#ENDSARS is a protest in Nigeria that began trending on Twitter on 8 October 2020. SARS means Special Anti-Robbery Squad. It was a police unit created in 1992 and tasked with combating armed robbery. The hashtag demanded for the unit to be disbanded.
The Nigerian police has long had a reputation for corruption and brutality. While police brutality appears to not be uncommon globally, Nigeria's case appears bad because of the impunity with which the police operate. It is very common for a policeman to say to a citizen "I will kill you and nothing will happen." Further, the corruption is systemic, with proceeds of extortion allegedly being paid to superiors all the way to the top. However, SARS were known as the worst of the worst. They had mutated from a law enforcement unit to a gang of state sanctioned armed robbers. The unit had been accused of unlawful detention, unlawful arrests, harassment, murder, kidnapping, theft, rape, torture, humiliation, extrajudicial killings and extortion of Nigerian citizens. They did things like driving around in unmarked buses, picking up people and demanding for money. Any person who cannot pay up can be branded an armed robber and locked up. Given the state of our judiciary, one can be held for years without charge. If women were picked up, they had the option of paying for their release with sex. There were also stories of arrested or convicted robbers paying to be substituted, such substitutes often being random people picked off the streets. Even where armed robbers are apprehended, SARS sometimes kill them without bothering to go through the judicial process. One of the SARS units in Awkuzu, Anambra State of South Eastern Nigeria, was accused of killing over 35 young men in 2013 and dumping the bodies into a river. As a whole, it is estimated that the unit killed over 30,000 Nigerians in the last 16 years. Given the penchant of governments to understate casualties in such situations, I think 30,000 is a lower estimate. The unit's bad conduct is so routine and widespread that even foreigners, especially blacks who look like Nigerians have been illegally detained and extorted. While the unit did not discriminate in victimizing anyone, it mostly targeted young men, especially if they had tattoos, dread locks, dyed hair and looked affluent. Young men with these traits were profiled as internet fraudsters otherwise known as yahoo boys.
People had been complaining about the police and SARS for a long time. The #ENDSARS hashtag actually began in 2017. In response the Nigerian government had announced changes to the unit 4 times before now. But nothing had changed. Protests erupted now because a video surfaced of SARS men shooting a man and driving away in his car. The protests began in Lagos and spread to Abuja. The protests were led by young people who used social media to organize a wonderfully sophisticated movement providing information, legal aid, medical assistance, mechanics, food, water and security. It was a wonder to behold. The most sophisticated of these organizations was called Feminist Coalition. It gave daily updates on monies raised and disbursed. Protesters could see the effect of this crowdfunded money. This is in sharp contrast to all government welfare programs that are always shrouded in obfuscating bureaucracy and dogged by credible allegations of corruption and barefaced looting.
In Lagos, the epicenter of the protests was a middle class suburb called Lekki. The main route to the area was through the toll gate on Ozumba Mbadiwe road. It is a busy road and the toll gate was said to generate over N250 million daily. This is approximately $520,000. There were also protests at Alausa, which is the state capital; Ikeja, near the state police command and also in poorer neighborhoods like Alimosho and Mushin. In Abuja, the Federal Capital, protests were concentrated around Unity Fountain, an ugly monument near the wealthy neighborhood of Maitama and would usually march to the National Assembly. There were also widespread protests mostly in the southern and central states of the country. In the north, protests held in Kano, led by Aisha Yesufu. She had some credibility because in 2014, she had led the #BBOG group that protested for almost a year against the government's incompetence and insensitivity when over 200 girls were abducted by Boko Haram. A picture of her became one of the most iconic images of this #ENDSARS protest. It showed her in front of a crowd, wearing her COVID19 mask and a hijab with a defiantly raised fist. It is a great picture. By 11/10/2020, protests had spread to Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, all countries with large Nigerian diasporas. The #ENDSARS hashtag trended for about a week on Twitter mostly powered by Nigerians. It got support from celebrities, most prominently Jack Dorsey and Gabrielle Union with Jack Dorsey even asking for bitcoin donations when the Nigerian Government began to shut down bank accounts of people and organizations associated with the movement. At this point, there was a deafening silence from the usual western governments that pontificate about human rights. No major news organization reported on it. There were snarky comments about how the west was wringing its hands over the protests in Hong Kong but had kept quiet over #ENDSARS despite the seriousness of the allegations leveled at the police.
