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The world seems to have moved on - but has the END SARS movement changed Nigeria?

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.


By Keturah Christie




What is the End SARS movement?

The movement involved the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria created in 1984 with the aim to combat an epidemic of violent crime including robberies, car jackings and kidnappings.[1] Despite Nigerian authorities promising to disband SARS due to numerous controversies, the squad in recent years has enjoyed impunity for continued use of torture and ill methods to execute, punish and extract information from suspects. In June 2020, Amnesty International issued a report on the squad criticising the Nigerian government for “an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.” This is evidenced by harrowing statistics which document at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extrajudicial executions between January 2017 and May 2020. Additionally, in 2013, 35 bodies of missing people were discovered in a river in Anambra state of which was later linked to SARS. This sparked indignation on social media and gave rise to protests.


A Timeline of events

  • October 4, 2020 – A viral video showing SARS officers dragging two men out of a hotel and shooting one of them outside. A few days later protests erupt all over Nigeria.

  • October 11, 2020 – SARS is ‘disbanded’, but it was the 5th time since 2015 that Nigerian authorities pledged to reform the police and disband SARS.

  • October 20, 2020 - A peaceful protest at Lekki toll gate resulted in at least 12 people dead as a result of the Nigerian Army.


Since that day, Nigerian authorities tried to cover up the events of Lekki toll gate by freezing Protest leaders bank accounts and fining news agencies sharing videos of the shooting.[2] The End SARS campaign is not just about Nigeria’s corrupt Special anti-robbery squad but a call for social justice from the Nigerian Youth.


Week of December 10, 2020 - A security force deployment prevented a “Phase II” protest from occurring at the Lekki Toll Gate. The government focused intense pressure on waging a full-scale information war, denying the events of October 20 by claiming that protests have been entirely hijacked by “hoodlums” and the degree of violence and destruction was overstated.[3]


Is it deeper than just police brutality?

Initially calls to end SARS were ignored until international pressure forced it to act with 30 million tweets with #ENDSARS being generated. However, beyond what media coverage superficially suggests, several protests have been maintained to encompass a much larger issue and thus demanding an abolition of the hegemonic structures that keep them as victims of oppression. This movement largely run by youths stems from the fact that although Nigerian youth make up over 70% of the workforce, that same demographic is unfairly targeted by police and is routinely murdered.[4] This is in addition to criticisms of the government corruption with some going as far to call for the resignation of President Muhammadu Buhari and the trashing of the palace of the highly respected Oba (traditional ruler of Lagos) – frustrated youths highlighted that they had reached their tipping point by dragging his throne around and looting his possessions. As such, whilst the initial protests appear to have faded away the underlying grievances have not.[5]


What is next for the END SARS movement?

The most distinctive element of the END SARS protest was its “transnational resonance” which quickly gained the support of many activists, politicians and celebrities who offered public statements of support and helped raise bail funds as well as contributing to protest coordination. Despite this, international attention has faded in spite of protests continuing, demonstrating the weakness of transnational support. Transnational support has risen with the integrated global landscape and ease of communication now available and has been evident in recent protests in Thailand, Hong Kong and Taiwan who have expressed solidarity with one another via the “Milk Tea” Alliance. Such support can help movement succeed if directed towards the social group and institutions that make up a movement’s opponents power bases. Equally, at the peak of the End SARS protests last October, Nigerians showed up to protests at the Nigerian embassy and consulates in the US and outside British Parliament. Celebrities from Beyonce to Star Wars actor John Boyega also issued statements in support of the movement. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey encouraged users to donate bitcoin to End SARS organisers to get around the Nigerian government freezing of activists’ bank accounts.


Initially while proving effective, resulting in Buhari administration agreeing to dissolve SARS because for domestic and international condemnation, the dissolution of SARS was entirely symbolic, and the Nigerian Government immediately constituted a similar unit with a different name. Little to no meaningful security sector reform has actually taken place and the international plane appears to have largely moved onto other things.


This pattern highlights the non-staying power of international support, particularly as it is often fuelled by rapidly fluctuating attention cycles of global social media platforms. While a movement hailed by a catchy slogan can more often than not create flocks of people into the streets and achieve in days what once took months and years of organizing, extensive national research shows “networked protests” do come with a cost as large protests without underlying organizational infrastructure can make a movement easily demobilized once the intensity of the moment has passed. Decision makers thus discount social media fuelled protest and rather just wait for the storm to die down even if there’s demonstrations of support around the world.[6]


That being said activist and writer Gimba Kakanda told the BBC "The #EndSARS protests were initially perceived as another of the youths' episodic mischief-making that would fizzle out if left unaddressed," followed by, “This mind-set of the political class, almost overly condescending, was the reason for its slow response to this unprecedented movement and left them all on the edge."[7]


Despite prominent supporters of the End SARS movement still facing severe repression from the Nigerian government and many activist leaders remain under arrest or have had their bank account indefinitely frozen, the young protesters at the vanguard of the End SARS movement have not been dissuaded and continue to push for change. Whilst there is unlikely to be flashy celebrity endorsement and massive social media condemnation, through lower profile and careful transnational organisation that target pressure points of the Nigerian state, a far more sustained result can be achieved in the long term.



 

[1] Rick Gladstone and Megan Specia, 'Nigeria’S Police Brutality Crisis: What’S Happening Now' (Nytimes.com, 2020) <https://www.nytimes.com/article/sars-nigeria-police.html#link-60f46e39> accessed 3 March 2021. [2] Nelson C.F, 'Opinion: The Endsars Movement Is Not Over – We Are Pausing To Catch Our Breath' (The Independent, 2020) <https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/endsars-nigeria-lekki-massacare-protest-b1759585.html> accessed 3 March 2021. [3] Jonathon Pinckney and Erin Zamora, 'When The World Moves On: What’S Next For Nigeria’S Endsars Movement?' (Printfriendly.com, 2020) <https://www.printfriendly.com/p/g/6kBVvZ> accessed 3 March 2021. [4] Jake Okechukwu Effoduh, 'Why Nigeria's #Endsars Movement Is More Than A Call To End Police Brutality' (World Economic Forum, 2021) <https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/12/nigeria-endsars-police-brutality-protest/> accessed 3 March 2021. [5] Jonathon Pinckney and Erin Zamora, 'When The World Moves On: What’S Next For Nigeria’S Endsars Movement?' (United States Institute of Peace, 2020) <https://www.usip.org/publications/2020/12/when-world-moves-whats-next-nigerias-endsars-movement> accessed 4 March 2021. [6] Ibid n3 [7] 'How The End Sars Protests Have Changed Nigeria Forever' (BBC News, 2020) <https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-54662986> accessed 3 March 2021.

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