The protests began two weeks ago when a video went viral on social media showing an officer with the SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) allegedly killing a man in the southern Delta state. For years, the unit has been accused of abuse of power and of committing crimes that it is meant to be stopping, like robberies, killings and kidnappings. Promises to reform the police have been made by authorities since 2016, but protesters say nothing has changed.
Read more: #EndSARS protests expose Nigeria’s fault lines
But this time, an energized youth movement took to the streets and vowed not to back down before substantial change were made. The protests have since spread to many states across Nigeria and are centered in the largest city, Lagos. Supporters have organized on social media, using the hashtag #EndSARS to express their anger.
Nigeria is a very fragmented along ethnic and religious lines. In the northeast, where an Islamist insurgency led by Boko Haram poses a major challenge to peoples’ lives and livelihood, views differ. People there are concerned that if SARS is dissolved, insecurity in the region will become even worse. People living in the area have tried to organize protest supporting SARS, but authorities have banned all demonstrations in Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram.
The authorities have dissolved SARS and put a new unit in place, SWAT, which stands for Special Weapons and Tactics Team. Mohammed Adamu, the inspector general of police, has promised that SWAT members will undergo training to prevent abuse of power. Protesters, however, have said that SWAT has just replaced the old unit, and believe nothing will change.
Protests have continued, with people demanding justice for the victims of police brutality, compensation for their relatives and end to abuse of power on all levels — including the government.
Ahead of the protests on October 20 at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos, a curfew was put in place. Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu issued a statement, calling on “peaceful protesters and residents” to obey the curfew and stay home. With the curfew in place, that essentially meant that everyone who was on the street, including protesters, was there illegally.
Security forces opened fire on the thousands of peaceful protesters at the toll plaza without warning, with rights groups and the United Nations saying that at least 12 people were killed and many injured. Sanwo-Olu said these were forces were beyond his control, pointing out that the military was deployed by President Muhammadu Buhari.
People are in shock, and have taken their anger and sorrow to social media using the hashtags #BlackTuesdayNigeria and #LekkiMassacre. The curfew in Lagos is still in place, and all state institutions are closed for the next three days — except for those providing security.
Read more: Could Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests grow into a movement?
One protester told DW that the protests will continue if their demands are not met and the people who caused the bloodshed in Lagos are not brought to justice. “At this point we are trying to reorganize,” said Wale, who decline to give his full name, as he said all communications are being monitored by the authorities to crack down on protesters. Much will depend on how the curfew influences the dynamic of the ongoing protests, and how protesters are able to organize themselves. From the beginning, #EndSARS supporters have said they do not want to have one leader or a spokesperson. They are concerned that once there is a face attached to the movement, it will make it easier for those in charge to put an end to the protests.
International and local media have been covering the developments since the start, but the dramatic turn at the Lekki toll plaza has put a renewed focus on the situation in Nigeria. The UN and European Union have called for an end to the police brutality, with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urging “security forces to act at all times with maximum restraint.” He also called on protesters “to demonstrate peacefully and to refrain from violence,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement.
The Lagos state governor has promised an investigation “into the orders and the adopted rules of engagement employed by the officers and men of the Nigerian army that were deployed” at the Lekki toll plaza on Tuesday, he wrote on Twitter. By that, he made it clear that he was laying the blame on the army. However, the state is usually informed when the federal government deploys the army on its territory. Protesters have said the governor should have warned them, and offered protection.