The government had initially tried to respond with the force. But this was like throwing water on an oil fire. Videos of the police shooting tear gas and in some cases live ammunition at peaceful protests appeared to encourage more people to join. Further, the support and organization of the protesters, which was coordinated via twitter made it difficult for the police to employ their usual tactics of arresting people and locking them up. Lawyers were on hand to rescue anybody who got arrested usually within 48 hours and without payment of the usual bribe/bail money. This is probably the first time that the police refrain of bail being free, which is prominently displayed in their stations but never applied was actually implemented. In fact, the protesters actually got the police to refund money collected from some protesters for bail and also got the police to contribute to the medical expenses of a protester that was beaten by the police. To my knowledge, nothing like that had ever happened in my country.
On 11/10/2020, the Inspector General of Police announced the disbandment of the unit and its replacement with another called SWAT. In response, the protests added another hashtag #ENDSWAT to their demands because, they argued that changing the name of the unit would not mean a change in its behavior. At this point, the protesters' demands had coalesced into a 5 point list. The government released a statement agreeing to the demands. The protesters countered that government had broken many promises in the past, thus, the protests would continue until there was a guarantee that the government would keep its word. Government then released a timeline for implementing the remedies it had outlined in response to the 5 point demand. Davido, a popular young musician was invited to negotiate with the police on behalf of the protesters even though they had repeatedly said they had no leaders. Davido was obviously out of his depth. It is at this point that the momentum shifted in favor of the government. Even though the president had remained aloof and never commented on the issue, his ministers, the Lagos State governor, the Inspector General of Police and the vice president had demonstrated a willingness to listen to the protesters and meet their demands. The protesters had ignored these overtures. Some had made further demands like #ENDBADGOVERNANCE (a good demand but too amorphous). Others had made political demands calling for the president to resign using hashtag #ENDBUHARI. Also, in Lagos and Abuja the protests had turned violent with clashes between pro and anti-SARS groups. Characteristically, the president did not make any address while all this was raging.
Between 12th and 19th October, the protests kept gaining momentum with Anonymous hacking some government websites, more state governors announcing commissions of enquiry and violence between protesters, pro-government rented crowds and opportunistic hoodlums. There was much violence in many towns and cities with commuters cars smashed, government buildings being set ablaze, banks, malls and houses of politicians being robbed.
This violence led to state governors declaring curfews. Lagos State declared a 24 hour curfew starting by 4pm, later extended to 9pm on 20/10/20. At the Lekki tollgate, protesters were still massed as at 7pm when soldiers arrived to enforce the curfew. The soldiers opened fire on the protesters and killed at least 15 people. Another iconic picture that emerged was from this incident. The picture was of a dead or injured person wrapped in a bloodied Nigerian flag. The government initially denied that soldiers were at the tollgate, despite video evidence. Then later said the shooters were hoodlums dressed as soldiers. Then later said it was a real army unit that had gone there without authorization. Then later said the unit had fired blank ammunition. Then later said the unit had fired live rounds in the air. Then later said the unit had been ordered there by the Lagos State Government despite the LASG having no authority to do so. Then later said nobody was killed because there were no dead bodies. The Lagos State Governor debunked the claim of no dead bodies when he said 2 people were killed. As at today, the casualties are estimated to be between 15 and 75. This sort of behavior is normal for the Nigerian armed forces. In 2018, the convoy of the Chief of Army Staff killed at least 50 protesting Shiites in Zaria.
However, despite the brutality of the armed forces, they displayed surprising dexterity in handling the mobs in other parts of the country. There were many videos of soldiers talking mobs out of violence, restraining police and protecting protesters. What was most striking is that these emotionally intelligent officers were all young, ironically highlighting the fact that Nigeria is for the young.
Unfortunately, the protests, despite having a credible and relatable cause, foundered.
