Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests are a sign of the existential angst of the country’s poor and young

Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests are a sign of the existential angst of the country’s poor and young
Protesters during a march against the Nigeria rogue police, otherwise know as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), in Ikeja district of Lagos, Nigeria. (Photo: EPA-EFE/AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE)

Nigeria’s geriatric ruling class has become insensitive to the plight of the youth and the rest of the country. Inept, corrupt and iniquitous are adjectives that describe those who head Africa’s most populous nation.

Nigeria has been rocked by a series of protests to end police brutality under the banner #EndSARS. These protests reflect widespread frustration among Nigerians about the country’s socioeconomic and political space.

The #EndSARS protests have called for drastic police reform in the country and specifically the disbandment of a police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

SARS was formed in 1992 amid concern about an increase in armed robberies and other organised crimes. The unit was equipped and mandated to respond to these crimes with brutal force; it had what could be termed as a “licence to kill”.

Abuse of power

In recent times, however, SARS morphed into a menace to the people it was supposed to protect, especially the youth. There have been a series of reported human rights violations in the form of torture, harassment, extrajudicial killings, extortion and corruption. SARS has become synonymous with abuse of power by the police, operating in a toxic climate of fear and brutality.

Amid heightened concern for the safety of citizens vis-à-vis SARS, some activists took to social media in 2017, which gave birth to the #EndSARS movement. Since the movement started, the activists have succeeded in getting the government to commit to several police reforms. However, SARS’ impunity continued and things came to a head on 3 October 2020, when a video went viral, showing SARS officers allegedly shooting an unarmed victim in Delta State. Young people took to the streets in protest. 

After weeks of relatively peaceful protests, Nigeria’s leadership announced the SARS unit would be disbanded and replaced with yet another police unit, the Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT). The move failed to appease the protesting youths and #EndSWAT replaced the earlier call to #EndSARS. 

Young people ramped up their protest, demanding the end of bad governance and corruption in Nigeria. They refused to leave the streets until the president addressed them and their demands.

During these protests, peaceful demonstrators were reportedly injured or killed by security agents in different parts of the country. On the night of 20 October 2020, reports emerged of the army shooting unarmed protesters at a toll gate at Lekki, a suburb of Lagos. At least 12 people are believed to have died. The army and Lagos state authorities deny a massacre took place, but witness accounts, video clips and pictures give truth to the lie.

Looting and violence

The #EndSARS protests seem to have evolved, with reported cases of lootings including targeting warehouses containing Covid-19 medical provisions, destruction of property and jailbreaks in parts of the country.

Opinions are divided about whether the initial #EndSARS protest has lost its vision, or if it has been hijacked by thugs and hoodlums sent by politicians.

Amid the ensuing violence and lootings, President Muhammadu Buhari finally addressed the country on 22 October 2020. But it seems most Nigerians were not happy with his speech as many expressed shock that he did not address the main issues and protesters’ concerns. The president also failed to address the question of who ordered the shooting of peaceful protesters, exercising their constitutional right in a democracy. Buhari’s speech, some Nigerians commented on social media, “left them speechless”.

Becoming a failed state

Two matters come to mind. Firstly, the call to end SARS, police brutality and other forms of abuse speaks to the numerous and persistent socioeconomic and political problems in the country. Nigeria is not a country where young people realise their dreams: It is rapidly becoming a failed state, despite humongous natural resources and human potential.

Nigeria’s geriatric ruling class has become insensitive to the plight of the youth and the rest of the country. Inept, corrupt and iniquitous are adjectives that describe those who head Africa’s most populous nation.

Notably, other hashtags trending alongside #EndSARS were #EndBadGovernanceinNigeria and #EndNASSBloatedSpending, which outline’s young people’s call to end the corruption that has crippled Nigeria.

In June 2018, Nigerian senator Shehu Sani revealed that senators earn upwards of $450,000 annually in allowances and a salary of $25,000. This is in a country where 82 million citizens live on less than a dollar a day.

Nigeria’s ruling class has enriched itself while the rest of the country live in abject poverty and squalor and dilapidated infrastructure. For 60 years the government has failed to provide stable electricity. Politicians send their children to the best schools abroad while the country’s education system is in shambles. They go abroad for medical check-ups as minor as ear infections or sore necks, leaving the masses to suffer the country’s pathetic public health system.

