Nigeria’s #EndSARS is about the future of the country

Tamunoteim Princewill didn’t expect to see a gun pointed at his face.

As his bus entered the Nigerian capital of Abuja in September 2019, members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) — a federal police unit formed to thwart crime — signaled for it to pull over. An officer demanded money before letting the vehicle pass the arbitrary checkpoint, a practice so common that bus drivers often carry extra cash on them, just in case.

But the driver refused to pay, claiming he had nothing to give. Irate, the officer and his colleagues banged on the bus as some hopped on. One SARS officer, looking for his unjust reward, found Princewill listening to music on his phone and snatched it out of his hand. The 22-year-old complained, saying he’d done nothing wrong.

That’s when Princewill found himself staring down the barrel of a rifle, barked at to be quiet. “I’d seen guns at a distance, but for the first time it was right in my face,” he told me. “A simple pull and I would’ve been gone, far away from home.”

After the officer rummaged through the phone, seemingly finding nothing to his liking, he chucked it over the side of the bridge. Princewill tried to get off the bus to retrieve it, only to have more SARS members point their guns and command him back to his seat.

Ultimately, the police unit coaxed about $25 from the driver before letting the bus go on its way, with passengers — including Princewill — visibly shaken but unharmed. “It took me several months to forget and save enough to get a new phone,” he said. Still, he recognized, it could’ve gone so much worse. “Others have been less fortunate. I know people who have been killed or robbed of so much more.”

It’s this perpetual, decades-long abuse of authority that has thousands of young Nigerians demanding that their government #EndSARS.

For weeks, they have filled the nation’s streets and social media with calls for greater accountability, better governance, and a more equitable society. Despite having enough wealth to improve lives in Africa’s most populous country, the Nigerian state has neglected their needs, experts say, and in many cases made daily existence worse.

It’s why SARS has become the focal point of Nigerians’ anger. The unit’s officers don’t get paid a lot of money, whereas the country’s growing middle class is flush with cash for the taking. SARS officers rob citizens of their possessions, lining their own pockets and enriching their superiors who benefit from such a scheme. In the worst cases, as in the October video that launched the current uprising, SARS officers extrajudicially kill the very Nigerians they’ve sworn to protect.

Now, with global celebrities and US presidential candidates watching, Nigerians aim to do something about it.

“What the protesters have done is they’ve shown the effectiveness of the silent majority to push for change,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Center for Democracy and Development (CDD), a think tank in Abuja. “A new political movement has emerged, whether the ruling class likes it or not, and a new generation of political leaders has been born.”

Standing in their way is President Muhammadu Buhari, who would rather quash the movement than listen to its demands. In statement after statement, he’s expressed a desire for order instead of reform. Last week, Nigerian security forces fired on demonstrators in the city of Lagos, killing at least 12 people.

“What the government did is lay down a marker: We can kill you and get away with it,” said Matthew Page, a former US intelligence official focused on Nigeria.

The standoff, then, isn’t just about the future of a single police unit. It’s a fight — fueled by a sense of indignation among the nation’s youth — for the future of the country.

“Every generation in Nigeria has had a defining moment in their political consciousness,” said Amaka Anku, who leads the Africa section for the consulting firm Eurasia Group. “This is theirs.”

SARS stagnated as Nigeria developed

To understand the Nigerian public’s animosity toward SARS, you need to understand its rot.

Formed in 1984, the semi-autonomous tactical police team aimed to curb a national upswell in robberies, kidnappings, carjackings, and more. Officers, who roam around in plain clothes and unmarked cars, became particularly ubiquitous in the 1990s amid an uptick in those crimes. And when Nigeria years later had a problem with internet fraudsters known as “Yahoo boys,” who used their ill-gotten money to buy cars and laptops, SARS targeted anyone who seemed to be richer than they should be.

Officers learned during this time that they could take people’s possessions and money with impunity, experts said.

Nigeria’s forces became one of the most corrupt in the world. “It’s run like a pyramid scheme: lower levels have to kick money up the hierarchy to keep their positions,” said Page. “There’s a whole stream of corruption that runs from the bottom and goes to the top.”

Even so, the public generally turned a blind eye to that behavior because they appreciated the harsh crackdown on criminals. At the time, it was quite literally the price worth paying for security.

But then Nigeria changed.

