On Oct. 3, operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) allegedly opened fire on a young-man at Wetland Hotel in Ughelli, Delta state. He died from his injuries. Video recordings of the incident sparked an outcry against the police and reawakened the hashtag – #EndSARS – on social media.
Demonstrators banded under the hashtag continued to increase across several cities until Oct. 20, when responding military officials shot at #EndSARS demonstrators at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. At least 15 people died. Military officials have rejected the reports that they killed unarmed protesters, alleging that soldiers had only fired blank bullets. In total, at least 56 people died nationwide, according to advocacy group Amnesty International.
Young Nigerians are still reeling from the shock and after-effects of the government’s heavy-handed response. The military’s response has only widened the berth of distrust with the government. But the official stance against the people’s outcry has left a longer-lasting stamp on Nigeria’s already fragile political stability and security.
As the demonstrations continued, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry’s (LLCI) Department of Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) canceled its annual seminar scheduled for Oct. 22. The outcome was similar for several other business meetings across major Nigerian cities. The LLCI later revealed the unrest and subsequent looting cost the Nigerian economy 700 billion Naira over 12 days alone. The chamber denounced the “cruel and unjust acts of the police, especially SARS agents.”
The government failed to meet all the protesters’ specific demands, including the release of all detained protesters, justice for victims of police brutality, an independent investigation into police misconduct, psychological evaluation of SARS officers, and an increase in police salary.
Instead, officials announced they replaced the unit with a Special Weapons and Tactical Unit (SWAT) team, only fueling more outrage. Even after the crowds cleared from the streets, the government has continued its clampdown: Government officials have accused prominent supporters, including businesses, of financing and sponsoring terrorism. They have arrested other supporters and restricted local media reporting on excessive force against protesters by security personnel.
The #EndSARS movement
The #EndSARS movement saw a majority of Nigeria’s marginalized youth — who make up 35.6% of the total population — participate in one of the largest demonstration movements since the country’s democratic transition in 1999. The social movement was a rallying call for comprehensive police reform and became a symbol of hope and change, teaching participants three key lessons.
The #EndSARS movement primarily demonstrated freedom from the ethno-religious tensions that usually plague the framing of Nigeria’s domestic security and political issues. Young Nigerians in all six geopolitical zones united around a common goal to end police intimidation, oppression, and brutality. Demonstrations took place in at least 25 of the country’s 36 states, with events recorded in Lagos, Abuja, Rivers, Enugu, Kano, and Plateau states.
Second, it showed young Nigerians that it was possible to have an accountable and transparent civil society that is responsive to people’s needs. Women’s groups like the Feminist Coalition, formed in July 2020 with a mission to advocate for women’s equality, offered their platform to fundraise and disburse funds towards social services such as food, shelter, healthcare, physical security, and legal aid in sustaining #EndSARS demonstrations across the country. Third, with about half of the registered voters in Nigeria aged between 18-35, the movement highlighted the need for more young people to exercise their civil and political rights to speak out against injustices and demand change from state leaders elected to serve the needs of the populace.
Nigeria has seen a significant increase in violence targeting civilians by state forces over the last five years. Demonstrations associated with the #EndSARS movement were more likely to be subject to excessive force than other types of protests. More than half of all events of excessive force against protesters by state forces in 2020 were recorded at protests associated with the #EndSARS movement.
While supporters of the #EndSARS movement staged some demonstrations in November and December, including several at panels of inquiry established in response to the violence, there has been little activity since the end of October. In February, a smaller crowd turned out for the Occupy Lekki protest after officials issued a stark warning. Authorities arrested about 40 people. It remains to be seen whether the panels of inquiry set up by the government will result in police reform and help the government regain the trust of its young citizens.