For nearly two weeks angry young citizens of Nigeria have taken to the streets, blocking major roads across cities in Africa’s most populous nation.
They marched in tens of thousands chanting “Enough is Enough” against police brutality and violence.
The group’s initial demands were for a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti Robbery Squad, or SARS, to be shut down, but the marches have since morphed into protests campaigning for police reform and an end to bad governance in Africa’s most populous country.
One of the popular chants used during the protests was “soro soke,” which means “speak up” in the country’s Yoruba language.
It has become “an EndSARS battle cry… a tone of rebellion, a note of valid belligerency and a chant of unification in the Nigerian struggle against police brutality and terrible governance,” wrote Motolani Alake, a journalist for Nigeria’s Pulse newspaper.
Economic inequality has reached extreme levels in Nigeria, according to the United Nation Human Rights Commission, while Oxfam reported that in 2019 close to 70% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line.
Young people under 30 make up more than 40% of Nigeria’s population. They face severe hardship and chronic unemployment. According to Chatham House, “If Nigeria’s unemployed youth were its own country, it would be larger than Tunisia or Belgium.”
Now with this protest movement, they are making their voices heard and speaking up against the violence, harassment, and extortion they say they have endured at the hands of SARS officers.
The SARS unit was set up in 1992 to fight armed robbery and was given wide-ranging powers. Many of the officers do not wear uniforms or name tags that identify themselves.
There have been numerous complaints that they had now turned on the citizens and were perpetrating the very crimes that they were set up to combat.
Amnesty International documented 82 cases of police brutality in Nigeria between 2017 and 2020. In a damning report published in June 2020, the human rights organization said people in SARS custody were “subjected to a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.”
Complaints about SARS are not new. People have been speaking out online since 2017 about the unit, but the catalyst for the recent nationwide protests came in early October when reports surfaced in local media that police had attacked a young man and driven off in his luxury jeep.
It sparked the use of the #EndSARS hashtag and two popular musicians, Runtown and Falz, decided to hold an offline march to air their grievances.
Falz, whose real name is Folarin Falana, said they were expecting “a handful of people,” but were surprised when hundreds, including other celebrities, turned up.
“Everyone is dissatisfied and the government’s failure to react to this level of the outcry is sheer disregard for the people. this administration is very insensitive,” Falz told CNN at the time.
Soon, the movement mushroomed organically around the country as years of frustrations and anger boiled over among the disenfranchised youth.
“Nigeria is facing a reckoning, one that is long overdue,” said Yetunde Omede, a professor of global affairs and politics in New York.
“With a growing youth bulge of under 30 years old, Nigeria can no longer ignore the demands of young people.”
During the protests, participants erected tents and DJ booths at various sites across the country.
Some camped overnight outside the Lagos State Assembly, while others chanted ‘Solidarity forever,’ sang the national anthem repeatedly, and held multi-faith prayer sessions as well as a “festival of lights,” to honor the dead, held at the now-infamous Lekki toll gate.
“This is an awakening of Generation Y, who are under 35, and will have a significant impact on the political landscape, analyst Amaka Anku, who heads the Africa Practice at Eurasia Group, told CNN.
“I think the movement will define political consciousness. It will lead to a higher turnout in 2023 and helped define campaign issues for the 2023 election,” Anku added.
The movement itself was not just about police brutality, says Omede.
“It is years of ongoing social trauma caused by inadequate healthcare systems and institutions of education, systemic corruption, nepotism, electoral fraud, poverty, and more,” she said.
“The EndSARS movement was the tipping point.”
Not surprisingly, the EndSARS protests in Nigeria have been compared to the Black Lives Matter fight against police brutality in the US.
It has attracted massive global support with solidarity protests in UK, US, Germany, and other parts of the world.
Celebrities such as Kanye West, John Boyega, and Rihanna among a host of others tweeted in support of the movement, shining a global spotlight on the #EndSARS hashtag.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey tweeted about the movement, while his platform gave verified blue tick status to some who were prominent in the movement and created an emoji symbol for it.
There was no discernible leadership in the decentralized structure of the movement and the young people were quick to reject any person who tried to insert themselves as a leader because they feared being compromised.