#EndSARS protesters occupy Ibadan-Lagos Expressway on October 12.
Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto/Getty Images

The crime rates of the 1990s dropped (though not dramatically). Economic growth rates rose, driven in part by a thriving technology sector that fueled an emerging middle class. Information technology and telecommunications grew from about 1 percent of national GDP in 2001 to roughly 10 percent in 2018, and it’s slightly higher than that now.

As a result, the number of young Nigerians — people under 24 years of age make up about 60 percent of the population — wearing Silicon Valley-style hoodies with cars and laptops grew, too.

SARS, though, had an inculcated culture of profiling and targeting those kinds of people. The unit, experts said, broadly suspected youthful Nigerians with a middle-class living standard of obtaining it illicitly. “If SARS see you as a young person who is successful with a nice car, they will harass you and extort money from you,” an activist told BBC News two weeks ago.

That led to a shift in the public’s relations with the officers. “Now it’s my friends who are in the tech sector getting harassed and getting killed,” Anku said, explaining the general sentiment now. “There’s more of a public consciousness” about what’s going on.

And what’s going on is grim. The human rights group Amnesty International found that SARS perpetrated “at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution” from January 2017 to May 2020. Not everyone has had negative encounters with the force, but “everybody knows somebody who has had a bad experience with SARS,” CDD’s Hassan told me.

It’s gotten so bad that experts and Nigerian citizens told me few actually want to call the police when something goes wrong. In most cases, the police won’t take care of the situation. What they might do, though, is shake you down for money.

That feeling of distrust is why activists started the #EndSARS campaign in 2017, focusing their attention on one particularly egregious police unit to make a broader point. Nigeria’s government repeatedly promised to disband SARS, but never followed through.

That inaction kept public anger toward SARS and the government at a simmer for three years. But this month, it heated up to a raging boil.

#EndSARS goes from an online grievance to a worldwide phenomenon

On October 3, a video surfaced online allegedly showing a SARS officer shooting a young man in southern Nigeria. Even though the person who tweeted the video had only about 800 followers at the time, their tweet got about 10,000 retweets. Others simply linked to the video, but typed in #EndSARS.

Nigerians had had personal encounters with SARS and seen horrifying videos like this before, but the timing — in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US — and sheer brutality of the images brought tons of attention to the video. “It kind of galvanized the people,” Hassan told me, “and the more people spoke out, the more everyone could align with the grievance.”

Five days later, the public’s grievances moved from the internet to Nigeria’s streets. Thousands rallied in major urban areas, with some in Lagos — the African continent’s most populous city — holding signs demanding “respect for human rights” and “a more equal society.” It was less peaceful in the capital Abuja, as police dispersed a few dozen protesters with tear gas.

Soon celebrities, encouraged by activists online, lent their support to the movement and called for SARS to be disbanded. Among them was John Boyega, the British-Nigerian actor famous for starring in the last three Star Wars films, as well as popular Nigerian musicians Davido and Wizkid.

The online pressure and street demonstrations had an impact: On October 11, Nigeria’s government said it would disband SARS “WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT.”

But there were two problems with that. First, as Boyega’s tweet noted, Abuja had promised this before — four times, in fact, since 2017. Second, none of the corrupt SARS officers would be fired. They’d just be relocated to other divisions and teams within Nigeria’s federal police force.

Anger at the tepid changes only grew when the head of police on October 14 announced that SARS would no longer exist, but the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team would carry out its duties. In other words, the mistreatment of Nigerian citizens by its police would continue, just by other officers.

Demonstrators weren’t satisfied, and protests have continued since, even in defiance of government-imposed curfews. “Nigerians want their daily experience with the police to tangibly change,” said Page, now at the Chatham House think tank in the UK. “If the institutions don’t function properly, then what’s the point” of those reforms?

Especially if they don’t meet the actual requests of the movement. #EndSARS leaders released their “five demands” of the government on October 11, which include disbanding the unit, but also releasing activists from jail, prosecuting poor police conduct, evaluating and retraining officers, and increasing the salary for agents.

Courtesy of an #EndSARS protester.

But if you ask Nigeria’s government, it’s already done enough. It did pass the 2020 Police Act this year, which, among other things, promises a pay raise for officers. That, in addition to replacing SARS with SWAT, should mollify the crowds, in the government’s view.

It explains why Buhari, Nigeria’s president, feels less of a need to cave to more demands, and more of a need to quash the protests. Quickly.

