Written by: Niels Posthumus
Nigerians have been taking to the streets for over two weeks now. What started as a protest against police brutality has now grown into an outburst of general dissatisfaction with the country’s political elite.
Over the past two weeks, Nigerians have been taking to the streets as part of the #EndSARS-protest. And the movement does not seem to be slowing down anytime soon. It started in early October with nationwide demonstrations against a police unit called SARS. The Special Ant-Robbery Squad, which has been notorious for its violence, harassment, torture and even murder for a long time. But the youth driven protest, backed on social media by the Nigerian diaspora of over 17 million people, didn’t stop there. Lately, they have grown into a far more general outburst of anger about the political elite and its corruption.
The protests kicked off after a video went viral online. The video shows a SARS police officer killing a man in the streets of Lagos and driving off. Established in 1992, SARS was established as a heavily armed police unit to combat violent crime. But over the years it has grown into the symbol of police brutality.
One which has caused much unrest among the Nigerian youth. However as the #EndSARS movement has shown, Africa’s most populous country was unhappy with far more than police brutality alone. Around 60% of Nigeria’s 196 million inhabitants are under the age of 24. And the majority of them of working age do not have formal employment. This year the Nigerian government published statistics which showed that about 40% of all Nigerians live below the poverty line. A sentiment shared by former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo who in 2017 said ‘we are all sitting on a keg of gunpowder’ when it came to the youth in his West African country.
Matters got even worse this year, with the Covid-19 lockdown harming the Nigerian economy severely. And most people failed to see much of the many millions the notoriously corrupt government promised to invest in a recovery plan. Begging the question “Where did that money go?”.
On top of the Covid crisis also came the low global oil price. This has been another substantial problem for the Nigerian government. Led by 77-year-old president Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil exporter. And depends heavily on its oil revenues for its government finances. Which has meant that finding funds for living up to Buhari’s ambitious promises, made during his re-election campaign last year, has been difficult. Next to his promise to improve the security situation, especially with regards to the Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram in the north of the country. Buhari pledged to fight corruption and boost the economy. But instead the Nigerian economy shrunk by more than 6% between April and June alone, compared to the same period last year.
The notion of many Nigerians that their own government and security forces have become ever more the main threat to their security, was proven true when security forces opened fire at various groups of protesters early last week. Particularly the police violence to break out at an #EndSARS-protest. The protest which took place in the Lekki District of the country’s commercial capital Lagos caused much of a domestic and international outcry. According to human rights group Amnesty International at least twelve people were killed by police bullets at the Lekki toll gate. In a speech two days later, on October 22nd, president Buhari admitted that in total 69 people had been killed in the ongoing unrest. Of these 69 were 51 civilian’s, 11 police officers and 7 soldiers.
However, the bloodshed doesn’t seem to scare off the Nigerian youth. The success of their protests in forcing some concessions from government – a promise to disband SARS and wider police reform amongst these – has given them extra confidence. They realize a difference can be made if they remain persistent. A worrying situation for president Buhari, since the economy is not likely to get kick started anytime soon. The ‘keg of gunpowder’ has been ignited. And the only question that remains is not whether it’ll explode, but how loud and lasting the explosion will be.