Youth in Nigeria, angry over police brutality, have formed a movement that started with street protests and which some see as a potential political force.

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Youth protest against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Lagos, Nigeria, 9 October 2020. (EPA-EFE/AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE)

The kind of police brutality that has fueled demonstrations in the United States has triggered a youth protest movement in Nigeria that is sending shock waves through the West African nation.

“I can’t breathe” were the last words of Eric Garner as he was suffocated by a police officer in New York in 2014. The video of his death went viral on social media and stoked the Black Lives Matter protest movement in the United States.

Sadly, the police brutality captured in the video of Garner’s death is not unique to America.

Oil-rich Nigeria experienced a similar incident in October, when a video of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police force unit, allegedly killing a man in the southern Delta State went viral.

Within days, demonstrations drawing thousands of anti-government protesters broke out in southern cities of Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, calling for the disbanding of SARS.

The hashtag #EndSARS was born, and with it a durable, organised youth protest movement.

Special police force was renowned for its brutality.

SARS was established in 1992 to counter violent crime but gradually came to be seen as a corrupt and brutal force, renowned for terrorising and extorting law-abiding citizens.

Amnesty International found that SARS had perpetrated “at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution” from January 2017 to May 2020. In particular, SARS is widely said to target young people, especially those with expensive cars, phones or gadgets, which Nigerians claim are regularly extorted.

“The systemic use of torture and other ill treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards,” Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said in June.

Simmering anger over the impunity the SARS force erupted with the release of the video of the murder of the man in Delta state in October.

Police killed at least 12 protesters at October demonstration.

Days of protests prompted police to fire tear gas to disperse demonstrators before authorities finally said they would dismantle SARS and implement police reforms to placate protesters.

“The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms,” President Muhammadu Buhari said. “We will also ensure all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice.”

But protesters, unswayed, noted that Buhari had promised four times since 2017 to disband the force without ever following through.

Fears that Buhari would fail to act mushroomed when authorities announced that SARS would be replaced by the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, a move that critics dismissed as a ploy — akin to giving the problem a new name.

Protests resumed, and after weeks of demonstrations, police opened fire on peaceful protesters at Lagos’ Lekki Toll Gate on October 15, killing at least 12 people in the deadliest incident since the start of the protest movement.

The violence induced the EndSARS movement to wind down its protests.

Army says it will defend Nigeria ‘at all cost.’

While EndSARS has stepped back for the time being, the protest movement has made several important gains.

First, it drew international attention to what Amnesty International has called the “horrific reign of impunity.”

“Opening fire on peaceful protesters is a blatant violation of people’s rights to life, dignity, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Ojigho said. “These shootings clearly amount to extrajudicial executions.”

Amnesty International said that shortly before the shootings at Lekki Toll Gate, government officials removed security cameras and cut electricity in an attempt, it said, to hide evidence of the shootings.

Buhari, who was the military head of state between 1983 and 1985, but who calls himself a civilian president since he returned to power in elections in 2015, has met citizens’ grievances with overbearing force.

Five days before the Lekki incident, the army issued a statement saying it would “defend the country and her democracy at all cost,” and that the military “is ready to fully support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order and deal with any situation decisively.” The army referred to those involved in the unrest as “subversive elements and troublemakers.”

UN chief calls for end to reported police brutality.

Buhari’s reliance on force to quell dissent and the decision to change the name of SARS to SWAT suggest the leader does not fully grasp the depth of demonstrators’ grievances, according to Amaka Anku, head of the Africa section at the Eurasia Group consulting firm. She told Vox News that Buhari “doesn’t understand the frustration or the context.”

EndSARS drew international attention to the government’s conduct, with the African Union (AU) and the United Nations both condemning violence against demonstrators.

AU Chairperson Cyril Ramaphosa said the continental bloc was “deeply concerned about the violence that has taken place,” and he called on “political and social actors to reject the use of violence and respect human rights.”

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for an “end to reported police brutality and abuses.

Crucially, the EndSARS protests have showed the power of Nigerian youth, who have been increasingly disaffected in recent years, particularly given the dire state of the job market.

Unemployment in the second quarter of 2020 stood at 21.7 million, with youth accounting for 13.9 million, or 64%, of the total. The protests reflected the conviction on the part of many young citizens that they are being overlooked in policy decisions.

“We are tired, so we decided: no more,” Obianuju Iloyanya, a 25-year-old political science graduate, told the Financial Times newspaper, saying she was “fed up” with the way Nigeria was being run and the prevalence of police brutality. “We will not give you respect any more. You must earn our respect.”

Youth movements converge.

Previously, there had been sporadic youth protests, including a growing number of demonstrations in recent years by feminists denouncing harassment and rape.

EndSARS seems to mark the convergence of diverse youth grievances into one coherent movement. Significantly, young men and women have come together to express their anger against SARS, with female leaders playing a crucial role.

Women were and still are an integral part of the protest,” Rinu Oduala, a brand strategist who organised one of the protests in Lagos, told Quartz Africa. “It wouldn’t have gone on for long without them.”

The Feminist Coalition, a group of 14 women from various forms of activist and non-political backgrounds, was at the centre of much of the coordination and financing of EndSARS. The coalition established a fund that raised nearly US$400,000 to support protesters.

The Feminist Coalition has declined requests for comment after it said it received threats from individuals claiming to be with government security agencies.

As for the future, Anku told Vox that EndSARS could morph into a political force ahead of Nigeria’s next presidential election in 2023, with a view to reshaping the relationship between the government and its people, and could pose a stiff challenge to a Buhari-aligned politician.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why have young Nigerians been protesting recently?
  2. How important do you think social media is to protest movements today?
  3. Do you think it is important for both men and women to be active in a protest movement for it to be successful? 
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Jessica Moody is an ESRC-funded PhD candidate in the War Studies department at Kings College London, researching post-conflict peace-building in Côte d'Ivoire. Moody is also a research assistant for the atrocity prevention project at the Holocaust Memorial Museum and works as a freelance political risk analyst focusing on west and central Africa. She has appeared on podcasts Into Africa and Foreign Exchanges, and has written for publications including Foreign Policy, IHS, the Economist Intelligence Unit, The FT's “This is Africa” publication and African Arguments.

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World Africa Police brutality sparks youth movement in Nigeria