Exploring the history behind the hashtags in Nigeria’s recent demonstrations
Nigeria has been rocked by youth-led protests organized around the viral social media hashtag, #EndSARS. While #EndSARS references public condemnation of the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad, many of the youth that took to the streets also gave voice to the general everyday challenges they face.
“Particularly in Nigeria, when there is protest, you cannot pin it to one thing,” explains Aderemi Adegbite, a photographer, journalist, community organizer, and #EndSARS demonstrator. “The government has been deaf to the plight of the people in the country. So when they come out to protest about one thing, they are actually protesting about so many things.”
In 2019, 55.4% of Nigerians ages 15 to 35 were without work, and approximately 13.9 million young people remain without work as of August 2020, according to the National Bureau of Statistics. Simultaneously, many university-age students have yet to resume their studies since safety measures targeting COVID-19 prevention shut down in-person education back in March.
Active in the 2012 mass protests against the removal of government fuel subsidies, Adegbite notes that the organizers “in 2012 [were] activists, older people who were in the system of protests…it was done and orchestrated by the NGOs. What was interesting about this particular one is that it happened organically,” he describes. “Youth started organizing in their various communities and started converging and that was how you had it really big.”
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What Is SARS?
Created in response to a reportedly overwhelming increase in armed robberies in southern Nigeria and specifically Lagos, the most populous city in the nation, the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was established in 1992 as an arm of the Nigerian Police Force. Initially, their operations focused on undercover investigations of gangs and crime rings, however, in more recent years, citizen complaints have centered around targeting individuals who are specifically young and often male–Nigerians who are said to be suspected cyber-fraudsters. In many reported cases, carrying a laptop can warrant suspicion of intent to participate in criminal activity.
Amnesty International has been documenting what it calls “widespread human rights violations including extrajudicial executions, torture, and other ill-treatment, rape and extortion,” all characterized as “a pattern of abuse of power by SARS officers and the consistent failure by the Nigerian authorities to bring perpetrators to justice.” The details of their investigations are outlined in a June 2020 report that calls upon the Nigerian government to end the impunity of SARS.
The Beginnings of #EndSARS
#EndSARS was first used in 2017 as public anger over the violent behavior of the law enforcement department came to a peak. The intense public scrutiny of SARS was enough to provoke the Police Inspector General to promise to reorganize the department, but the announcement never yielded any recorded tangible outcomes. In 2018, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo ordered an overhaul of SARS, followed by similar directives in January of 2019 and again in February of 2020, however the day-to-day experience of Nigerians with the squad never improved.
In early October, just days after marking 60 years of independence in Nigeria, a graphic video spread across social media. While the facts behind the footage remain disputed, it was widely understood to show a young man in Ughelli, Delta State, being pushed from his car and shot by SARS officers on the side of the road. In subsequent days, youth in Ughelli led protests in response and recorded the police response, producing another viral video that showed a 12-year-old protester who was said to have been shot in the leg by local police.
As tensions rose on the streets of Ughelli, Nigerians across the country flooded #EndSARS with their personal stories adding to a growing social media record of collective outrage and building virtual solidarity that eventually spilled out into the streets of every major city.
As the presence of youth protestors grew, they compiled a list of demands, released on October 11:
- Immediate release of all arrested protesters.
- Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families.
- Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days).
- In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed.
- Increase police salaries so that they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of citizens.
In response, on October 13, under the order of President Muhammadu Buhari, the demands of the protesters were accepted and a directive was issued to dissolve the squad. The Inspector General of Police officially recalled all SARS officers to Abuja.
Within 24 hours, the IGP followed up by announcing the creation of SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics agency), a new agency meant to take on the duties left unfulfilled by the dissolution of SARS.
#EndSARS plus #EndSWAT
Many protesters returned to social media in the wake of the announcements characterizing the addition of the new SWAT agency as a thinly veiled attempt to continue with business as usual.
Rather than serving to pacify the protests, they intensified. In the next days the disruption, efficiently coordinated via Twitter and WhatsApp, blocked major roads and highways, shutting down car traffic in most major cities, provoking school closures, and even disrupting movement at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport in Lagos. In spite of state-wide curfews, the protests continued to involve clashes with local police.
As the crowds swelled, many local and national politicians made pledges of support along with celebrities and influential pastors of Nigeria’s megachurches.
What Happened at Lekki Tollgate?
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a morning run on the Lekki-Ikoyi Link Bridge during a celebrated visit to Lagos, he wouldn’t have imagined that four years later the same site would be the location of a social media powered standoff.
As a peninsula located between Ikoyi and Victoria Island, Lekki’s tollgate became ground zero for #EndSARS demonstrators whose presence blocked the movement of its over half a million residents for days.
Miriam Kassim, a 28-year-old mother of two young children, has been a supporter and active observer of the protests and lives only 5 minutes from the tollgate. Inspired by the organization amongst the protesters after a week of holding their ground, she recalled that “they were trying to hold focus for a month so the UN could intervene. We were trying to get international attention.”
