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  • Julianna Hellerman

The Fight to #EndSARS and Transform the Nigerian Political System

Nigerian youth flooded the streets of Lagos in November to protest the Anti-Robbery unit within the state’s police force, commonly known as SARS. In step with these protests, a flurry of posts hashtagged “EndSARS” began to dominate Instagram stories, Facebook updates, and Twitter feeds, carrying the reach of the movement far beyond domestic borders. International outcry, both in the physical and digital sense, was instigated by the circulation of a viral video documenting a seemingly-unprovoked killing by SARS officers. However, the protests have now expanded to target more than police violence alone, sparking broader debates about systematic shortcomings within the Nigerian government. These protests have inspired calls for an overall transformation to Nigeria's system of politics.

SARS, or the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was created in 1992 to centralize the anti-robbery units of three separate police forces in Lagos. This unification occurred under Police officer Simeon Danladi Midenda to combat violent gangs in the capital. Midenda’s officers dressed in plain clothes rather than uniform, drove unmarked cars, and were not allowed to openly carry guns. By 2002, the Lagos-based project had spread from the Nigerian capital to all 36 states in the country. The unit, furthermore, took on the obligations of arrest, investigation and persecution of all violent crimes, from robbery to murder.

Along with these added responsibilities, the officers persisted in private pursuits, using their status to engage in violence and corruption for illegal remuneration. Such abuses included“extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and extortion,” wherein officers would use circumstantial and extraneous evidence as proof of crime. Since the year 2000, when SARS took on cybercrime as a central battle, the officers have used one’s ownership of a phone or computer, nice clothes, watches, or dreadlocks, as proof of civilian’s participation in internet schemes, rather than actually tracking internet activity for solid evidence.

The #EndSARS hashtag began circulating in 2017 along with calls for top-down police reform. However, after the recent dissemination of footage depicting SARS officers violently forcing two men out of a hotel and subsequently killing one on the street, Nigerians around the world began to denounce the unit. Icons such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Kanye West, among others, have joined the movement, broadening awareness and support internationally. Joe Biden, during his presidential candidacy, issued a statement in support of the movement, requesting that the Nigerian government “engage in a good-faith dialogue with civil society to… work together for a more just and inclusive Nigeria.” the protests against police brutality in Nigeria followed only five months after the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing protests in America. The US-Based BLM movement helped catalyze international demands for police reform, paralleled with protests in France and civil unrest in Brazil.

The initial calls of the protestors consisted of five demands: release of arrested protestors; compensation for families of victims; investigation of and prosecution for reports of officer misconduct; abolition of SARS; and an increase in police wages. In response to the protests, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has pledged to reform the police, and has formally disbanded SARS, creating a different unit (SWAT) in its place.

However, Buhari’s commitment to police reform is by no means new in Nigeria. In 2008, then-president Umaru Yar’Adua formed a committee to combat police brutality; two years later, Yar’Adua’s successor, Goodluck Jonathan, set aside $186 million for the same purpose. The attempts of both Yar’Adua and Jonathan, however, were in response to international condemnation rather than domestic pressure.

In contrast, since the electoral victory of President Buhari in 2015, Nigerian citizens have begun to pose a vociferous challenge to the violence and corruption of SARS, to which the ever-growing social media community has lent both eyes and ears. In response to the birth of the #EndSARS movement, the Nigerian Police Force has been restructured twice (once in 2017, once in 2018). President Buhari also produced the Anti-Torture Act as a means of curbing police violence. However, as of now, not a single officer has been charged under Buhari’s Anti-Torture Act, despite Amnesty International having reported at least 82 cases of torture since. This lack of accountability, along with the violence and corruption persisting among the ranks of SARS officers, points to the superficiality within Buhari’s reforms.

Due to the ongoing chain of public promises with little follow up, many critics and protestors see the only way to establish true reform as through a broad overhaul of the Nigerian government. Innanoshe R.A., a Nigerian activist and author, writing in an opinion piece for The Washington Post, calls for a “top-to-bottom leadership change in government and law enforcement agencies” in order to promote “real change in Nigeria.” Innanoshe points not only to Buhari’s inability to reform the police, but also to his economic and COVID-related failures, and, most of all, to his “[defiance] of rehabilitation for his dictatorial past.”

