This month marks the second anniversary of the #EndSARS movement that shook the foundations of the Nigerian government in 2020. The protests started unexpectedly on October 7, 2020, as a peaceful rally directed against police brutality, extortion, torture and widespread extrajudicial killings. The demonstrators were active and protested boisterously, amid music, dancing, singing, drinking, eating and exuberant entertainment. They said they had had enough of police brutality. Their message was clear: President Muhammadu Buhari’s government must address rapidly serious security challenges that undermined the progress of the country.
What started as peaceful protests quickly blossomed into an uncontrollable wildfire that aimed to consume the police and its awful record of human rights abuses. The demonstrations were particularly aimed to draw attention to brutality, extortion, torture and widespread killings by the special police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
The protests were engineered by Nigerian youth who displayed videos, photos and documented evidence of police maltreatment. As the protests spread and attracted more members and sympathisers, the protesters expanded their list of demands beyond human rights transgressions by the police. Other deep-seated injustices by the government and security forces were added to the list of grievances.
It was on October 20, 2020, that the demonstrations came to a head, leading eventually to the dreaded clash between protesters and trigger-happy soldiers and police at the Lekki Tollgate. By the time the ugly confrontations ended, many peaceful protesters had died or were severely injured. On that day, Amnesty International reported that the “police and army killed at least 12 peaceful protesters on October 20” (Al Jazeera, 2020). The bloodshed was unanticipated.
Two years on, the exact number of fatalities and casualties remains contested by the police, soldiers, the Lagos State government, the Federal Government, civil society organisations, international and domestic media and protesters. The fact that protesters were murdered or wounded during peaceful rallies inflamed public anger.
Although Information and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed denied strongly that anyone was killed at the Lekki Tollgate, photographic, video and textual evidence tendered by international and local civil society organisations and media (such as the Cable News Network, CNN) showed clearly how the protesters were mowed down by dangerous security forces. Defenceless protesters were abused, shoved with weapons, brutalised, shot and killed. Other demonstrators sustained serious injuries.
Outlandishly, Lai Mohammed was nowhere near the event location and yet he stood up to contest verifiable proof that people were indeed killed during shootings by soldiers and the police. Two years after the events, the facts remain inviolable.
Mercifully, victims of the shootings who survived the volley of bullets fired by security forces are still alive to tell their own story. They witnessed the killings and suffered injuries. Their voices should be heard, not the fractured voice of Lai Mohammed who was not near the scene of the shootings.
During the #EndSARS demonstrations, a mix of open public protests and social media activism became an important vehicle through which Nigerian youth expressed their resentment against a government that has abdicated its basic responsibilities and grown increasingly unpopular. Through uninterrupted protests, the youth showcased their unified voice against numerous problems that have continued to trouble the country. The youth made it clear they could no longer endure a culture of silence and compliance to political leaders, as the country continued to disintegrate through bad leadership and poor governance.
The youth conveyed the unambiguous message that there are moments in every country’s history when citizens would rise to shout: “Enough is enough”.
Regardless of how the protests ended, the Buhari government remains blameworthy essentially because of its attitude and the way it failed to respond to simmering anger in the public domain. This was obvious before, during, and after the protests. #EndSARS protests marked a point of no return, a moment in which ordinary citizens felt they could no longer hold back their anger and could no longer be ignored.
The protests signified the high point of accumulated anger directed at the Buhari government’s apathy to the declining living conditions of citizens, growing insecurity, the brutality of the police special squad and general failure to acknowledge the excesses of law enforcement officials. Complaints over extensive human rights abuses by security forces that should have been dealt with or resolved much earlier were allowed to fester and spread across the country.
Protesters were emboldened by the hopelessness of the environment in which they operate. They were oppressed by economic hardships, suppressed by government agents, abused by law enforcement officials and victimised by the institutions that were set up to look after the welfare and wellbeing of citizens. It is in this context that we should understand why the protesters felt they had nothing to lose by defying gun-wielding security agents.
On the second anniversary of the #EndSARS protests, opinions remain divided on what the demonstrations achieved or how the country has advanced economically and politically from that experience.
On October 20, 2021, during the one-year anniversary of the shooting of demonstrators at Lekki Tollgate, The Guardian newspaper commented in an editorial: “Indeed, the well coordinated #EndSARS protesters in Lagos began with five demands from the Federal Government. They wanted the release of all prisoners of conscience, justice and compensation for all victims of SARS, independent investigation of police brutality, training and good salary for policemen. With the government initially ignoring the civil protesters as mere irritants, the demonstration grew like wildfire that spread across 100 cities in Nigeria, including the north and overseas. By then, the agitation had snowballed into disenchantment against insecurity, poverty, unemployment and irresponsible leadership across the board.”
Unfortunately, in the manner of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that lost impetus, focus and energy, and disappeared from public consciousness, the #EndSARS protests did not quite achieve most of the demands listed by the protesters. On this point, The Guardian noted in that editorial: “But the rampaging insincerity to the entire cause of EndSARS protest still sticks out as a sore thumb… Besides the proscription of SARS, agencies of the state have been acting infamously to discredit the peaceful protests, rubbish the basis for panels of inquiry, scuttle reconciliation of public confidence in the state and security forces and leave the country with a grim epilogue a year after.”
Good or bad, what the #EndSARS protests showed was that one act of provocation was enough to trigger public anger and popular protests directed at security forces and state officials. This was exemplified in the 2011 Arab uprisings that swept through Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. The lessons are numerous. Government officials must never treat ordinary citizens as people who could be fooled easily. Every citizen has a voice that must be expressed and heard, no matter how grating or irritating or offensive those voices might sound.
The unpleasant events of October 2020 should inspire all citizens to aim carefully to elect a President in 2023 who would carry the nation along in tackling the economic, political, social, infrastructural and other challenges that confront the country.
Undeniably, the #EndSARS demonstrations awakened public consciousness to, and the citizens’ understanding of, their rights. Moving forward, Nigerian politicians and government leaders have no reason to ignore the citizens. Every person is equal before the law. It is this fundamental right of the Nigerian people that has been abused repeatedly by various governments since independence.
The underlying message from the #EndSARS’ protests is clear. National leaders are not all-knowing. They do not have the divine right or mandate of the people to govern irresponsibly or anyhow they wish. The misleading assumption that citizens could not challenge the authority of political leaders and the frivolous idea that what national leaders say must be taken as law no longer holds or carries weight.