But in a tragic confrontation a few days later on the night of October 20, protesters were shot and killed at the Lekki Tollgate.
“I started hearing gunshots. I thought it was armed robbers,” Kassim said. “I didn’t believe something like that could happen.”
Many of the details of the incident are currently under dispute with both state and national governments so far disavowing responsibility. Questions of who gave directives for removing lighting at the tollgate, who directed soldiers to the site, who was responsible for the shootings, and how many people were injured and killed are currently under investigation. The news reports of the civilian casualties range from 12 to 48.
A new hashtag, #LekkiMassacre, voiced the experience of the evening’s confrontation, which created headlines worldwide and prompted statements of solidarity as well as condemnation from international celebrities and world leaders.
What’s Happening Now?
Indignation over the shooting at Lekki and government response as well as the general retreat of police officials afraid of public retaliation seems to have emboldened crowds who have taken to burning police stations and government buildings, destroying retail property, and targeting the homes of powerful leaders.
Videos of the most prominent incident, which targeted the Oba of Lagos, the area’s foremost traditional ruler and retired Assistant Inspector General of Police, show masses of young people storming his palace, enjoying his swimming pool, and leaving with appliances while making off with his sacred beaded staff. Other sites, including the now-infamous Lekki Tollgate and the Lagos High Court, were set ablaze.
Two days after the violent confrontation, in a much-anticipated speech, President Buhari made no specific mention of the incidents at Lekki Tollgate, but affirmed the constitutional rights of citizens to demonstrate, making a point of separating “bad acts” from the “legitimate expression of grievance of the youth of our country.” The remaining speech urged Nigerians to recognize his administration’s measures in targeting youth development.
Notable conflict continues in Rivers State where, in the midst of 24-hour governor-imposed curfews, soldiers are reportedly invading homes and shooting residents in the town of Oyigbo, adding to recent social media attention and outcry.
However, most actions have calmed elsewhere and Nigeria’s major cities have seen increased military presence and patrol. Roads have reopened and the majority of the country is back to business as usual as state governments have turned their focus to assessing the cost of property damage.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the Lekki shooting, organized protests have largely dissipated while law enforcement has become an unofficial persona non grata.
Some #EndSARS activists have shifted into engaging in the political process by founding new political parties and reviving others, like the Youth Democratic Party (YDP), while circulating the beginnings of a young peoples’ platform. In Lagos state, prominent #EndSARS activists Rinu Oduala and Majekodunmi Temitope were nominated by fellow protestors to sit on the state judicial panel as participants in hearings held to review complaints against the Nigerian Police Force.
In Kaduna, the Northern Governor’s Forum convened on November 2 in an attempt to influence the federal government, characterizing the recent effects of unregulated social media as devastating and “call[ing] for major control mechanism[s] and censorship of the social media practice on Nigeria.”
Meanwhile, many police have yet to return to their normal duties.
How to Navigate Your Visit To Nigeria
Abdul (whose name we’ve changed at his request), a senior bank administrator of eight years, has seen SARS profile young men who are “riding in a good car and dress well. They will assume [they] are fraudsters.” He has observed officers waiting for such Nigerians outside of his bank, ready to harass them “whether what [they] are doing is legit or illegit.” However, “they always respect foreigners. They are friendly with them, but citizens are the main problem.”
He observed that “the protest was peaceful, but hoodlums hijacked the protests…many banks were burgled, they tried to break some ATMs.”
While the protests and general unrest have largely ended and movement along roads and highways is undisturbed, this current sense of normalcy could shift at any moment. It is important to exercise heightened caution and to stay updated with the specific circumstances in the part(s) of the country you are visiting.
- Be sure to cultivate regular communication with a local host, friend, colleague, or concierge. Most of the breaking news will be shared on social media between friends and family before it reaches mainstream outlets and Nigerian residents will most likely hear the latest updates before you do, including information about curfews.
- Familiarize yourself with websites for local news and follow #EndSARS on Twitter.
- Confirm plans before going out and make sure you and your companion(s) are aware of alternative routes to your destination. Avoid late-night activities.
- Keep Naira on hand in case of bank closures (banks and ATMs can close if they feel threatened by any insecurity) and small bills of N200 or less in case new road blockages limit you to getting around by public motorcycles which rarely have change.
- Travel on main roads and avoid empty streets. Empty streets are generally a sign of conflict or danger. If you reach an area where there is no pedestrian or car traffic, it is best to find an alternative route or postpone your outing.
- Write down a list of important contacts including your hotel number, airline contact information, and the local number for your embassy to keep on hand at all times.
- Enrich your visit by using current events as a way to engage with the people you meet in Nigeria and to learn about their diverse perspectives and personal experiences.
- Note: The U.S. State Department has yet to issue a statement regarding recent demonstrations. Continue checking for up-to-date travel advisories.