Some call it “Black Tuesday,” others tag it “a long night.” Whichever moniker becomes the trendiest, Oct. 20, 2020, will be remembered in Nigeria as the day military officers, or soldiers, shot directly at peaceful unarmed protesters, killing dozens and wounding more.
The mostly young protesters had gathered at Lekki Tollgate in the country’s commercial and most populous city of Lagos. Their only crime—if one should call their actions such—was asking their government to disband Nigeria Police Force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, notorious for decades of extortion, mock execution, extrajudicial killings, and rape, among other violent and violating behaviors.
After about two weeks of sustained protest against police brutality that began Oct. 5, the soldiers were brought in by the government to help control demonstrators and possibly to end the protest.
The NPF is largely corrupt, underfunded, understaffed, and poorly trained. But these deficiencies mirror a general system of poor leadership, corruption, and lack of accountability among political and institutional leaders in most parts of Nigeria. According to a 2016 report by the World Internal Security and Police Index, NPF is the worst police force in the world, falling behind in all evaluated areas: capacity, process, legitimacy, and outcomes.
SARS was established in 1984 to tackle high-level crime, including kidnapping and armed robbery. In recent years, however, officers of the unit, who often wear plain clothes underneath FSARS-inscribed jackets—similar to those of a street gang—have also become marked with human rights violations.
John Olumide Ogunjemilusi experienced those violations first-hand.
On July 19, 2019, Ogunjemilusi was driving with a relative from Nigeria’s most populous city, Lagos, to his brother’s wedding in neighboring Ogun State. SARS officers stopped them on their way, and ordered the 23-year-old to step out of the car. He was then asked what he does for a living.
“I am a nurse,” Ogunjemilusi says he explained to the officers, and showed them his identity card. Next, they asked him to show what was bulking from the right pocket of his trousers. When he pulled out his wallet, the officers ordered him to hand it over to them.
He refused, and while Ogunjemilusi was still arguing the legality of their orders, one of the armed officers cocked his gun, aimed it at Ogunjemilusi’s leg, and pulled the trigger.
But he missed.
Thanks to Ogunjemilusi’s aunty, who miraculously and forcefully pulled him back by his shirt, the echoing bullet landed on the ground. A crowd started forming, prompting the officers to speed off in their van.
Ogunjemilusi is among the thousands of young people who have taken part in the ongoing protests that began after viral video clips showing SARS officers driving off in a car that belonged to the man they had just shot and left lying on the road. That police killing of 22-year-old Joshua Ambrose outraged citizens and sparked the now-weekslong protests.
“I participated because as a victim of police brutality, talking about it and seeing it boils my blood,” Ogunjemilusi says.
Street marches in Nigeria have spread to more than 100 cities. Placard-bearing protesters have sustained the demonstrations for more than two weeks, calling on police authorities to end brutality and, more specifically, dissolve SARS.
#EndSARS has become one of the most trending hashtags on social media, attracting solidarity protests and support from activist groups and individuals worldwide. One of such pronounced supports came from CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey. He called for donations to support protesters, and the social media platform created a special green-and-white-colored tight-fist emoji that appears next to “#EndSARS.”
Little Success, More Doubts
Since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, religious, ethnic, and tribal divisions here have made it nearly impossible for youth to unite against social ills.
For example, in December 2015, after accusing Shia Muslims, a minority group in Nigeria, of blocking a major road in the country’s northern state of Kaduna during one of their regular religious processions, officers shot directly at the procession, killing more than 300 people. They then buried them in mass graves.
More people from the Shia Muslim community took to the streets to protest. But the protest did not gain much support from the larger Nigerian population. In a country where religious conflicts are common, most citizens in Christian south and some parts of the north showed less concern. Even among Muslims in the north, yearslong doctrinal disagreement between Sunni and Shiite Muslims made it difficult for any meaningful protest to take hold across the north.
Similarly, in 2016, when police officers shot and killed more than 150 peaceful activist members of the Indigenous People of Biafra, a group from the country’s southeast region advocating for a breakaway state to be called “Biafra,” the extrajudicial execution did not spark the usual outrage in Nigeria—not in the north and not in the south. Such indifference is attributed to ethnic and religious hatred that breed incompatibility here.
But the #EndSARS protest seems to have broken that stalemate, puzzling many.
“How they mobilized, how they resourced, I don’t know,” says Lawrence Dube, director of Citizens Trust, a group advocating for legislative accountability in the oil-producing Niger Delta region of Nigeria. “When it started, I was skeptical.”
Dube says he questioned whether it was possible that the protest could work, considering past failed attempts at mobilization.
So far, the #EndSARS movement has succeeded in some ways. Police authorities have dissolved the controversial squad. The national government also accepted and has started implementing the five-point demands issued by protesters: immediate and unconditional release of all arrested protesters, an independent body to investigate and prosecute erring officers, compensation for victims of police brutality, retraining of all former SARS officers, and increased salaries for police officers.
There are doubts, however, about the government’s commitment. Barely 48 hours after SARS was disbanded, police authorities unveiled a new unit, the Special Weapons and Tactical team. Protesters say it’s just a name change and won’t satisfactorily address contending issues—the reason protests have dragged on. Besides, on several occasions, the government had promised to disband SARS but failed to do so.
“Disbandment, for me, that is just English. We want action,” says Felicia Okpara, a 27-year-old Lagos-based protester who was hauled into a police cell at age 12 for a minor quarrel her family had with their neighbor.
Yet for some, the mere fact that youth united for the first time to hold NPF accountable, forcing them to acknowledge their violence, is a big win.
