Hopelessness. Anger. Exhaustion. Despair.
Virtually overnight, the movement that began so optimistically and invigorated millions of Nigerian youths took a dark turn. Last Thursday, following a state of the nation address by President Muhammadu Buhari on the End SARS protests, Nigerians took to social media to vent their frustrations and find solace, sharing jokes about their plans to escape to London or Spain. The hope, passion and patriotism that had characterised and sustained the protests for almost two weeks was all but lost, and the excitement and optimism of the hours preceding Buhari’s address, were suddenly missing in action.
But how exactly did we get here?
The call to end SARS began as a call to end violence, rape, abuse of power, extortion and murder at the hands of the Nigerian police force, but eventually grew into a larger movement, with talks of government reform and longterm systemic change. Could this be the movement to end all movements? Well, although the anti-police brutality demonstrations started out with a bang, it may have been doomed from the very beginning. Irony died a thousands deaths when protests against police brutality became marred by instances of police brutality. Police officers were filmed firing bullets, throwing tear gas and blasting water hoses in frantic and reactionary attempts to disperse the growing crowds. The murder of Jimoh Isiaq, a bystander near the cite of an End SARS protest in Oyo State on October 10th, only exacerbated the public outrage.
Four days after the protests began, a statement from the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, vowed to disband the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) with immediate effect. However, many were quick to note that similar statements had been made every year since 2017, which were always followed by months of silence and inaction until the next wave of protest, outcry and indignation. It was widely agreed that the protests must continue until active steps were taken to readdress the concerns of the Nigerian youths. What we witnessed in the days that followed was the culmination of a decades-long struggle: a show of strength and unity as novel to us as a work of fiction.
“The hope, passion and patriotism that had characterised and sustained the protests for almost two weeks was all but lost..."
The End SARS protests have been unprecedented for several reasons. This is the first movement of its kind to be mobilised by this particular generation of Nigerians, who brought new ideas and perspectives perhaps not seen in Nigeria’s past movements, for example 2014’s Bring Back Our Girls campaign. For the End SARS protests, there were no specific identifiable “leaders” (at least not in the conventional sense) who could exert totalitarian influence or dictate the modus operandi on behalf of all protesters. This even-handed and decentralised structure starkly contrasts the government being rallied again, and may have contributed greatly to a lot of the movements successes. However, it wasn’t a perfect system. Several government officials have since complained that the youths’ insistence on having no leaders, and leading as a collective, may have caused more harm than good, as this made it difficult for effective communication or strategisation to take place. However, many young protesters pointed out that formally appointed figureheads or representatives could be a precursor to shady practices, backdoor deals or intimidation from the powers that be.
Also attributable to the influence of the new generation is the movement’s focus on intersectionality. People from different walks of life, sexes, ages and religious backgrounds, were quick to share their own experiences, and many discussions ensued online and offline about the unique ways people are targeted on the basis of their age, gender, socioeconomic status, and other social factors. SARS officers were criticised by many for targeting people with dreadlocks, tattoos, coloured hair or unconventional clothing. Nigerians in the tech sector shared their experiences being accused by officers of being fraudsters or scammers, prior to having their laptops and other devices ceased, never to be seen again. The backbone of the protests so far has no doubt been the widely acclaimed Feminist Coalition, whose remarkable fundraising and organisational skills were used to provide protesters with food and water, security, ambulances and medical services, lawyers and legal services, billboards, and even a functioning call centre, all in a matter of days.
LGBTQ+ Nigerians were not missing from the discourse either. On several days, groups of young protesters took to the streets holding “Queer Lives Matter” placards in hopes of drawing attention to the unique ways LGBTQ+ Nigerians are stereotyped, targeted and harassed by SARS officers for anything from their mode of dressing to the way they speak. Shamefully, there were multiple instances of LGBTQ+ protesters being berated and even physically attacked by other protesters, providing a potent reminder that it is possible to belong to an oppressed group while simultaneously contributing to the oppression of others.
