Two years ago, Nigerian youths were taking to the streets in huge demonstrations against police brutality, triggered by the repeated deaths of young men at the hands of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – a notoriously brutal and lawless unit.
What became known as #EndSARS was groundbreaking, reverberating throughout southern Nigeria in particular. It was the voice of youth, sick of impunity and government indifference – the mismanagement and the rot – demanding a better Nigeria.
It effectively came to a bloody end on the evening of 20 October 2020. A squad of soldiers opened fire at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, the commercial capital, killing at least 15 peaceful protesters, part of a wider crackdown on what the government termed “anarchists”.
“Police reform is an age-old problem in Nigeria – a need recognised by the #EndSARS movement.”
Much has been written about the significance of #EndSARS – a decentralised, non-partisan, social media-led movement that began in 2017. It’s still celebrated by some as a symbol of the power of politically aware and active youth; the value of unity; and the importance of speaking out against injustice.
But has anything really changed since those heady days of street agitation, when we seemed to tantalisingly glimpse the possibility of the country’s renewal?
No one knows how many people have been killed, tortured, or extorted by SARS officers since the unit was formed in 1992: Nigerians tend to avoid reporting to the police. Neither do we have any real idea how many officers have been indicted and punished for their crimes, despite the many promises of reform.
But in the days following the “Lekki massacre”, under intense public pressure, 30 of Nigeria’s 36 states set up investigative panels to look into the most serious cases of abuse by SARS, and the security services more broadly. Twenty-one had submitted reports as of November 2021, but the momentum for justice has since waned.
To date, only the Lagos state report is publicly accessible, and it’s unclear what, if anything, has been implemented of its recommendations.
A lack of funding is one reason judicial panels have stopped sitting. Political inertia is another: Bauchi’s governor is accused of ignoring its panel’s report, and the Enugu state panel has been marred by allegations of corruption.
There is also little clarity over who is responsible for compensation claims as a result of SARS violence. The federal government has paid around $700,000 to 74 victims for “unlawful killings”, but some states are refusing to settle claims made against them, arguing SARS was a federal agency, even though it fell under their jurisdiction.
Where are we on police reform?
SARS was disbanded in the early days of the protests, a seemingly quick and easy victory. But it was replaced by the Special Weapons and Tactics Team – to which SARS officers were invited to apply – a rebranding that clearly failed to tackle the heart of the problem.
Nigeria is not only poorly policed, it’s also under-policed: There are far too few officers for the size of its 218-million-strong population. Those that are in uniform lack basic equipment – from pens and paper, to radios and vehicles. As a result, the military ends up being deployed on the streets of every state to help with security, although banditry remains rampant, kidnapping is a growth industry, and every month hundreds of Nigerians die in armed violence.
Police reform is an age-old problem in Nigeria – a need recognised by the #EndSARS movement, which consistently called for better conditions and pay for officers.
The police minister, Mohammed Maigari Dingyadi, has promised new equipment, but little has been said about increasing accountability and stopping abuse, although the police have been more public about the dismissal of erring officers.
What’s left of the climate of hope?
On a recent work trip to Nigeria, I dropped in on family and friends and the banter inevitably turned to the sorry state of the country: how everyone that is young enough, and can afford it, is trying to leave – or japa (get out) to use streetspeak.
In one conversation, 30-something tech professionals told me the situation is so bad that employers now ask – when interviewing job aspirants – whether they can be counted on to stay if they are hired.
The “japa movement” is just one example of people’s pessimism post-#EndSARS. Fed up with the hardships, including a youth unemployment rate of 53 percent, new businesses are popping up to service the surge in would-be emigrants.
Yet the reality for many Nigerians heading for the exit is that – even if they can get past Western immigration restrictions – it's largely only menial jobs available. “We can no longer talk about neocolonialism,” a friend said. “This is voluntary slavery.”
Which way, Nigeria?
Sadly, the Nigerian government didn't get the #EndSARS message – that urgent call for the country’s transformation. The movement’s slogan, Sọrọ sóké! (Speak out!) required someone to be listening, but the government of President Muhammadu Buhari has clearly turned a deaf ear.
Coinciding with the second anniversary of #EndSARS, we now have the spectacle of Nigeria’s political heavyweights campaigning for votes ahead of next year’s elections, part of a political system that everyone else recognises as deeply dysfunctional.
The comical attempts by two leading presidential contenders – with a combined age of 145 – to demonstrate their youthfulness, instead of outlining serious plans for economic recovery, shows how out of touch the political class is with the harsh realities of most people’s lives.
Nigerians are hungry for a messiah. Cue Peter Obi, the youngest and newest presidential candidate. He has a massive transnational youth following that seems convinced he can break the stranglehold of Nigeria’s two dominant parties.
The growing “Obi-dient” movement has been applauded by some of the former leading voices of the #EndSARS protests, who see Obi as representing those earlier demands for change.
“The movement’s slogan, Sọrọ sóké! (Speak out!) required someone to be listening.”
But regardless of Obi’s earnestness, and decent political record as a two-term state governor, sceptics view him as the latest example of “a recurrent technocratic tease”.
After all, similar goodwill put Buhari in power in 2015, and seven years on, the progressive Nigerians that backed him – and plenty of others besides – regard his administration as a catastrophe.
On this 20 October anniversary, as we mourn those who lost their lives in the #EndSARS protests, the jury is still out on whether a longer, more structured resistance could have led to deeper change.
But in my view, the #EndSARS spirit lives on – not least because all of us still crave a new Nigeria. Its rallying cry – borrowed from Mozambique’s revolutionary past, and Nigeria’s energetic student movement – says it all:
Aluta continua; victoria ascerta (the struggle continues; victory is certain).
(*I would like to thank Dr. ‘Kemi Okenyodo in Abuja for helping me with the research for this article.)
Edited by Obi Anyadike.