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Nigeria: Has the #EndSARS movement come to an end?

By 'Tofe Ayeni
Posted on Wednesday, 9 June 2021 15:41

A protester is detained by police officers following a planned protest at the Lekki Toll Plaza In Lagos Nigeria, Saturday, Feb. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

The American #BlackLivesMatter (BLM) movement picked up its pace internationally in 2020 following the death of George Floyd. A few months later, Nigeria's #EndSARS campaign also flooded social media waves. In both instances, the second round is what finally brought about some changes that have even been applauded. But at the end of the day, has anything really changed?

On 20 April 2021, former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murder and manslaughter in the George Floyd case.

Many celebrated this as a win for the #BlackLivesMatter (#BLM) movement but Tiana Day – an activist and founder of nonprofit ‘Youth Advocates for Change’ – says: “It is a big step in the right direction, [but] at the end of the day there are still thousands of innocent black people killed for nothing.”

“There is so much more to do in order to achieve liberation for black people, and the equity we are fighting for,” she tells The Africa Report.

In the midst of Covid-19, George Floyd’s murder on 25 May 2020 brought back mass protests throughout the US and globally. The need to stamp out the historical and endemic murder of African-Americans by local police forces took precedence over the pandemic.

There are parameters to use to judge failures or successes of a government. Governments exist to protect people. The Nigerian government has done the opposite of that.

Later that year, Nigerians also retook to the streets through the #EndSARS movement, (first round was in 2017) to demonstrate against police brutality.

Five days after Nigeria celebrated its 60th independence anniversary on 1 October 2020, a leaderless protest against police brutality took place, galvanised by the youth and a feminist coalition.

READ MORE Nigeria at 60 

The protests stopped after 20 October 2020, when the military and police officers shot and killed unarmed protesters in Lagos. A judicial panel was formed to look into the atrocities, but to date, their findings have not been made public. The infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) has not been disbanded, and on the surface, it appears nothing has changed.

There are debates as to whether social movements enlighten people universally or are culture-specific. Day says: “The work is very similar through intersections of social justice. We’re all fighting for justice; they [different social movements] do relate in a way.”

Although the guilty verdict in Chauvin’s case was a positive step, it would be premature to conclude that the BLM social movement is a success and the struggle for justice has come to an end. The same applies to the #EndSARS campaign which is no longer visible on the streets, but is still on-going.

But the real question is, how can a social movement be deemed successful?

Why #BLM got global recognition

The #BLM movement made waves when it first emerged in 2013, however, it gained more traction after its comeback in 2020, breaking through the stillness of the pandemic.

Some argue that there are various theoretical and philosophical explanations as to why #BLM outdid all other movements last year, but one major reason is simply that it originated in the US.

Like it or not, the American culture remains one of the most popular, especially given the political strength of the US in the international scene. What happens in the US receives global attention and critique.

On the other hand, #EndSARS – a movement that began in a country with not as much global influence – was in the beginning only recognised in Nigeria and a few cities around the world – meaning support was also minimal.

Lack of national support?

One can also argue that #EndSARS did not take off as it could have due to lack of national support. When the movement began, people took to the streets in other parts of Nigeria, but the campaign gained most of its momentum in the commercial capital Lagos. Perhaps this is why there was not much uproar across the country after protesters were shot.

It could also be attributed to the daily grind. In Nigeria, insecurity is not unusual, and people often react to such incidents by taking matters into their own hands. Regional governors have been unable to tackle insecurity in their regions without the help of the federal government, which seems unwilling or incapable of finding solutions.

For example:

  • A rise in separatist movements, such as the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) – who have been calling for Biafra to be an independent state for the last 50 years.
  • In the north of the country, the terrorist group Boko Haram continues to wreak havoc: from suicide bombings to kidnappings.
  • There are also constant clashes (that have become increasingly more violent and deadly) between the north and south via the herders and farmers.
  • Even in Lagos, a state notorious for ignoring occurrences around the country, kidnappings and armed robbery have become commonplace, with paramilitary men often seen on the streets in broad daylight – with the intent of offering protection to citizens, but instead instilling fear.

