Youth Perspectives

Young people and police brutality: generational leadership in Nigeria

Demonstrators gather during a protest over alleged police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria October 17, 2020

Demonstrators gather during a protest over alleged police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria October 17, 2020 Image: REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Fola Aina
Doctoral Fellow, African Leadership Centre, King’s College London
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  • Young people across Nigeria have been protesting police brutality.
  • Despite violence and attempts at appeasement, the protesters have remained resolute and organized - and they are making a difference.
  • Here's how Nigeria can start to rebuild society's trust in its police force.

Nigeria has been independent for 60 years, but was under military rule for half that time – which is why many Nigerians have become accustomed to living in fear of oppression and subjugation. However, when democracy was reestablished in 1999, an event that was supposed to herald the beginning of a new era, most Nigerians expected to finally reap the benefits of a democratic order that put them first through people-centred policies. Unfortunately, this dream turned out to have been largely a mirage.

As with many other countries and nascent democracies, Nigeria has had to confront numerous challenges. These include unemployment and underemployment, erratic power supply, infrastructural gaps, insufficient social amenities, poor healthcare services, the lack of access to quality education and the threat posed by violent extremism – all in the past decade.

These challenges have compelled Nigerians, typically known to be hardworking and resilient, to endure these pains while looking towards the state to cater to their needs. One of the most fundamental responsibilities of the state towards its citizens remains the protection of lives and property. However, the Nigerian Police Force, which is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring law and order, is now seen by many as being unable to deliver on its mandate.

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Recent protests, led by Nigerian youth across the country's 36 states, have been a direct response to police brutality. The protesters are calling for the police's notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), long plagued by accusations of extrajudicial violence, to be disbanded.

On 11 October, the federal government disbanded the unit for the fourth time in three years. What, then, do these youthful protesters want really? In fact, their campaign is demanding good governance in its broadest sense, including a complete overhaul of the country’s national security architecture. These young people have demonstrated generational leadership, and their campaign has attracted international support from figures such as Twitter's CEO, Jack Dorsey.

As the rest of the world’s attention has turned towards the events unfolding in Nigeria, the situation on the ground has offered an opportunity for both the government and the protesters to express their positions. So far, the government appears to be unaccommodating of these largely peaceful protests. Some protesters have been teargassed, while others have been arrested, detained, and even shot at by police – and Amnesty International has claimed that 12 protesters were killed at a demonstration in Lagos on 20 October after the military opened fire. Rather than break the will of the protesters, however, this has only occasioned renewed vigour on their part.


The youth, with the help of a recently formed organization called the Feminist Coalition and by harnessing the power of social media, have built a transparent online platform through which they give live updates of monies raised and disbursement for their cause. This has added further legitimacy to their cause.

The disbanding of SARS on 11 October, and its replacement with with a new police unit, the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), appears to have been an unpopular decision, as the protesters have continued to demonstrate. Many have suggested that the replacement of SARS with SWAT is simply recycling the same issue and dressing it up with a different name. The new unit has, therefore, suffered a crisis of legitimacy from day one, largely because it fails to address the core issues at the root of police brutality in Nigeria.

Of these, the principle reason is perhaps that the Nigerian Police is underfunded and therefore lacks the requisite training and professionalism to execute its constitutional role. This has affected overall morale levels within the police force.

Unless these systemic issues are addressed squarely, there is little likelihood of the police gaining the public’s trust. To ease the ongoing tensions between the police and protesters, it is crucial that any interventions address several issues.

Going forward, it is imperative that the government seeks measures of redress, by ensuring, as a matter of urgency, that a public apology is tendered to all Nigerians, particularly the victims of police brutality and their families. Compensation should also be accorded to the affected, including to the families who have lost loved ones and also payment for those who have been hospitalised. Although not sufficient on its own, this measure would nevertheless go a long way towards starting the much-needed healing and reconciliation process required to restore Nigerians' confidence in the ability of the state to provide for their security.

The police must be properly funded, adequately equipped and their training must be improved to ensure greater professionalism, efficiency and effectiveness. These issues need to be squarely addressed as a matter of urgency, and would go a long way towards building trust in the Nigerian Police Force. All other demands made by the protesters so far, including the release of protesters who have been arrested, compensation for families and prosecution of all members of the former SARS unit found guilty, would go a long way in building trust and fostering the peace process. In the absence of these the protests are likely to rage on.

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