The Covid-19 pandemic exposed Nigeria’s healthcare shortfalls, with notable politicians dying of the virus in public hospitals in the country since they could not travel abroad as usual. In a now-deleted tweet, the Ministry of Finance was seen unabashedly begging SpaceX founder Elon Musk for ventilators to help with the pandemic – this from a country which spends a huge amount on lawmakers’ upkeep and in the 2021 budget has apparently allocated an estimated 37-billion naira (about $96-million) on renovation of the national assembly headquarters. Talk about misplaced priorities.

The youth’s existential angst

Coming back to the youth, according to the latest data from the International Labour Organisation, youth unemployment in Nigeria stands at almost 14.2%. The country’s universities produce an estimated 500,000 graduates a year – most of whom do not get meaningful jobs to show for their years at the university.

The president, at the 2018 meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of States, was reported to have said that most of the country’s youth are uneducated and lazy, which initiated another social media revolt, #LazyNigerianYouths. Yet these youngsters are either out of the country seeking a better life or are in menial jobs as hawkers, market traders, taxi or Uber drivers, etc, hustling to make a living without help from the corrupt politicians. They face daily harassment from law enforcement agents like the SARS, who themselves are underpaid and have resorted to various means to make ends meet including using force and violence to extort from the people.

The call by Nigerian youngsters to #EndSARS is their cry to end their existential angst and hunger in a country they did not choose but is theirs by right of birth. I do not support the looting and destruction of property that started after the peaceful protests were allegedly dispersed by live rounds of ammunition. However, the looting of medicines could be a sign that people are hungry.

Is it not ironic that Covid-19 palliatives, meant for the hungry, were not distributed timeously, but housed in warehouses, perhaps waiting for politicians to use as a bargaining chip during electioneering? It was also reported that some jails were broken into, which is reminiscent of the peasants’ looting of food storage houses and the storming of the Bastille prison during the French Revolution.

Promised change

The #EndSARS protests reflect civil society’s fatigue and dissatisfaction with the strained relations under the Buhari-led administration in the Fourth Republic. Buhari came into office in 2015 promising a better life for the people and a change from the status quo of apparent corruption in the Goodluck Jonathan administration. The desire among most Nigerians for change was also galvanised by the need to find a lasting solution to the rising insecurity in the country at the time.

One will not forget the series of Boko Haram attacks and killings in the northeast of Nigeria and the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls, which precipitated the global movement #BringBackOurGirls.

People were tired of the Jonathan administration for its apparent inability to address these issues. Unfortunately, it seems that since Buhari took over, the situation of insecurity has worsened. Nigeria, under a supposed democratic dispensation, is slowly descending into what can be termed a police state with the prohibition of some civil society groups, killing of peaceful protesters, arrests and jailing of activists by state security agents, attempts to inhibit freedom of expression, etc.

Court orders to release activists have been ignored by state security agents, who arrest people with no observable consequences. Hence, the brutality meted against the people by the SARS unit should not come as a surprise; it is part of the growing culture of impunity perpetrated by both politicians and state security agents in the current administration.

These events are redolent of the previous military regimes in Nigeria and are reflective of the efforts of the Nigerian state to constrain the space for contestation and or negotiation between itself and the wider civil society. The #EndSARS protests are civil society’s way of saying enough is enough.  

The 1984 words and question of late Nigerian musician Sonny Okosun come to mind: “Many years after our independence, we still find it hard to start. How long shall we be patient till we reach the Promised Land?” 

A woken youth

Exactly 60 years after Nigeria’s independence and with arguably nothing meaningful to show for it, it would seem that Nigerians do not want to be silent anymore. They have woken up to reject the debilitating socioeconomic and political issues that hamper their progress. Notably, the country has not seen such a rise and unity among the people before.

The divide-and-rule strategy in which politicians play up ethno-religious sentiments to divide the masses to stop them from uniting and focusing on issues that concern them did not work this time. In these protests there was no Hausa, Igbo, Yoruba, Efik, Ibibio – there were only Nigerian youngsters who united their voices to say #EndSARS.

It is pertinent that the African Union and other world leaders and notable international organisations lend their voices of support to that of the Nigerian youth to call for a new Nigeria which recognises the right of its citizens and work towards realising a better life for all in that country. DM

Nigerian Dr Sunday Paul C Onwuegbuchulam is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Gender and Africa Studies, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein.


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