Shortly after Nigeria’s 60th Independence Anniversary celebration on October 1, 2020, nationwide protests fueled by demands to reform a dreaded unit of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), broke out in several major cities across the country. Largely staged by the youth, and trending on social media, the #EndSARS protests started on October 5, 2020 following the killing of a young man in Ughelli, Delta State by operatives of SARS. By October 10, 2020, the street protests had spread across the country. The protests have also gone global with solidarity protests held in Accra, Frankfurt, London, Toronto, and Washington DC,1BBC News, “End SARS: How Nigeria’s anti-police brutality protests went global,” BBC News, October 17, 2020. attracting Nigerians in the diaspora and persons of note, including music and sports stars like Wizkid, Drake, Kanye West, Mesut Özil, and Alexander Iwobi,2CNN World News, “Kanye West and other stars join global protests over police brutality in Nigeria,” CNN World News, October 13, 2020. among others, demanding an end to police brutality in Nigeria.

The protests are the result of pent up frustrations following years of human rights violations, extortion, torture, brutality, and extra-judicial killings by SARS operatives and the police in general. Established as a special unit of the NPF under the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID) in September 1992, SARS was formed to investigate, detain, and prosecute people suspected of involvement in high caliber crimes such as armed robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnapping, cattle rustling, and illegal possession of firearms. In 2018, its operational jurisdiction was expanded to include cybercrime.3Vice World News, “Nigeria is fighting its own battle against police brutality,” Vice, October 15, 2020.

Typical of the NPF, which is pejoratively referred to by some as “No Permanent Friend”, SARS became notorious for its alleged links to extrajudicial killings, extortion, torture, and acts of intimidation. In 2016, an online news media organization described SARS as a “police unit with license to kill.”4Pulse, “Meet SARS, the Police Unit with license to kill,” Pulse, September 23, 2016. Between January 2017 and May 2020, Amnesty International documented more than 82 cases of abuse and extrajudicial killings by officers of SARS. With many of the victims aged between 18 and 35 years, Amnesty International noted that “Nigerians are outraged by the impunity with which SARS perpetrates horrific human rights violations.”5Amnesty International, “Nigeria: Horrific reign of impunity by SARS makes mockery of anti-torture law,” Amnesty International, June 26, 2020.

Acts of impunity came to a climax during the lockdown declared by the federal government to stem the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) reported that within the first 14 days of the lockdown, which began on March 29, 2020, SARS operatives were responsible for the extra-judicial killing of 18 young Nigerians in Abia, Delta, Kaduna, Katsina, and Niger states, with “105 complaints of incidents of human rights violations perpetuated in 24 of Nigeria‘s 36 states and Abuja.”6Aljazeera, “Nigerian security forces kill 18 during curfew enforcement,” Aljazeera, April 16, 2020. Between April 15 and 23, 2020, SARS operatives reportedly killed an additional seven people in Abia, Anambra, and Rivers states.

Thus, a police unit responsible for protecting citizens from extortion, torture, extrajudicial killings, and other forms of violence, has drawn public criticism for violating human rights with impunity. While on face value, the on-going protests seek an end to police brutality, and justice for victims, at a deeper level, they are driven by a more fundamental demand for accountability and good governance.

State responses to the protests

Earlier on, the protests were met with resistance and violent crackdowns by state security forces. Over 10 people were killed in the demonstrations across the country7Orji Sunday and Stephanie Busari, “10 people have died in Nigeria’s ongoing protests over police brutality, Amnesty International says,” CNN World News, October 13, 2020. while media sources reported security operatives arresting of protesters and journalists in Abuja.8Shola Lawal and Adenike Olanrewaju, “Nigerians demand end to police squad known for brutalizing the young,” The New York Times, October 12, 2020. In Rivers state, the government initially banned the protest. The ban was defied with protesters marching to the state house in Port Harcourt. Governor Nyesom Wike retracted his initial position and addressed the protesters. The Nigerian Army has also declared its readiness to quell the protests. But the protests have continued to grow. From one major city to another within and outside Nigeria, the protesters have refused to bulge to appeals to stop or be intimidated.9Adesola Ade-Unuigbe, “A growing list of #EndSARS protests across the world,” Bella Naija, October 19, 2020.

The resilience of the protesters has drawn the attention of state authorities. In a broadcast on Friday October 9, 2020, President Muhammad Buhari promised to disband SARS and to reform the police service. In his words, “the disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms. We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct are brought to justice.”10BBC News, “#EndSARS protests: Nigeria president commits to ending police brutality,” BBC News, October 10, 2020. He also granted the five-point demand of the protesters, namely:

  • Immediate release of all arrested protesters.
  • Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensations for their families.
  • Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct within 10 days.
  • In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed.
  • Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens.