“As part of measures to prevent a re-occurrence of the [violent] events that gave rise to the dissolution of SARS, a Citizens’ and Strategic Stakeholders’ Forum is being formed to interface with Police leadership at all levels and advise on police activities as they affect the general public,” the inspector general of police, Mohammed Adamu, said in a Twitter statement on Oct. 11.
Yet for some Nigerians, #EndSARS has come to represent something beyond the fight against police brutality.
“#EndSARS collectivizes our national aspiration, so it’s like a sort of mobilization for our collective anger and anguish against all the things that are wrong with Nigeria,” says Dube. “It is like a statement in our conscience, and it has come to stay forever.”
The protests in Nigeria coincide with those in the United States after the police killing of George Floyd, a Black Minneapolis resident at the hands, or more literally the knee, of a White local police officer in May.
Floyd’s death prompted a multiracial uprising against police violence across the U.S. and around the world. Black Lives Matter-led demands have already brought some positive changes in some U.S. states, including partial defunding of some police departments and the repeal of some laws that provide undue cover for police officers.
In Nigeria, protesters refused to have a central leadership, an approach similar to that used by the BLM movement. They argued that having one could make room for deep-pocket politicians and political groups to buy off the leadership and steal the trust of protesters whose courage is needed to continue the fight against police violence.
They have also refused donations from political interest groups. Protests have been largely self-sustained as protesters help each other with food and other needs, a mutual aid approach that is also seen among BLM protesters. Donations from private individuals, facilitated by the nonprofit Feminist Coalition, have also helped Nigerian protesters to provide medical help to wounded activists, legal aid to those arrested, plus other forms of support. This idea has made it difficult to associate protesters with any political group. Any other approach would have given the government an excuse to clamp down on protesters far earlier than it did.
“Nobody can ride on it to make a political promise,” says Dube.
Additionally, Angel Nduka-Nwosu, co-founder of As Equals Africa, a feminist group canvassing for equal treatment for all Nigerians, attributes the success of #EndSARS to the movement’s universal messaging. Despite the fact that police brutality is most prevalent in Nigeria’s Christian south as opposed to its Muslim north, the movement sold the message that: “We are all victims,” and “You could be a victim.”
People put aside their usual religious, ethnic, and tribal differences to support the movement. After all, many Nigerians have either had a direct or indirect harmful experience with SARS. So it became easy for youth to find a common ground for getting involved.
“Every person who appeared on the streets has a connection with the issues (of police brutality and extortion). Either they have been abused by law enforcement officers or they have seen somebody abused or they have entered a car and seen somebody robbed at gunpoint in the name of checkpoint or they have heard about it,” says Ken Henshaw, director of We The People, a center for social studies and development in Nigeria’s Port Harcourt city.
“The placards you saw on the streets were not ready-made by any group, people came from their houses with their placards and the placards reflected their own peculiar stories. That was the strength of that movement,” Henshaw, who was part of those who organized the protest in Port Harcourt, adds.
Moreover, the timing of the protests could be linked to a succession of ugly past events. On Sept. 19, SARS officers extrajudicially killed Daniel Ikeaguchi, a musician in Port Harcourt city who was popularly called Sleek. The killing sparked condemnation among citizens across Nigeria and protests in Port Harcourt. While flared nerves were yet to calm over Sleek, on Oct. 1, Nigeria’s Independence Day, the police tear-gassed and brutally handled peaceful protesters demanding accountability from public-officeholders and good governance.
While citizens were still decrying these two incidents, the Oct. 4 shooting of Joshua Ambrose happened in Delta State, drawing youth to the streets in protest.
“The Nigerian people were brought into direct connection with consistent police abuse and repression. There was Sleek, and immediately after the Oct. 1 action, there was the Ugheli [Delta State] issue,” says Henshaw. “Everything put together served as a trigger, and then, Twitter of course amplified it by that #EndSARS. One protest led to another in just one week.”
Resolute Despite Retreat
Meanwhile, after the Oct. 20 shooting of protesters by SARS soldiers at Lekki in Lagos, protesters have retreated from the streets, which are now being unusually watched by military and police personnel. And while the protests have achieved some success, especially in creating awareness and compelling police authorities to acknowledge brutal behaviors among its personnel, the violent response of security forces remains an indication that the war against brutality in Nigeria—be it from the military or the police—is far from being over.
Yet protesters are not giving up.
They have instead become more resolute and strategic. What began as a reactive movement has now morphed into the proactive “Coalition of Protest Groups Across Lagos and Nigeria.” The group, whose members comprise mostly those who participated in the protests, was formed several days after the shooting.
It aims to consolidate on the success of the protests through social media campaigns. It is also developing a leadership that will negotiate with the government and monitor the implementation of its demands with respect to ending police brutality.
According to a statement on the Coalition’s website, the leaderless nature of the protest but consistent oneness in demands have been part of their unique strengths. The statement goes on to read: “As we move towards consolidation and negotiation, it is now pertinent we put forward a diverse group to represent the different coalitions; from celebrities to activists, legal minds to strategists, journalists to entrepreneurs, etc. … It offers us an interim basis to begin the negotiation and consolidation.”
And if its demands are not implemented satisfactorily, the group says it will hit the streets again.
The atmosphere is still tense, as law enforcement officers now clamp down on groups masquerading as protesters to loot and vandalize properties. But what is sure at this point is that the consciousness #EndSARS has birthed represents hope for the future.
Innocent Eteng is a solutions-focused journalist based in Abuja. Innocent has written for The Christian Science Monitor, TRT World, Women’s Media Center, and Bhekisisa Mail & Guardian.