#EndSARS: The most significant protest of 2020 you’ve never heard of
The Nigerian ‘#EndSARS’ protests of 2020 successfully campaigned to shut down a notorious police group, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. But the implications of the protests extend far beyond that. The movement has politically empowered and emboldened an entire generation of young Nigerians, utilised new social media techniques which will revolutionise future African protests, and also taken steps towards overcoming the British colonial influence which still permeates Nigerian life today.
No, not COVID-19
While most of the world was occupied with one form of SARS this year, Nigerians in early October hit the streets demanding an end to their own SARS, a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. On October 8th, protests erupted after footage emerged of a young man being killed by non-uniformed police in Lagos, Nigeria. The video, shared widely on Twitter, not only documented the clear abuses of power committed by the SARS officers, but reminded young Nigerians of their shared experiences with the corrupt group.
SARS, formed in 1992 under then-dictator Ibrahim Babangida, was initially a successful organisation combating rising crime rates in Lagos. However, a rapid expansion of their reach and powers, low wages, and a culture of entitlement and impunity turned SARS ‘bad’. Since the early 2000s, many thousands of Nigerians have been the targets of SARS violence. Amnesty International has reported widespread human rights abuses, ranging from targeted streetside arrests and extortion, to illegal detention centres where detainees have been tortured and killed. Even high profile Nigerians, like prominent radio journalist Kofi Bartels, are not shielded from the abuse.
Protests which began in Lagos soon spread to Abuja and other cities. Despite some resistance, and the shocking deaths of twelve peaceful protesters at the hands of police in Lagos, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to disband the unit and commit to reform. Even today the movement continues. While its deliberate lack of leadership and broad demands simply for ‘better governance’ have stalled the movement’s progress, in other metrics the #EndSARS protests have had massive implications for both Nigeria and Africa.
An empowered and emboldened youth
President Buhari’s government at first ignored the protests. No one in his ministry thought the young and well-off protesters had the stamina or the passion to protest indefinitely. Not only were they wrong, but the protests’ lengthened success will transform Nigerian politics as an entire generation realises they can create change. Despite 40 per cent of Nigeria’s 200 million inhabitants being younger than 30, a culture of deference in the country has resulted in little political struggle from Nigerian youths, despite growing dissatisfaction with governance, corruption and policy. This attitude was mirrored by senior elites, who perceived the youths’ pleas as “usual mischief making.”
Yet #EndSARS was able to shake a malaise which had settled over Nigerian politics for two reasons. Firstly, because SARS was indiscriminate in its targeting of people across ethnic and class barriers, young Nigerians were able to coalesce around a shared suffering. Secondly, the protesters eschewed traditional forms of leadership which could be corrupted, thus garnering the trust of a population usually untrusting of politics. Similarly to the Arab Spring, #EndSARS avoided providing a pedestal to politicians or celebrities who could compromise the movement for their own interests. Instead, the protests were leaderless and dynamic. If a young person shared their location on Twitter, others would head there and congregate around each other. Whilst the inability to seat someone ‘at the table’ and negotiate a deal has likely weakened the efficacy of the protests, the movement would not have been so large, so substantial, nor had such significant repercussions without these key characteristics.
The implications of this political invigoration are already being seen elsewhere. When a handful of youths broke into the palace of the traditional ruler of Lagos, vandalised his throne and swam in his pool, it was demonstrative of a generation that now knows they don’t need to remain silent. With a general election approaching in 2023, experts are predicting higher voter turnout and an electorate with a clearer idea of what they want from their leaders. Young Nigerians don’t want a coup, they simply want greater returns from their votes. This will likely be at the forefront of Buhari and his party’s minds when Nigerians head to the polls.
A rejection of colonialism
The #EndSARS movement is also a pivotal part of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and represents a major inflection point in dismantling the colonial influence which remains in African policing today.