Indeed, Buhari’s presidency has been riddled with public discontent even before the recent protests. His 1983 coup and subsequent leadership of a military regime proved a point of contention for many during his 2015 candidacy and leadership; during his regime, Buhari worked to repress unfavorable media coverage, which critics of his 2015 candidacy pointed to as a harbinger for future transgressions. Moreover, his 2019 election to a second term was highly contested, bearing anti-competitive elements seen to have been orchestrated in order to undermine a free and fair election. The last-minute postponement of the election, the suspension of a Supreme Court justice, and the prevalence of election day violence all served to suffuse the results with suspicion.

In this vein, the protestors have overwritten their initial demands with a set of requests for broad institutional reform, consisting of: the eradication of corruption (particularly within security forces); a streamlined budget and truncated bureaucratic structure; a more representative constitution; an overhaul of the education system; increased funding towards the national health service; an increase in support of youth-based programs; and the abolition of practices which favor public officials inordinately.

This second set of demands encompasses a widespread desire to move Nigeria into the 21st century, and, along with this desire, a recognition of the systematic issues belying Nigeria’s system of governance. The New York Times discusses the protests as a reaction not only to police brutality, but also to the Nigerian Government’s inadequate handling of the pandemic, along with the notorious corruption of the Bureaucracy. These obstacles prove deeply rooted in Nigerian post-colonial history. In a 2018 study published in the Journal of Peace and Conflict Studies, Benjamin Maiangwa, Muhammad Dan Suleiman, and Chigbo Arthur argue that, although the British formally disembarked from Nigeria in the 1960’s, the impact of indirect governance by British imperial companies such as the Royal Niger Company and the United African Company set the precedent for the ethos of violence, ineffectiveness, and corruption in Nigeria, prevalent in both the Government and the Police. The three scholars argue that the RNC’s creation of a supra-national military has set the precedent for a quasi-autonomous military and police force, in turn leading to a plethora of coups in the latter half of the 20th century, and the prevalence of police violence in the 21st.

The authors attribute the pervasiveness of violence and corruption within the nation- central to the activists’ demands for institutional reform- to the same colonial history. According to Maiangwa, Suleiman and Arthur, the ethnic conflict in Nigeria (most apparent in the violence of Boko Haram, along with regular power-struggles within the bureaucracy), derives from the same desire for resource control pioneered by imperial corporations. Such a culture of violence and corruption, argue the authors, “clearly illustrates the absence of ‘nationhood’ and speaks more about Nigeria’s skewed leadership orientation and propensity towards state robbery than about an honest or selfless desire to govern.”

In a related article following the October protests, Maiangwa argues that the only way to ameliorate Nigerias “corporative” modus operandi would be through building up a sense of national identity. In order to do this, Maiangwa views the creation of “inclusive governance at the local level” as utmost. Such “inclusive governance,” indeed, goes hand-in-hand with the demands of the protestors, and confronts the “top-to-bottom” changes called for by Innanoshe.

The recent governmental response to #EndSARS continues to call Buhari’s leadership and commitment to democracy into question, along with the capacity of the Nigarian government to institute meaningful reform. On October 20, the state military opened fire on a crowd of peaceful protesters in Lekki, Lagos, killing at least 12 people; as of November 3, the police inspector-general has reported over 1,500 arrests made for protest-related violence. This broad persecution has all been coupled with the Central Bank’s freezing of activist’s assets, calls for social media censorship by state governors, and a ban in Lagos on public demonstrations.

Major Western news outlets, among which sit the BBC, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, point to these protests against SARS as a tipping point for Nigerian Democracy. The country’s population, 60% of which is younger than 24 years old and 40% of which is under the poverty line, provides a salient base for widespread reform. In addition to protesting SARS, Nigerian youth have begun to protest the traditional social hierarchy, symbolically breaking into and destroying the palace of the traditional ruler of Lagos. Furthermore, anti-government provocateurs have engaged in looting and vandalism, targeting prominent politicians in Lagos.

These challenges to the existing order demonstrate the waning authority of the Nigerian government. Buhari’s reticence to institutionalize any meaningful modifications-coupled with the precedent set by his inability to enforce any formerly-introduced reforms- punctuates his political future with a menacing question-mark. The protestors are clear that they will no longer be placated by surface-level policy adjustments; therefore, the question arises as to whether Buhari and his fellow elites will choose to adapt or face further backlash.


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