In his best-selling book 21 Lessons for the 21st Century , historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari explains that the principle of democracy operates on the aphorism that “you can fool some of the people all of the time, you can fool all of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time”. Put differently, at some point the greater majority of the people will wake up, stand up for their rights and make the necessary changes in the system. From various past revolutions and demonstrations to election upsets in which bad leaders have been voted out, this principle has played out over the course of history because majority will always awaken, no matter how long it takes.
This principle is currently playing out in Nigeria where youths have taken to the streets in mass protest; exercising their democratic rights to gather and demonstrate. The protests known as #EndSARS is a demonstration against a rogue unit of the police force which has been synonymous with murder, kidnapping, torture of all kinds, armed robbery and unaccountablity for over 25 years. SARS which stands for Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was established back in 1992 specifically to fight armed robbery in the country. The sad reality is that this same unit has so unabashedly terrorised Nigerians that more citizens have lost their lives to SARS than they have to actual criminals.
The atrocities of the SARS department dates as far back as when they were formed. Emboldened by the fear they have stoked over time, SARS officers have completely abandoned their original duties to extort and rob citizens instead. They prowl the streets in plain clothes, arresting at will, targeting and detaining young men for being “online fraudsters” (on the ‘evidence’ of their owning a laptop or smartphone) and then demanding excessive fees to let them go if at all. Most times, the arrested civilian is tortured to death and carelessly disposed of even before the ransom or fee is paid.
In Nigeria, SARS has become so synonymous with abuse that it is impossible to picture a time when the unit actually delivered on the mandate for which it was set up. Officers have been implicated in widespread documented human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and extortion. SARS detainees who survive whisper horrid tales of living in overcrowded cells and being regularly subjected to methods of torture including hanging, starvations, beatings, shootings and mock executions.
Most of these victims are arrested during random street raids by the unit while watching football matches or drinking at pubs. In one case, a close friend of mine had to jump out of a moving van to escape from them after they had been rounded up and arrested for strolling at night. He sustained various injuries but anyone who heard the story agreed it was very much worth it. If he hadn’t done what he did, we might never have seen him alive again.
The current protests sparked when a video surfaced on Twitter of members of this rogue unit shooting a young unarmed civilian, shoving him out of his own car and driving off in it. Within a few hours, Nigeria youths from all backgrounds coalesced themselves into organised resistance forces with no discernible leader but with immense organisation and logistical support. More than 190,000 young people have signed a petition calling for the U.K. to establish sanctions against the Nigerian government and Nigerians, both within the west African country and across the diaspora, saying “enough is enough”. Funds for the protest to provide food, shelter, medical care, security and all the necessities to ensure that the protests remained peaceful and sustained were set up in a day or two and we have been protesting (on and offline) for the past two weeks.
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Amid the ongoing protests, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that the unit would be disbanded, this made no impression though because we have heard this all before. For context, in 2006 and 2008, presidential committees proposed recommendations for reforming the Nigeria Police all to no avail. Similar incidents took place in 2009, 2010, 2015 and 2017 but to date, no SARS officer has been convicted for torture, ill-treatment of detainees or unlawful killing.
Aside from the aforementioned pledge to disband SARS, President Muhammadu Buhari was notably silent on the protests and violence sweeping the country for days. Since the #EndSARS protests began, people have been killed by the Nigerian armed forces or thugs hired, with about 38 killed on Tuesday. The police have shot tear gas, water cannon and live rounds at protesters across the country. Armed men deposited at the protest grounds by police vans have also disrupted rallies by attacking protesters, burning civilian cars, and forcing the organisers to hire private security to repel the attacks.
On the 20th of October, under the direction of the powers that be, CCTV cameras scattered around Lekki protest grounds were disconnected. Members of the Nigerian army stormed the area that night, allegedly murdering several civilians and grievously injuring many more. Some officers were captured disposing of the corpses while that night, other security agents cracked down on civilians in different parts of Lagos. The Lekki massacre has left the entire nation heartbroken and ranks high on instances of the Nigerian army’s display of ruthlessness and disdain for civilians’ lives.
When he finally addressed the nation a few days ago, the President did his best to politely threaten protesters nationwide. He neither addressed the loss of lives in the Lekki massacre, nor acknowledged any of the extrajudicial killings caught on camera in various parts of the country over the past week.
For most of its history Nigeria has lived under military authoritarian regimes synonymous with the suppression of all protests and demonstrations. Even with the dawn of democracy two decades ago this culture of suppression endured such that by the time Nigerians realised that they could protest, they had forgotten how to. Even though the physical demonstrations across Nigeria are now being cut off by 24-hour government curfews, Nigeria youths have realised that this is the year that they have a common right to protest both as individuals and collectively.
With the concessions made by the government in the last few days, Nigerian youths have come to the realization that it is possible to actually drive change through protest. This is why the protests have expanded beyond just the issue of ending SARS and brutal police brutality and has now expanded to include issues of governance and national reform. This also, is precisely the reason why the government does not want to give in and make far-reaching changes.
The Nigerian government fears for the better standards we might demand tomorrow, should they give in today and so has responded with all these underhanded tactics against the protesters. The Nigerian Army has announced that it will be commencing an exercise known as Crocodile Smile IV which will, for the first time, include cyber warfare and the tracking of internet users in the country. They have said that this has nothing to do with the protests, however the timing is suspicious as it comes at a time when activists have utilised social media as a tool for mainstream awareness and coordination of the protests.
I have written in the past about police brutality in the United States, criminal justice reforms, climate activism and the need for racial justice as a component to environmental justice. This time, I write about police brutality in my own country. Silence is not an option, people are on the streets protesting. Celebrities including Beyonce, Rihanna and Hillary Clinton have all spoken up in support of the protests and we are so grateful for the support shown so far.
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If after reading this you are unsure of how to help, the formula for has been broken down into the 4Ps; protest, pray, post and provide. Put differently, if you can attend demonstrations in support of the protests in Nigeria then please do so. Post on Twitter using the hashtags and if you can, donate through the verified accounts as provided on Twitter. If you believe in a higher power, please make the time to pray for Nigerian youths and for the peaceful resolution of these life-threatening issues.
I am immensely blessed to work with my editor Jennifer Nini, who understands better than most that injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere. She encouraged me to share my feelings on this issue while supporting me wherever she can and for that I am immensely grateful. We are tired of the empty promises of reforms and are fed up with being continuously dehumanised in our own country. We are doing our best to fix a broken system before we even begin to heal from the trauma of it all. I hope you can adopt a similar worldview.
I hope you will stand with us.
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Cover image of #EndSARS protesters in London. Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona.