28 October 2020

Uprising: Nigeria's #EndSARS Movement, how the past will define the future

Demonstrations against police violence have gripped the world in 2020 and Nigeria is the most recent example of this. These protests are certain to continue in the near-term due to a history of unkept promises of police reform and the widening scope of demonstrations, which can now be seen as broadly anti-government and anti-police.

By Diego Maloney

Though Nigeria's nationwide movement against police brutality has grown to be the most violent and extensive the country has seen in decades, it is not the first time the movement has gained traction. Protests against Special Anti-Robbery Squads (SARS) began in 2017 though have seen a resurgence in 2020 due to long-standing failures of the government to curtail alleged abusive practices. The SARS program was established in 1992 with the purpose of combating a rising number of kidnappings and armed robberies, among other crimes. These state-sponsored forces however have contributed to the violence with at least 82 documented cases of crimes such as extortion, sexual harassment, kidnappings and torture between 2017 and May of this year, prompting activists to organise online in an unprecedented manner using the #EndSARS hashtag. Online activists ultimately poured into the streets nationwide on 8 October as protests turned violent in Abuja and elsewhere.

On 11 October, after days of nationwide unrest, government officials announced that they would disband the SARS program. However, unkept promises of reform in the past has only bred distrust prompting demonstrations to broaden in scope which can now be seen as broadly anti-government and anti-police, rather than focused exclusively on SARS. Initially peaceful, protests were met with a heavy-handed response by police and army personnel that confirmed protester bias against police immunity. This has triggered a cycle of escalation that has resulted in widespread damage and looting of public and private property, particularly the targeting of warehouses storing food and medical supplies earmarked for COVID-19 relief, as well as the deaths of at least 70 people as of 28 October, though many more are feared dead. Curfews have been imposed in Lagos and several other states amid a wave of violence that is the result of contempt relating to a contracting economy from falling oil prices and the COVID-19 pandemic as much as with police brutality.

The youth-centred movement shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. A watchful eye will remain over the government's response to the demonstrations through social media sites like Twitter and diaspora communities who host their own rallies in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom, which may encourage diplomats to push for peaceful negotiations. However given the history of broken promises with regard to police reform in Nigeria, it is likely that further attempts by the government to meet the demands of protesters will be met with skepticism which will impede tangible improvements to civil-police relations. The current trajectory of the #EndSARS movement indicates that a slew of issues will need to be resolved before protest 'fatigue' sets in and unless authorities can protect their interests in the negotiations, they will likely continue the violent suppression of demonstrations. These actions will only widen the growing divide between the Nigerian government and its people meaning that the nation has only seen the beginning of a movement that may grip the country for years to come.

Diego Maloney is a US-based political and security risk analyst.