In Nigerian protests, a generation poised to seize the moment

Why We Wrote This

Protests against police brutality rocked Nigeria last month. But the broader, youth-led movement they have sparked is about more than that. This generation grew up in democracy, and wants it to live up to its promises.

Temilade Adelaja/Reuters
Demonstrators gather during a protest over alleged police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, Oct. 17, 2020.

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Half of Nigeria’s population is under the age of 30. And many of them participated in the protests over police brutality that rocked the country last month – meaning their concerns aren’t going away soon.

Alleged abuses by a special police unit, called SARS, have for years prompted criticism and failed promises of reform. Although the government has now pledged to disband SARS, and protests have subsided, the youth-led movement is still keeping up pressure. And the youths’ demands go beyond immediate justice, to the corruption and inequality they consider pervasive in Nigerian politics. 

The protests were leaderless, but organizations like the Feminist Coalition led the fundraising to provide legal and medical aid to protesters. The rights group’s starring role reflects the generation’s increasing calls for gender equality. But its daily updates on how money was spent also underscored one of the protesters’ main demands: greater transparency.

Idayat Hassan, director of an Abuja-based think tank, says the Feminist Coalition has shown Nigerians the “true meaning of accountability in just two weeks.”

“They achieved a feat no Nigerian government has been able to achieve,” Ms. Hassan writes in an email. 

And the youth-led movement could fundamentally change the country’s political landscape, she says – especially at the next general elections in 2023.

Amaka Amaku and her friend were singing along to the radio, driving toward the southwestern city of Ogbomosho, when police “came out of nowhere” to pull them over, she says.

The officers seized the duo’s phones and Ms. Amaku’s laptop because she did not have a receipt, then accused the 26-year-old entrepreneur of taking “hard drugs” when they found her contraceptives. Three of them kicked her friend out of the car and began driving Ms. Amaku away.

“I was afraid. I thought I would get kidnapped,” she says. “I didn’t have my phone, couldn’t scream, they were armed, and I didn’t know where my friend” was. They drove her to a nearby station, where other squad members showed up with her friend, and demanded a bribe to let them go, Ms. Amaku says. After some haggling, they agreed to pay 3,000 naira ($8).

The police unit that stopped them that October day three years ago was the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), disbanded last month amid weeks of protests across Nigeria and the diaspora beyond. Since its founding in 1992, the unit has perpetrated the very kinds of crime it was commissioned to prevent, critics say, with Amnesty International reporting at least 82 cases of “torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution” in the past three years alone.

But if protests have been suppressed – sometimes with violence – the movement’s broader aims are here to stay, many Nigerians say. The people driving #ENDSARS from the pages of the internet to the streets of Nigerian cities and now back online again are overwhelmingly young, like the country itself. Half of Nigeria’s estimated 182 million people are under 30.

Their generation, the first in decades to grow up in a democracy, is also fed up with its disappointments: the corruption and inequality that have become central concerns of their movement.

Bulama Bukarti, a sub-Saharan African expert at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, says the protests – the largest since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 – were a result of long-building frustration “and outrage that has accumulated over the years.”

“SARS has been a very brutal team for years and young people in Nigeria have been penting up the anger. They have been crying inwardly,” he says.

Demanding transparency

Outrage over the alleged abuses by SARS has simmered for years, prompting government pledges to reform. The latest tipping point for protests came in early October, when a viral video allegedly showed SARS members killing a young man in Delta state and driving off in his car. 

On Oct. 11, the government vowed to disband SARS. But trust between citizens and officials is low, particularly with previous promises not kept. And the situation worsened on Oct. 20, when soldiers shot into a crowd singing the national anthem and waving the flag at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, protesters’ de facto headquarters. At least 10 people were killed, according to Amnesty International. 

After initially denying involvement, the army admitted soldiers were present, but said they did not open fire on protesters, despite eyewitness reports. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement that “strongly condemns the use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos,” and called for an investigation.

Young people are most at risk of harassment and extortion from SARS officers, according to Amnesty’s report, particularly those with dreadlocks and tattoos (which a high-ranking police official linked to “cultism”), or expensive equipment. Nigeria’s well-funded technology sector has minted middle-class youths who can afford items considered luxuries in a country where 51% of the population lives in extreme poverty

But calls for accountability for police and beyond have resonated among youth for a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic frustrations. Unemployment among people ages 25-34 stands at 30.7%. Meanwhile, the affluence of the political class is often on display. President Muhammadu Buhari, for example, spent 10 days in London to treat an ear infection in 2016, despite the billions of naira budgeted for the clinic at the president’s residence. 

Young people took to the streets in the first place, Mr. Bukarti suggests, because they had no experience of military or colonial rule, when taking on the government was taboo.

“Young people are disentangled from the colonial and military mentality and showed that they are ready to take up leadership of their country and demand better,” Mr. Bukarti says.

The protests were leaderless, but organizations like the Feminist Coalition led the fundraising to provide legal and medical aid to protesters. The starring role of the rights group, whose leaders declined to be interviewed for this article, reflects the generation’s increasing calls for gender equality in a society still steeped in patriarchal attitudes. But its daily updates on how money was spent also underscored one of the protesters’ main demands: greater transparency in politics.

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based think tank, says the Feminist Coalition has shown Nigerians the “true meaning of accountability in just two weeks.”

“They achieved a feat no Nigerian government has been able to achieve,” Ms. Hassan writes in an email. 

The road ahead

Though street protests have ended, that clamor for accountability has not. Failed promises of police reform in the past have fueled this year’s protests, Mr. Bukarti says, making many Nigerians wary of the new pledge to disband SARS. In August 2018, for example, the government set up a judicial inquiry into SARS, but the commission’s finding has yet to be released to the public almost two years after its submission. 

Last week a panel in Lagos began hearings on police brutality, after waiting for the appointments of youth representatives. Protesters have demanded justice for the alleged victims of SARS, the release of arrested demonstrators, psychological training for SARS officers before their redeployment, and higher police pay to discourage extortion in the first place.

If sustained, the youth-led movement could fundamentally change the political landscape in Nigeria, especially at the next general elections in 2023, says Ms. Hassan.

“The politics of 2023 will not be the same; the youth who [make up] 51% of the voting population is going to decide and possibly in a different way,” she says. 

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