Meanwhile, similar End SARS protests have been organised in cities all over the world, including Toronto, Pretoria, Washington, D.C., New York, Accra, Geneva and Berlin. In London, there have been at least four formal protests, the first of which took place at the Nigeria High Commission on Sunday, 11th October. But with so much noise being made internationally, and so many glaring eyes on Aso Rock Villa, who could have imagined that on the 20th of October, armed soldiers would open fire on peaceful protesters in Nigeria’s commercial capital, Lagos, killing and injuring dozens in the process.
The massacre, initiated at the Lekki Toll Gate, was tragic for many reasons. A week earlier, the toll gate had been shut down by a small group of about 30 protesters, prompting a swift and panicked appearance from Jide Sanwo-Olu, the Governor of Lagos. His attempts to subdue the costly protest were dead on arrival, and in the days that followed, the Lekki Toll Gate had grown to become the epicentre of the Lagos protests, complete with singing, dancing, free food and celebrity appearances. In fact, in the days leading up to the massacre, many had begun to criticise the protest in Lekki for turning it into something more like a block party than a demonstration. Even if there was some truth to the government’s hyperbolised claims that protests had descended into violence, anarchy and thuggery, the protest at the Lekki Toll Gate was probably the furthest example of this they could have found in the entire state.
So why were armed forces – men in camo – deployed to control the situation? Why did they open fire? Why was tear gas thrown? Why were bloodied corpses stolen from the scene of the crime? Why were similar shootings reported across Lagos in places like Mushin and Alausa? Why did shootings last until the following morning and even well into the next day when protests in Lagos had already ended? Perhaps the massacre in Lagos wasn’t about curtailing violence at all, but rather was a co-ordinated attempt to instil fear and re-establish the dominance and control that the End SARS protests had threatened to usurp.
The morning after the massacre in Lekki, the Governor of Lagos addressed his citizens in a semi-apologetic speech, in which he claimed that the Lekki shootings had been orchestrated by forces beyond his control, and that he had launched an investigation into the ambush. However, despite making it clear that he knew little about the horrific events that had unfolded, the governor insisted that there had been zero fatalities, and that the numerous eyewitness reports and photographic evidence proving otherwise were fake news. Nigerian army officials also added to the confusion by claiming ignorance, even going as far as to say that the videos circulating online had been “photoshopped”. Yes, “photoshopped”.
Which brings us back to the President’s speech. 48 hours after the massacre in Lagos, President Buhari addressed the country in a prerecorded 10-minute speech in which he added insult to injury by failing to send condolences or even acknowledge the victims and families of the Lagos massacre. In fact, the most noteworthy aspects of President Buhari’s speech were probably the things he didn’t say, as opposed to the things that he did. His cryptic claim that Nigerian youths had taken the government’s quick response and promises to dissolve the SARS unit the previous week had been taken as “a sign of weakness” is believed by many to be an admission of guilt in the orchestration of the Lagos massacre, and perhaps even a threat that he would do it again if the youths refused to stay in line. Many were also quick to highlight the militant, perhaps even dictatorial, lack of emotion or empathy from the nation’s democratically appointed leader.
At the moment there is a dark cloud over the Nigerian youth, and we have been left with far more questions than answers: will police officers and government officials be held accountable? Will investigations be thorough and conclusive, or will evidence be swept under the rug? Will the Nigerian army continue to deny involvement in the October 20th massacre? Will the seeds of change and reform planted in recent weeks ever come to fruition?
Will justice be served?
Protests in Lagos have ground to a halt following the governor’s newly imposed curfews, but End SARS protests are ongoing in other parts of the country. For now, all of us on the home front and abroad should be working to keep this movement alive, to support the people peacefully fighting for their rights and to pressure the Nigerian government into taking meaningful action. All hope is not lost yet. The Nigerian youths are committed to re-strategising and coming back stronger, but right now, our biggest battle is the fight against misinformation and government propaganda. Writing and documenting are our most effective weapons as we fight to keep control of the narrative. Everybody has a role to play, whether it’s donating to the people on ground, educating the people around you or spreading the word via social media. History is in our hands now, and while we may not know where this story will take us, I think we can all agree that we are living in a period that must never be forgotten.