Geo-Economics and Politics

Why Nigeria's #EndSARS movement is more than a call to end police brutality

A demonstrator paints End SARS on a Lagos street on 20 October, the day security forces reportedly shot 12 people.

A demonstrator paints End SARS on a Lagos street on 20 October, the day security forces reportedly shot 12 people. Image: Reuters/Seun Sanni

Jake Okechukwu Effoduh
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Nigeria

• The #EndSARS campaign isn't merely about Nigeria's corrupt Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

• It is also a broader call for social justice from Nigerian youth in the most populous black nation on Earth.

• The protests, and their fundraising structure, has created a microcosm of a properly functioning nation.

The #EndSARS campaign has drawn worldwide attention to Nigeria. With support from both international corporations and celebrities, it has become the latest protest movement to attract solidarity on a global scale – especially after security forces opened fire on unarmed protesters in Lekki, Lagos on 20 October, 2020 reportedly killing 12 people. At least 56 people have died in Nigeria since the protest began.

Beginning as a call to dismantle the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit, #EndSARS is a battle Nigerians have fought for years. But beyond the fact that it echoes the #BlackLivesMatter protests, it is significant on its own merit because it is a movement across the whole youth spectrum in the most populous black nation on Earth. The SARS unit was disbanded on 11 October, but the campaign’s momentum rolled on – hence the violent response. The political class is running scared because #EndSARS is demanding nothing less than wholesale change in how Nigeria is governed.

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In 1992, the government created a new police unit to tackle the epidemic of armed robbery in the country, but it soon went rogue and became its own armed-robbery operation. Its crimes began to exceed extortion at gunpoint. Between 2017 and 2020, SARS operatives were found to have committed at least 82 acts of torture or extrajudicial execution, with their victims mostly being between 18 and 35. In 2013, 35 bodies of missing people were discovered in a river in Anambra State – murders later linked to SARS. Calls to #EndSARS were ignored by the government for a long time until this year when international pressure forced it to act.

Since the unit was dissolved, the hashtag – generating nearly 30 million tweets in the first 48 hours – was still trending in major cities across the world. Protests have carried on every day since then. However, beyond what the media coverage superficially suggests, this is about much more than police brutality. While the nightmarish transgressions of the SARS unit were the spark for the outrage, the protests have grown to encompass more than that single issue. Nigerians are demanding an abolition of the hegemonic structures that keep them victims of such oppression.

Nigerian youth make up over 70% of its workforce, but the same demographic are unfairly targeted by police and routinely murdered. They have a history of being shut out of power. It was not until 2018 that a different campaign – the Not Too Young to Run movement – succeeded in getting the president to sign a bill that significantly reduced the age qualification for many elected offices. State policies have been criticized for stifling the growth and sustenance of innovative businesses.

The #EndSARS protests have been Nigeria-wide.
Image: African Center for Strategic Studies

Today’s young Nigerians are also part of a generation who have been through two global recessions in their formative years. They inherited a country overrun by decades of military rule and continued corruption. With a further sense of helplessness resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the #EndSARS protests have become a means to channel their anger into creating a microcosm of a functional nation. They are using the protest to signify that they matter, and that they can envision a new way of life in a nation that has sidelined them for so long – starting with the current, and hopefully the final, dissolution of SARS.

The Feminist Coalition has been at the forefront of gathering funds for #EndSARS; providing public and up-to-date accounts of monies received and spent; mobilizing ambulances for injured protesters; providing security at protest venues; creating functional helplines (for food, emergencies, legal issues and mental-health needs); and promptly bailing out protesters.

This is the same country where there is one of the poorest responses to medical emergencies; and where thousands of detainees are abandoned in detention with neither bail nor due court processes. It is almost as though the youth are creating a parallel country where they prove they are capable of overwhelming efficiency.

And this is not just a political rebellion; it is social as well. Moved by radical empathy, they are having frank conversations about and making concrete moves towards recognizing disability rights, queer rights, tribalism and religious bigotry; setting themselves far apart from the illiberal generations that came before. Despite the pain and grief over the recent killings, there is a new-found spirit of patriotism that bounds them in their vision for a better Nigeria. And that spirit is not limited to the borders of the country. Nigerians in Canada, Germany, UK, USA and other countries around the world have joined in.

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Even in the face of death and censorship, Nigerian youth are not backing down in their dreams of rebuilding. By choosing to run a strategic, decentralized movement, #EndSARS is rejecting notions of unnecessary hierarchy. They are fighting for a systems change. They are fighting for their lives – and for justice over the killings of their peers, some of whom died while asking not to be killed. #EndSARS is a demand for existence, a chance for Nigerians to reset their nation.

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