily-spirited tweet and hashtag “#EndSARS” on Twitter on October 3rd, 2020, the youths got the clarion call they were waiting for to finally put an end to the SARS menace. It should be noted that several calls to end SARS in the past 4 years have yielded results as well, resulting in proclamation of ban of SARS by the Nigerian government, only for the squad to resume operations the next day. The worst is, they have been banned for about 3 times (2017, 2018, and 2019), on paper and TV, but not on the ground. The people aren’t just having it anymore this time.
So on October 7th, 2020, Nigerian youths took to the street in what was then a peaceful protest to end SARS. What started as a haphazard gathering of youths with placards quickly transformed into a well-coordinated movement across several states in Nigeria, with social media practically providing the leadership and platform where instructions were given on next moves.
The government first reacted by not reacting, a kind of watchful waiting, hoping they will get tired in few days, or perhaps, since there was no recognizable leader, they will break ranks and everyone would find their ways. It turned out they were terribly wrong. The movement gained tremendous momentum and various celebrities, musicians and athletes started lending their voices. Nigerian in diaspora staged protests in several cities across the world, and many international media outfits, celebrities, and political figures voiced their support for the protesters. It became a force the government would leave at its own peril.
In a quick face-saving move, the government announced immediate ban to SARS and its operations. Unsurprisingly, the protesters were not going to have it. They dug into the archives to show all the previous proclamations banning SARS, which seem to have become an annual ritual.
The government went further in an attempt to reassure the protesters of their seriousness this time by announcing that SARS had been replaced with SWAT; the Special Weapons and Tactics team. This only succeeded in fueling the protests as the youths felt it was just a change of name for the same notorious group to operate. Thus, within an hour after the announcement, the #EndSWAT hashtag started trending on Twitter, providing the youths the opportunity to voice their rejection of the hurriedly assembled new team.
The protesting youths went further to throw a curveball at the government by stretching the demand list further to include a reform in government, end to bad governance, and cut in cost of running government especially the emoluments of politicians, among others. For analysts closely monitoring the situation, this new development was nothing coming out of the left field, considering the prolonged latency before the government made any address to the protesters and the Nigerian masses. The anger had grew and momentum built beyond the will to just end SARS. Opposition politicians and activists also took advantage of the protest to demand for more accountability from the government. The pressure was mounting on the government and it appeared like the final moment for peaceful revolution that we all longed for had arrived.
Protesters gathered every day, often all day long, at strategic places in cities and towns across most of southern and middle belts states, with few of such in the Northern States. Roads were barricaded, albeit with a very strong preponderance to support those in distress and those needing other forms of aids. Protesters cooked foods for themselves, raised funds for those in need, and reports had it that the Christians were at one time seen forming a protective ring around their Muslim counterparts while observing Juma’at prayers. The message was clear, the youths were resolute! And then, the government began to panic.
There were few pockets of violence as the protest grew in intensity, with police units repelling protesters with teargas, water cannons, and physical restraint, leading to injuries and few deaths among the protesters. Despite this, they kept reassembling and charging forward with a strong hope of forcing the government to do the will of the masses.
The Lekki Massacre
October 20, 2020, marked a dark turning point in a largely peaceful protest that promised to cause a positive change for the Nigerian people. Although, the protest have witnessed more incidences of violence, often orchestrated by hoodlums who will either disguise as protesters or outrightly attack the peaceful protesters. The popular perception about the protests, and the pulse of the country had largely been peaceful.
For about a week prior to this day, protesters had consistently gathered at the popular toll-gate on the Lekki-Epe expressway in Lagos; disrupting traffic flow, unblocking the gates, and causing significant financial loss to the operators. This toll-gate had been a subject of controversy for a long time in terms of how much people had to pay to use the road, and more importantly, the ownership of the toll-gate. People had insinuated it was owned by a popular politician in Lagos, contrary to the claim that it belongs to the Lagos State government. This, perhaps, informed the choice of the toll-gate as a rallying point for protesters.
Rumours had it that around early evening on this day, some men who were thought to be workers at the toll-gate had quietly removed the CCTV cameras and put off the street lights around the toll-gate. About 3 hours after that, the protesters were reported to have been attacked by men in Nigerian Army uniform. They were alleged to have shot live bullets and killed several protesters in the process, though the claim of estimated number of deaths has varied widely by different reporters. Several gory videos and audio recordings went viral on social media, setting up one of the most delicate situation not previously witnessed in the country in decades. What followed was a huge uprising where angry youths (this time not sure who they represent or where they came from) embarked on widespread destruction and looting of public and private properties, businesses, corporations, several types of vehicles including public transport services, among others. This outrage spread like wildfires within days. With several states experiencing violence and lootings by purportedly angry youths. Given the tension and level of threats to lives and properties of Nigerians, governments started declaring and enforcing curfews to curtail the spread of violence and looting. This anger hurricane went on for days, or even weeks in some places, before its eventual landfall. And as expected, it left huge destruction along its inglorious path.
There have been several claims and counter-claims by governments and various actors and opinion leaders across the country concerning the legitimacy of the allegation of shooting of peaceful protesters at Lekki in Lagos. While the government continue to deny it, albeit in a mixed, incoherent manner, there has not been any damning evidence either to support the claim that the shooters (if there were any), were truly men of the Nigerian Army, or sent by governments, or whether it was a premeditated action. Most videos online have been disproved or their claims could not be substantiated when closely scrutinized. A legislator once describe the “Lekki massacre” as “mother of all fake news” in Nigeria. Major media outfits and organizations including Amnesty International have maintained that the incident truly happened, but as it were, at the time of writing this article, it is still a very contentious incident. Thus, various governments have set up panels of inquiry to consider various claims and ascertain what truly transpired during the protests, the violence, and the looting and vandalizations across the country.
Surely, the last has not been heard on this near-revolution in Nigeria, however, like most grand incidents in Nigeria, the last may never be heard. But the youths have scored a point though. They have shown that despite differing voices, opinions, and divisions occasioned by our diversity in culture, religion, ethnic, and political views, they can still find a common rallying point when it matters, and the social media can truly lead them all the way.
This eye-opening event sent a big shock down the spines of the political elites who are now trying hard, albeit with stiff resistance from the masses, to regulate social media use in Nigeria. Unfortunately, this seem to be an impossible task, given the level of awareness, enlightenment, and resolution the Nigerian masses have.