At first glance

During the initial phase of last year’s protests, Nigeria’s Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo appeared to support, if not the #ENDSARS movement, then at least the disbanding of SARS.

Addressing State House journalists in early October, he said: “I think it is a good moment for the police force and for all of us to try and reform the police. We are all committed to it.”

However, when asked whether the government would meet the actual demands of the protesters, he said: “I think the most important thing is that SARS has been disbanded and that the IGP has also committed to ensuring that it is not only disbanded, but whatever takes its place has the full participation of civil society groups and all other stakeholders.”

The day after the ‘Lekki massacre’, Osinbajo tweeted: “My heart goes out to all victims of the Lekki shootings, and also the policemen and all other men and women who lost their lives in the past few days in different parts of Lagos and other states.”

Actions will always speak louder than words, and in that very instance, his words were met by a deafening silence when no action was taken to find answers on who ordered the military and police to open fire on the unarmed protesters.

Has there truly been no change?

In February 2021, the Lagos State government announced plans to reopen the Lekki Toll Gate – one of the main locations where unarmed protesters were killed. But protesters immediately went back to the streets.

Since the massacre took place, the government has given no response to inquiries made into the killings. As such, protesters feel no justice has been served, and so the toll gate – what has now become a symbol for the protests – remains non-operational.

Following the pandemic, protests no longer take place and it appears that people have gone back to ‘business as usual’. However, it would be presumptuous to conclude that no one cares anymore.

Nigeria is a hard country to live in for many people, especially now with the struggling economy (further exasperated by Covid-19 and drop in oil prices), high unemployment rate, and high levels of insecurity. As a result, the youth cannot continue to protest when it is clear the government can use force to kill the very people it is supposed to protect.

Lawyer Moe Odele gained social media popularity when she assembled a group of lawyers to help peaceful protesters who had been arrested. To date, she is still representing #EndSARS protesters. The fight continues behind the scenes.

Earlier in the year, she told The Africa Report that: “#EndSARS set out to voice out the frustrations of Nigerians against a particular unit of the police that had gone rogue; it did that. Whether the government reacts and does the right thing is upon them. If anyone is failing here, it is the government, not the movement.”

And given that none of the demands from the protests have been met, the movement is unlikely to die out. Instead, much like #BLM, the #EndSARS campaign will likely bounce back and reach different levels, should further atrocities take place.

How effective were cyber warfare attacks on #End SARS?

One common factor that has emerged from social movements has been the democratising effect of social media. The mere fact that movements are now measured by the popularity of a hashtag speaks volumes. In the case of Nigeria, it has helped maintain momentum and ensure that voices are heard.

But with every advancement in the name of social justice, the government often finds a way to outdo it. In the midst of the #EndSARS protests, the Nigerian army began a nationwide cyber warfare exercise dubbed ‘Crocodile Smile VI’ – to identify, track, and counter negative propaganda on social media.

The army announced that the project would run from October to December 2020, but not much came out of it at the time. However, Twitter – a popular platform among Nigerian protesters – was banned in Nigeria by President Buhari on 5 June. The move was deemed a major step towards authoritarianism and control of free speech.

Prior to the ban, Buhari had released a series of threatening tweets on 1 June in response to ongoing violence in Imo State. One of the tweets that said: “Many of those misbehaving today are too young to be aware of the destruction and loss of lives that occurred during the Nigerian Civil War [in which Buhari himself served as a commander]. Those of us in the fields for 30 months, who went through the war, will treat them in the language they understand” caused uproar.

Twitter deleted the post, and Buhari’s response was to ban the social media giant from operating in the country.

Bottom line

Social movements such as #BLM and #EndSARS are protests against systematic injustices, even though their impetus is often provoked by a particular incident. Therefore, until the system changes, social movements such as these will continue to pop up, in varying degrees, no matter what obstacle are put in their way.

As Odele said: “There are parameters to use to judge failures or successes of a government. Governments exist to protect people. The Nigerian government has done the opposite of that.” The same can be said for the US government in relation to African-Americans.

Members of the feminist coalition no longer grant interviews to media platforms, and therefore could not contribute to this article.

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