In the early stages of the movement, protesters were quick to draw equivalency to the BLM movement which spread across most of the western world. Black lives matter on all continents, they argued, even when black victims suffer at the hands of black policemen. And the equivalence is valid. #EndSARS protesters, like their BLM counterparts, were demanding the dismantling of a police unit which had developed a culture of exploitation and entitlement. This police culture in Nigeria, experienced similarly across Africa, is unarguably a remnant of brutal colonial police practices.
Traditional colonial policy was to subvert and subdue colonised peoples rather than protect them. The behaviour of SARS officers was particularly reprehensible, but ultimately reflects the overall attitudes and culture of policing in Nigeria. Law enforcement in Nigeria was built on antagonistic grounds, which viewed all Nigerians as potential threats. The police’s disproportionate and deadly response to a peaceful protest in Lekki emphasises this point. Even their most tried and tested tactic of extorting well-off Nigerians represents a colonial practice of using coercion to keep all Nigerians in line. No matter how successful or rich you become, you’re still subordinate to police rule.
This is what makes #EndSARS so significant. By rejecting and overthrowing a powerful police group, they are also rejecting the colonial cultures which allowed the corrupt behaviour to flourish. As the ‘big brother’ of Sub-Saharan Africa, people across many African nations were watching anxiously as the Nigerian protests panned out. Now, as #EndSARS achieves success, disempowered Africans across the continent will seek to follow Nigeria’s lead and reject the colonial influence which still restrains Africans today.
Aggressive, new social media techniques
The protesters’ aggressive social media tactics also represent a shift in the role social media can play in generating change. Coordinated campaigns to shame news organisations and western celebrities for their lack of engagement with the protests proved incredibly effective in spreading the #EndSARS message. Future African movements will likely leverage similar techniques for success.
The Tunisian Revolution of 2011, which sparked the Arab Spring, was the first protest movement to fully utilise social media to organise people, realise a shared experience, generate support, and ultimately bring down a regime. It’s what earned it the name the ‘Facebook Revolution’. Young Nigerians were able to use similar tactics, except that protesters also had to grapple with a global consciousness which views corruption and violence in Africa as not only normal, but expected. Simply sharing videos was not enough to capture global attention, particularly in a year where police brutality has been so prominent. In light of this, protesters coordinated a flurry of tweets aimed at shaming British and American celebrities with links to Africa who had earlier in the year pledged their support for the Black Lives Matter movement but had remained silent about #EndSARS.
Eventually, British-Nigerians like actor John Boyega and boxer Anthony Joshua tweeted in support of the movement. They were then joined by major US artists like Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Kanye West. Collectively, the world started to pay attention. Protesters also focused on news outlets, attacking them for not broadcasting or covering the protests. The BBC’s Nigeria correspondent labelled the experience a “swarm of shame”.
Though social media activism has always relied on shaming and peer pressure to create a movement, #EndSARS made this attempt more explicit. But the technique worked. At the height of the protests, the #EndSARS hashtag was being used 14 million times a day. The Twitter movement proved so effective that major news outlets like the Washington Post, BBC, Guardian and more were including the hashtag #EndSARS in their article titles, speaking to the movement’s ability to create a tangible online identity.
For a continent where human rights abuses, corruption, and protests rarely punctuate the mainstream western consciousness, #EndSARS was incredibly effective. The aggressive techniques and creation of a mostly online identity will likely be used again and again by future protest movements in Africa and elsewhere.
Where to from here?
While protesters continue to hit the streets, #EndSARS has more or less achieved its aims. The SARS group has been disbanded, President Buhari has committed to police reform, and the rest of the world has condemned the Nigerian government’s actions. For Nigerians, a general election in 2023 will be the next time an emboldened people get to ensure their voices are heard. Expect a population who will demand only the best.
This article was originally published in YDS' end of year Special Edition, '2020'. The Special Edition can be accessed here.
Cassius Hynam is the Sub-Saharan Africa Correspondent for YDS and a recent University of Melbourne graduate in Politics & International Studies and Economics. He is currently completing an internship at the Grattan Institute.