“Law and order” versus #EndSARS

Experts say Buhari is completely out of touch with the movement he’s up against. He comes from the country’s north, a Muslim-majority region that’s heavily securitized due to its problems with terrorism. But the protests are centered in the richer Christian-majority south and its big cities, which is why he has trouble understanding the plight of the people there.

“Buhari is very narrow minded. He’s not a guy with a capacity to understand a lot beyond his narrow worldview,” said the Eurasia Group’s Anku. “He doesn’t understand the frustration or the context.”

But it’s not just his mental inflexibility, Page said, it’s also how he leads. “This is much more about his imperious and monarchical style of ruling Nigeria,” he told me. “He’s not one to listen to these kinds of complaints and find them valid … he resents that people are questioning how he or any of his cohort run the country.”

Buhari’s forceful response to the protests is a case in point. On October 15, Nigeria’s army put out a statement warning “all subversive elements and troublemakers” that the nation’s forces would “defend the country and her democracy at all cost.” The military “is ready to fully support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order and deal with any situation decisively,” the statement said.

Security forces followed through on that threat five days later. Videos on social media appeared to show gunfire and wounded people at Lagos’s Lekki toll gate. Reports indicate about 12 people died in the altercation, with many more hurt. It’s to date the deadliest incident since the uprising.

The next day Buhari said he would seek justice for the victims and their families and that his administration would quickly adopt more police reforms.

Activists and experts, though, didn’t buy it.

Page told me that, as of now, there’s no evidence looting and property destruction has happened at the direction of #EndSARS protesters. But elites with ties to the government have likely sponsored gangs to wreak havoc, setting stores and cars on fire while posing as activists.

That would gave the government an excuse to crack down hard on the movement.

Buhari made that play quite explicit in a Thursday address to the nation. “I must warn those who have hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine, and well-intended protest of some of our youths in parts of the country, against the excesses of some members of the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad,” he said. Because of the violence, “I therefore call on our youths to discontinue protest.”

His words weren’t taken as a sign of willingness to compromise. “The tone and body language of the president in his speech was shockingly harsh, lacking in empathy, and condescending,” Bolarinwa Durojaiye, a Nigerian technology entrepreneur who sides with the protesters, told me. “This administration clearly does not feel more accountable.”

He has a point: Despite condemnations from the United Nations and African Union, Buhari isn’t backing down.

With little chance of deposing Buhari with street protests alone, an uncomfortable question arises: Has #EndSARS failed?

#EndSARS may be winding down, but it’s not going away

In the course of reporting this story, I asked multiple factions within the #EndSARS movement for comment. One, which I won’t name because they declined to comment on the record, explained that “due to recent events, we will be taking [some] downtime.”

It’s pretty clear what the spokesperson was conveying: The government’s use of violence has made activists wary about pushing too hard right now.

It’s a sentiment the Feminist Coalition, one of the pro-movement groups, made evident in a Thursday statement. “The past two weeks have been tough for many Nigerians, most especially the last two days,” they said. “Many lives have been lost and properties destroyed at the height of what started as peaceful marches for the end to police brutality.”

They continued: “Following the President’s address, we hereby encourage all young Nigerians to stay safe, stay home, and observe the mandated curfew in your state.”

Experts said they expect fewer scenes of packed streets in the days ahead. That was always a possible outcome, noted the Eurasia Group’s Anku, since the calls for dismantling SARS didn’t spread to the entirety of the country. They centered mostly in the south’s large cities. “This is a sudden phenomenon,” she said. “It’s not enough of a movement.”

But what might happen, she added, is that #EndSARS could turn into an organized political force ahead of the 2023 presidential election. With enough momentum, Nigeria’s youth could defeat a Buhari-aligned politician (he can’t run for a third term) with someone willing to improve the relationship between the government and its people.

“It’s really not just a protest about SARS,” CDD’s Hassan told me. “It’s really about governance.”

It’s why experts believe both the government and activists may step back from a broader confrontation to regroup. There’s a political fight to win, after all.

But the overlying issue — police brutality in Nigeria — still isn’t solved. If another horrifying video surfaces or the police or military kill more people in the weeks ahead, “that may reignite the now seething base of protesters,” said Page.

And if that happens, it won’t just be a political struggle over the next few years. It could be a lethal one, too.

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