Following the President’s broadcast, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, on Sunday October 11, 2020, disbanded SARS. In a statement, the IGP declared, “I assure the nation of our firm determination to advance our police reform agenda, with a view to bequeathing to our beloved nation, a police institution and system that are not only accountable to the citizens, but professional in all components of its service delivery.”11Vanguard, “IGP disbands SARS, pledges advanced Police reforms,” Vanguard October 12, 2020. The IGP also ordered SARS personnel to report at the Force Headquarters in Abuja for debriefing and medical examination.12Nairametrics, “#EndSARS: IG orders officers of disbanded SARS to report for psychological evaluation,” Nairametrics, October 13, 2020. In place of SARS, the leadership of the police established the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) to fill the gap created by the dissolution of SARS.

In a similar response, Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, ordered the release of arrested protesters and promised to pay N200 million as compensation to the families of victims of police brutality. This was followed by a written statement by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, in which he apologized to Nigerians, admitting state failure to protect the citizens “even from those who are paid to protect them.”13Daily Post, “End SARS: Osinbajo apologizes to Nigerians, admits govt’s fault,” Daily Post, October 17, 2020. Despite the acceptance of their demands, protesters have refused to leave the streets and public spaces. Their argument is that the government has not proved itself worthy of trust by the citizens, having failed to keep similar promises in the past. Between 2017 and 2019, the government once again declared its commitment to disband SARS on the strength of the recommendations of a Presidential Panel on the Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.14BBC News, “SARS ban: Nigeria abolishes loathed federal special police unit,” BBC News, October 13, 2020. Until the current protests started, the government failed to act in line with its commitment. Repeated failures by Nigerian state officials to keep their promises have remained a major characteristic of governance in the country since its return to democracy 21 years ago.

More than a call for security sector reform

The #EndSARS protest is more than just a call for security sector reform in Nigeria. The protests are coming amidst economic crisis occasioned by the fall in global oil demand and prices, institutionalized corruption, and state profligacy. Existing social inequalities have been exacerbated by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The cumulative effect of the pandemic on the society in the absence of safety nets have coincided with months of closure of educational institutions leaving many young people alienated and angry. This has been complicated by worsening economic conditions and bleak projections for the future. Barely recovering from an economic recession that started in 2016, President Buhari has called on Nigerians to “brace up for another recession.”15Vanguard, “Budget 2021: Brace up for another recession — Buhari,” Vanguard, October 9, 2020. Amidst reports of high level state corruption, galloping inflation and unprecedented levels of unemployment, the government recently announced increases in the pump prices of fuel and a hike in electricity tariffs.

The gloomy economic outlook has been worsened by rising insecurity across the country. Since 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency has contributed to a monumental and complex humanitarian crisis with over 30,000 deaths and the displacement of more than two million people in the north-east region of the country. Across the north-west, rural banditry and cattle rustling continue to pose threats to life and property while recurrent clashes between sedentary farmers and nomadic herders in the north-central region is threatening food security and livelihoods. In the south-east and south-south regions, secessionist agitations, militancy, farmer-herder conflicts, and kidnapping for ransom not only threaten human security, but also the stability and territorial integrity of the Nigerian state as well as the legitimacy of the State.

State actors in Nigeria have shown a lack of political will to creatively respond to the demands and expectations of the citizens. Against this background, the protests have become a metaphor for broader resentment against a dysfunctional system that has frustrated any organic development in the country. It has opened the path for the people to vent bottled-up frustrations against a system that has held so much promise but delivered so little. #EndSARS is a protest against a ruling elite that has exploited and appropriated the collective patrimony to itself.

The protesters’ demands at the beginning were simple and straight forward; federal government should abolish SARS, provide justice to victims of police brutality and reform the police. But the demands have grown and now include a call to end insecurity and corruption, revival of the educational and health systems, reduction in the cost of governance, and creation of jobs and income generating opportunities for the youth. The youth are taking advantage of the protests to demand for good governance. They have shown determination and courage despite threats of state repression, to occupy the streets and hold the authorities to account. Worthy of note is how the protesters have effectively used social media and digital technologies to mobilize and organize protests across the country and how “resourceful young medical practitioners, lawyers, freelance media startups and food vendors are offering free services to the protesters and injured.”16Akinola Olojo, “Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests also concern counter-terrorism,” ISS Today, October 15, 2020.

In a country where protests against human rights violations by state actors and agencies are rare, the intensity and scope of the ongoing protests as well as the courage and determination of the protesters, reflect a deep-seated resentment against an oppressive political order. They also reflect a long-standing yearning for peaceful and positive change. As the protests continue to gain momentum, some argue that they point to a looming revolution in Nigeria.

Prognosis for the future

While the experiences of Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia in the Arab spring provide lessons for Nigeria, how the government manages the ongoing protests will ultimately define the future of democratic governance in Nigeria. The disbandment of SARS and the creation of SWAT appear more of a cosmetic approach than a genuine effort at reforming the police. The protests offer an opportunity for genuine governance reform in Nigeria. The dilemma, however, is that government keen to preserve its hold on power is employing different strategies to force an end to the protests including the deployment of the military. It is not seeing the protests as an opportunity for peaceful reforms. At this point, it is not clear if the current protests will bring about the desired change or will spiral out of control and attract a heavy-handed response from the state. However, it does indicate that a generational shift in the paradigm of power and governance has forced its way on to the national agenda although it is yet early to tell how this will pan out for citizenship, leadership, and governance in Nigeria.

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