2020 has been quite a year for protests. People all over the world, from Hong Kong to the USA, to Namibia and Nigeria have launched large scale protests against the (in)activities of governments that do not align with the interest of the people. Maybe this doesn’t seem like big news. Afterall, governments fail their citizens and protests happen all the time. But an interesting dynamic seems to be presenting itself in this year; something that may be of more note. Through social media we saw the Hong Kong protests that took off in 2019 escalate, and with it the guerrilla tactics of the protesters. From using encrypted apps to communicate to anti-teargas masks, we saw people fight police anti-riot tactics with homemade remedies and everyday science equipment. Then, halfway through 2020, the George Floyd #BlackLivesMatter protests began. During these protests, bail funds for arrested protesters were crowdsourced using social media as a tool to reach millions. And now, in Nigeria, the protest template has been added to. But in order to understand how the Nigerian EndSARS protests may be the template that other African countries have to follow, we must first understand what Nigerians are protesting about.
SARS: A Brief, Violent History
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – similar to, but not to be confused with, the virus – was formed at a time when Nigeria’s armed robbery problem had escalated to being a national headache. In order that the citizenry feel safe and protected by the government, this police unit was established. But in that alone, it failed woefully. Now notorious for extorting citizens based on inaccurate profiling (if you have a laptop, you’re most definitely a ‘yahoo boy’ – an online fraudster), members of the SARS have a litany of sins under their belts. From extrajudicial killings to rape, there have been endless stories about the violence that Nigerians, specifically young Nigerians, have faced under this mismanaged police unit.
EndSARS: Organising a Revolution in Nigeria
The EndSARS protests were triggered by the posting of a video of a young man shot by SARS operatives. This marked the breaking point for Nigerians, after suffering under the violent, lawless hands of a police unit created to protect the very people it attacked. In the following days, protests sprung up across the country in solidarity with the victims of the SARS unit, as well as to show frustration at the government for allowing such lawlessness to go on with impunity. What started out as pockets of mostly online protests, is now a big movement of mostly young Nigerians demanding the government either end the unit or suffer the economic consequences of protesters blocking roads every day.
The EndSARS protests have been very interesting for several reasons. Primary of those is the decentralised running of the movement. Protests in states and cities are organised by different people bound only by their collective frustration at the government. This decentralisation of the organisation is also apparent in the insistence of protesters that there are no leaders. Quite often we see how individualism during protests ends up in the hijacking of political movements by possibly self-serving leaders who seek personal and/or political gain. By insisting on no leaders, the movement is ensuring that all, and not some, voices are heard.
It is important to note that quite a number of young Nigerians have provided auxiliary services that augment and sustain the protests. The Feminist Coalition raises donations which are disbursed to protest organisers in over twenty states. The disbursed sums cover everything from ambulances, mobile toilets, to private security for the protestors. There is also a helpline and dedicated Twitter page that protesters can reach for assistance. These calls are handled by a staffed call centre that ensures all legitimate requests are responded to. On the legal front, Nigerian lawyers Moe Odele & Tola Onayemi have been amazing in coordinating the efforts of a long list of volunteer lawyers to help release detained protesters. Other organisations like MentallyAwareNigeria have also made significant contributions to the protests. Aisha Yesufu, a socio-political activist, who was also part of the 2014 Bring Back Our Girls protests in Nigeria, has also been at the forefront of the EndSARS protests. Her dedication to government accountability is commendable.
Some celebrities have done amazing in lending their voices and platforms to the movement. To list the many would be quite the feat, but prominent on the list are Falz, Davido, and Nigerian comedian Mr Macaroni. Some international personalities have also expressed their disappointment in the Nigerian government and their shock at the current situation in the country. The outpouring of support for Africa’s most populous country is not to be ignored. Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s founder, tweeted about the End SARS movement, urging his followers to donate to the protests.
The government response to the movement has been reactionary and devoid of the reality on the ground. A video statement issued by the IGP at the beginning of the protests that the SARS unit had been disbanded was outrightly rejected by the movement because it did nothing to solve the problem. The IG also stated that all members of the SARS unit were to report to headquarters for psychological evaluation, and reposting into different units. No mention has been made yet of arresting and prosecuting violent SARS officials. And, despite their so-called disbandment, the unit still remains active, continuing to display violence towards the citizenry.
On the federal front, governors have tried to infringe on protesters’ rights by banning these lawful protests. In Port Harcourt, protesters ignored word from Governor Ezenwo Nyesom Wike’s office banning all protests on the basis that it was unconstitutional. In Abuja, protests have been banned under the pretexts of being against COVID-19 safety regulations. But, to a large extent these bans have failed.
The police have reacted in certain states by assaulting and killing protesters, as well as destroying their cars and other properties. In some states, they have even gone as far as to hire thugs to disrupt the protests with violence.
The Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) shut down the bank accounts for the Feminist Coalition in a move one can only interpret as intimidation. However, this did not slow down the donations process, as the Coalition moved, without missing a beat, to receiving donations through cryptocurrency; a medium that cannot be sabotaged or interfered with by the government.
The world is keenly observing the ongoings in Nigeria. For some of us, we are taking a lot of notes. Watching the protests unfold under the guidance and organisation of some key players in the movement have been a great masterclass on youth-led revolution. The more African countries follow these principles, the more our governments will start listening to us.
It’s not been fully clear if government response is going to be more than just reactionary and aimed at appeasing protesters rather than systemic reforms that ensure something like this does not happen again. But one thing has been etched in the minds of all who are following the protests: Nigeria is prepared to stay out on the streets for as long as it takes. And we shall be here to show all our support.