The news has been awash with goings on in Nigeria – but what exactly has been happening? Why are there protests, and what will the impact of them be? We asked SOAS PhD researcher Bulama Bukarti, an expert in all things Nigeria, to give us the lowdown.
So, Bulama, what exactly has been going in Nigeria over the past few weeks?
Over the past two weeks, Nigeria saw unprecedented protests against police brutality. The campaign was triggered by footage allegedly showing the extrajudicial killing of young man in Delta State, southern Nigeria, by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Online outrage using the hashtag #EndSARSNow (which morphed into #SARSMustEnd) activated an offline campaign.
Young people started to pour out to the streets demanding the disbandment of the SARS, justice and compensation for victims and broader police reform. Marchers used social media to give real time updates on their locations and activities and encouraged others to join. When police started cracking down on armless protesters with water cannons, teargas and live ammunitions – killing several and injuring many in the process – marchers posted horrific footages which were shared widely online, mobilising more to join and prompting Nigerians in the diaspora – including celebrities – to start marching in solidarity.
The government initially insisted that it would not scrap, but reform, SARS. But protesters refused to buy that because they argued that SARS was irreformable and that was the fourth time in four years that the government has made such a pledge but failed to deliver. When the protests kept getting bigger and generating global attention, Abuja, the capital, succumbed by announcing the dissolution of SARS, directing states to commission inquiries into alleged abuses and promising holistic reform. But protesters won’t cease; they kept marching, declaring that the commitments made must be implemented before they get off the streets. Others started to make new demands including the resignation of the inspector general of police on whose watch at least scores were killed in the latest rounds of protest.
Then, the government responded by declaring curfew in several states, arguing that the protests have been hijacked by rioters and hoodlums, and giving security forces orders to use lethal force on protesters.
The result was a saga that generated international outrage and condemnation. Security forces descended on peaceful protesters singing the country’s anthem, with live ammunitions, killing twelve and injuring more, bringing the total death toll in the past two weeks to at least 56.
Governments and institutions across the globe condemned violence on innocent protesters, expressed solidarity and urged the government to desist from using force on armless civilians. These included the United Nations, United States and the United Kingdom as well as individual such as Mr Joe Biden, former vice president and flag bearer of the Democratic Party for the 2020 U.S. presidential elections.
As Nigerian youth mourn their fallen heroes and treat their wounded and curfews continue in some states, the campaign continues to rage online especially on Twitter, where it initially started. Meanwhile, Nigerians in the diaspora have continued to demonstrate including in London and across the UK where more protests are planned for this weekend.
In his address to the nation, President Buhari said in reference to the protesters, “Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding”. Abuja has said it has accepted all the five demands of the protesters including extensive police reform. However, there are widespread scepticisms as past promises turned out to be empty. Campaigners on- and offline won’t relent until government delivers on these promises.
We’ve been hearing a lot about SARS – what is this?
SARS stands for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. It was a unit of the Nigerian police established in 1984, when the incumbent President Muhammadu Buhari ruled as a military dictator, to fight robbery which was widespread across the country. Over the years, the team abandoned its mandate and made a name for itself as the most vicious unit of the police with its men accused of egregious human rights violations including extrajudicial killings. More recently, they would stop and search young Nigerians going about their normal businesses in the cities and those found “guilty” of carrying luxurious phones or other gadgets, driving flashy cars, wearing tattered trousers or sporting dyed hair were branded cybercriminals, arrested, detained and extorted or occasionally killed.
But SARS’s abuses go far beyond this. As a human rights lawyer, I have prosecuted cases in which SARS men arrested and tortured “accused” persons – sometimes to death – for alleged offences that are outside the remit of the unit. The team had torture chambers in each state where they use horrific torture methods including electric shocking, tying victims with ropes that eat into the skin and in way that disrupts circulation of blood. Corpses were dropped into ponds or dumped in public mortuaries. They also meddled in civil cases by acting as debt collectors, contracts enforcers and intruded in matrimonial disputes at the assistance of parties that pay them bribes. The team’s abuses are so widespread that almost every Nigerian was either a victim or knows at least one person who has been a victim. It it pent-up anger and outrage that accumulated over the years that led to the spontaneous but widespread protests that we saw.
Are the protests affecting some areas more than others? Is there a north/south divide? Is it more pronounced in big cities?
Most of the protests held in major cities across Nigeria partly because SARS mostly operates there. Abuja and Lagos were particularly active. Most protesters are young people between 18 to early thirties, many protesting for the first time. That’s because this class is one that mostly suffers from police brutality. It is also the category most active on social media where the virtual protest is taking place. But there’s also a generational divide. Most older people grew up under military regimes and thus are still afraid to confront the government. For young people, enough is enough. After all, it’s their future that is at stake here.
Most of the country was united because this is a partisan issue and police brutality is everywhere. But Nigerian politicians tried to use their playbook of dividing the country along ethnoreligious fault lines for parochial ends – and they succeeded to some extent. They sponsored a campaign of disinformation, mostly on encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp, framing protesters as southerners out to destroy Nigeria or topple a northern president. Some fell for it and held so called pro-SARS rallies.
There are also others in the north that felt scrapping SARS could worsen the security situation in the region and thus advocated for purging it of human rights abuses instead. This was further completed by SARS differing, though equally horrific, modus operandi in the South and the North. They operated more openly in the south and covertly in the north.
What do you think the impact of these protests will be, both short-term and long-term?
This protest has achieved its major aim of getting SARS disbanded and may have become a trigger for holistic police reform in the country. This is an incredible accomplishment not least because this is the first time government relented in the way it did. Past protests were dispersed with brute force. It has also become a wake-up moment for other causes and issues. For instance, inspired by the #EndSARS protests, youths in the north organised demonstrations on deteriorating insecurity in their region. This may be the beginning of more mass protests and non-violent civil disobedience on bad governance, endemic corruption, electoral fraud and other socio-economic and political issues bedevilling Nigeria. This is a turning point.
So – what now?
This is a genuine campaign to stop police brutality and demand better governance. It is a movement to make Nigeria and its democracy better. It is not an undertaking to divide our country or jeopardise our democracy as some unscrupulous individuals claim. That most of the pockets of violence reported in the media were not committed by protesters; they were the handiwork of hired hoodlums and criminal arsonists. It is the duty of the police to stop bad elements from harming peaceful protesters and the public, but they won’t do their job because they think the chaos will help them in justifying cracking down on protesters. Nigerians count on the world not look away and to continue to monitor and speak up in support of our constitution, our democracy and our rights to demand better from government.