The first major reason why government was able to disrupt and ultimately stop the protests is Nigeria's ethnic, religious and political divides. There is an ethno/politico/religious divide between the Hausa-Fulani Muslims + allies (Kanuri, Nupe, Gwari, Igala, Igbira and the tribes of Nassarawa) in the North versus the Christians in Southern Nigeria (led by the Igbo) and Central Nigerian tribes (arguably led by the tribes of Plateau State and the southern part of Kaduna State). The Yoruba are the wild card being almost evenly split between the faiths and so having more allegiance to their tribe than to religion. Nigeria is almost evenly divided between Muslims and Christians with Islam having a slight majority. This demographic structure means that almost everything often devolves to sectional interests. And so it happened this time. The current president, Muhammadu Buhari is a Muslim Fulani man. And so it was easy for northern Muslims not to support the protests. It was heartbreaking to see people sharing messages saying that SARS is not a problem in the north because northerners do not have a "get rich at all costs culture" which tolerates criminality. Others said they would not support the protests because the Christians/Southerners did not protests when the Boko Haram insurgency erupted in the North; some Northerners alleged that when Boko Haram began, some Southern Christian said Muslims killing each other is not their problem. So, despite how credible the complaints about the police were, half of the country, the half whose representative was in power, were willing to disbelieve the gravity of the situation. There were even protests in favor of SARS in the far northern states of Katsina and Kano. Those protests were obviously rented crowds. Other northern Muslims tweeted hashtags saying #SECURETHENORTH or #ENDINSECURITYINTHENORTH in opposition to #ENDSARS. They claimed that there was too much insecurity in Northern Nigeria (kidnapping for ransom, violent cattle rustling, religious insurgency), thus that is more of a concern to them. Further, SARS was apparently actually effective in the north, thus it appeared there was no ill will towards them. The government could rely on this support or at least lack of discontent.
Another fissure in the coalition was on the issue of gay rights. Nigeria is deeply intolerant of behavior that deviates from the norm. Homosexuality, while tolerated, would draw swift censure if flaunted. So, when openly gay people tried to associate with the protests, by flying the gay pride flag, on the grounds that they suffer police brutality more than most, many of the protesters rejected association with them. One reason for the rejection was strategic. Many people argued that both straight and gay people suffered from police brutality and the #ENDPOLICEBRUTALITY call did not exclude gay people. The argument further went that openly affiliating with the gay movement would lead large swathes of the country, including hugely influential evangelical pastors and imams to denounce the protests and give government moral support to crush it. Another reason was just plain intolerance. Many of the protesters really think homosexuality is wrong. So, when one of the main and most visible financiers - Feminist Coalition - announced support for gay rights, the protests lost a lot of supporters. In fairness to those against gay association, the main body of protestors also chased away opposition politicians, secessionists, NGOs and any other person with a separate agenda.
Thirdly, government actually announced agreement to the initial demands of the protesters. However, the protesters then increased their demands with some even demanding for the resignation of the president. This led some, especially in the North to accuse the protesters of actually being tools of either the opposition political parties or international Christian groups seeking to either topple the sitting government or the Muslim president respectively. This paranoia was fueled by the sophistication of the protests. People who had been used to the corruption and inefficiency of government just could not believe that logistics could be organized on the scale that was seen. The organization was wonderful. And the power of the internet was once again put on display as protest groups from other parts of the world actually gave tips on how to mobilize and organize. Almost all the organization was done via Twitter and WhatsApp.
The last and most effective reason was the violence that eventually engulfed the protests. There was much looting and rioting in Lagos with government offices set ablaze. There were at least 2 jail breaks in other states. There were exchanged of gunfire in Port Harcourt. Banks, malls and houses of politicians were attacked and looted. The palace of the traditional ruler of Lagos was thoroughly ransacked with his traditional staff of office taken away. In the process of this looting, warehouses full of food branded as COVID19 relief were discovered. This added another dimension of anger to the masses who have been hard hit by the economic contraction caused by the lockdowns. When the videos of the warehouses in Lagos circulated on social media, crowds in other states started looking for similar caches. In Jos, Plateau State, a video of the crowd descending on the warehouse shot from atop a telecommunications mast showed a crowd like a mass of zombies descending on the stronghold of the living. This COVID19 palliative hoarding has cast Nigerian politicians in an even worse light (if that is possible) and had led to an attempt to recall at least one state legislator.
What did the protests achieve?
The protests succeeded in forcing acknowledgment by the government that there was a serious problem in the police. SARS was disbanded and hopefully there will be a police reform and overhaul. However, the bigger success is that it was a young people's protest. Young people showed their political and organizational power. It was wonderful to watch. I wish this had happened close to 2023 when general elections are due. So that all the usual politicians would get a thumping. This protest I imagine is part of an awakening that began in 2010 when a sitting northern president was too ill to function and his political cronies were conspiring to prevent the vice president from being acting president. There was also another protest in 2012 against fuel subsidy which, while more catholic than this one was also organized by young people. I proudly supported this protest and had heated conversations with friends and relatives who wanted me to oppose the protests because of (what I assume were) sectional interests. The protests give me hope that Nigeria will improve because people are holding the government more and more to account. Right now, most people are afraid of government and its agents. It is high time government begins to fear the people.
Iron Noder 2020, 3/30