Nigeria’s End SARS protests: Waking a Sleeping Giant

The End SARS protests in Nigeria show how young people are rising to confront police brutality, demand institutional reform, and reclaim their future, says Sanni Alausa-Issa.

Nigeria is known as the Giant of Africa due to its large population and massive economic potential. Characterized by corruption, multidimensional poverty, and mass unemployment, my country has failed to live up to this expectation. The giant has been sleeping.  

In the last 14 days, Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality. Young Nigerians, empowered by social media, have taken the lead in these protests. A generation that was described by President Muhammadu Buhari as “lazy and uneducated” have in the last two weeks proven otherwise. Popularly referred to as the “soro soke”  (speak up) generation, they are making demands to fix the broken institutions that have marred their lives.

A young protestor at an End SARS protest in Nigeria
Protesters calling for an end to the SARS police organisation and police brutality in Nigeria.

These young protestors were born into massive poverty, crime, institutional corruption, and the failed promises of political office holders. These nationwide protests scream: “Enough is Enough,” and demand reform of the police and Nigeria’s other corrupt institutions. The young are waking up.  

SARS Brutality: A Case of Institutional Failure

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is a rogue Nigerian police unit notorious for harassment, extortion and extrajudicial killings of citizens especially young people, who are often profiled as criminals. Amnesty International reported that in the last three years at least SARS were responsible for at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution.

In November 2017, a video emerged online of a policeman threatening to kill two people and telling them “I will kill you, and nothing will happen.” Fortunately, in this instance, he didn’t. But that statement resonated with young Nigerians, because it was true.  There is no accountability in the force and officers can act without restraints knowing that they won’t be punished. This impunity is an institutional failure. 

Since then the Nigerian government has announced the disbandment or reform of this unit more than once. Yet, there has been no visible actions. 

What are the End SARS protests about?

On October 3rd 2020, another video emerged of a young man allegedly killed by SARS in Ughelli, Delta State. The video lent a spark to the years of outrage and frustration felt by Nigeria’s youth. Victims of police brutality shared their experiences on social media. These stories are heart-wrenching. They demonstrate widespread human rights violation, gender-based violence, and assassinations. Chijioke Eruchalu, shared his disturbing story, in a painful Twitter thread and a middle-aged woman who joined the #EndSARS protests in Ibadan, in South West Nigeria explained how her brother was killed and she was extorted and sexually harassed. 

Youth are taking the lead in the protests. Photo by Tosin James from Unsplash

As #EndSARS flooded Twitter, young people coordinated peaceful protests around the country. They led crowdfunding initiatives to support protesters, with both essential supplies and pro-bono legal services to free illegally detained protesters.

For far too long, young people’s aspirations, wellbeing and security have been ignored. Many have been deprived of a fair start in life by heavy handed policing and the spiralling unemployment rate. These demonstrations have shown young people’s frustration, but also their ability and potential. Like so many young people elsewhere they are claiming the future for themselves

Institutional Reforms 

Since 1999 when the country returned to democratic rule, it has been a rollercoaster ride of economic hardship and massive corruption in governance. These demonstrations by the youth of the country are only a start of many demands as they look to rebuild the country.

Protests are not new in Nigeria. From the precolonial era, Nigerians have always made demands for social change through physical protests and citizen education on good governance, respect of the rule of law, and upholding human rights. While many of the protests in the past have yielded mixed results, the demands of the youth today are expressive of decades of institutional failures.

On Sunday 11th October, the government announced the disbandment of SARS, again, and subsequently, on Tuesday 13th October, a new SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) outfit was announced. What changed in 48 hours? Nigerians have refused to be deceived by this change of nomenclature – a pattern they have become familiar with in recent years when names are changed but practices continue. 

Real reforms will take a long time to achieve, but in the #EndSARS protests, young people have shown their willingness to build a better future. The government must now show the political will to work with them. 

It is a good time in the history of Nigeria and I look forward to a better future.

Feature photo by Tosin James on Unsplash

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Nigeria’s End SARS protests: Waking a Sleeping Giant

by Sanni Alausa-Issa Reading time: 3 min