Late one evening at the beginning of October, members of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad were filmed shooting a young man in a hotel car park. They had stopped him on suspicion of being a ‘Yahoo-Yahoo boy’, an internet scammer. The footage circulated on social media with the hashtag #EndSARS and on 8 October people took to the streets in several cities. As usual, the government over-reacted, and up to ten people were killed by the ‘regular’ police.
But on the fourth day of protests, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the disbandment of SARS, promised to address the ‘genuine concerns and agitations … about the excessive use of force and in some cases extrajudicial killings’, and offered assurances that ‘all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts’ will be ‘brought to justice’. The protesters weren’t interested. Only two years ago, Buhari’s government set up a judicial commission of inquiry to make recommendations for reforming SARS. As with other such reports on Nigeria’s many failings, it has yet to be made public. The demonstrators want radical reform of the entire structure of government.
According to Amnesty International, most victims of SARS brutality ‘are young men between the ages of 18 and 35, poor and from vulnerable groups’. Most of the protesters are from the same demographic. Twenty per cent of the Nigerian population are aged between 15 and 24 (40 per cent are younger than that). More than half of these 40 million young people are reckoned to be under or unemployed in an economy that was tanking even before the Covid-19 pandemic drove down the price of crude, our main foreign exchange earner by a long way (95 per cent of exports).
Worse yet is the disparity between an obscenely wealthy minority and a hungry majority. Half the population are reckoned to be living in extreme poverty, while the country’s four billionaires have a combined wealth of more than $20 billion. Two years ago a senator revealed that law-makers were supplementing their $2000 salaries with $37,500 expenses a month (and that’s before kickbacks).
‘What have I benefited from this country since I was born?’ a protester asked. A good question, but there is more to it than that. Being young is necessarily a disadvantage in a gerontocracy where respect for ‘duly constituted authority’ is an imperative. Any challenge to the elders – invariably male – is immediately perceived as a threat, no matter how innocuous. ‘How does having a tattoo on my arm make me a criminal?’ a former SARS victim asked. They target people with dreadlocks and piercings too. Under the 2014 Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act, the ‘public show’ of a ‘same sex amorous relationship’ can land you with ten years in jail. ‘They randomly roam around the streets and pick up feminine-seeming boys, and even straight-passing men,’ writes Matthew Blaise, an LGBTQ+ activist who uploaded a video of himself at a rally that has been watched three million times:
They go through their phones, violating their privacy. When they see queer content, these people are beaten, extorted, assaulted, and even after this they are still outed to their loved ones … There is a revolution happening. And in a revolution, we don’t care what our oppressors care or think.
It is tempting to believe that the current protests, which show no sign of abating (on the contrary), are the harbinger of the radical changes we need to make if we are to prevent this country – a patchwork foreign creation of many ethnicities, languages and religions – from falling apart. The most obvious is the long called-for devolution that would allow the regions to manage their own resources, instead of an oppressive top-down structure in which all power is concentrated at the centre, with no allegiance to anything but its own pocket.
I am far from alone in admiring the protesters’ growing sense of their own inherent power, gaining in confidence with every passing day. Their dignity and self-possession mock the shamelessness of those who have so carelessly squandered their future; and at the same time they are asking how we could have allowed this state of affairs to prevail, six decades after independence. The rallies are not rowdy. The protesters give food and drink even to the security operatives, they repair vehicles damaged by area boys trying to cause confusion, and they clean up after themselves. Not a single shop has been looted. They are rumoured to have received donations of up to 70 million naira ($180,000) and have set up a radio station, Sòrò Sókè (Speak Up).
A number of state governors have lately been seen siding with ‘the people’ – even, in one case, leading a protest on a motorbike, as his many suited aides ran to keep up. The 77-year-old president, meanwhile, a former military dictator who once said that his wife’s place was in the kitchen and the ‘other room’ (even repeating it at a press conference with Angela Merkel), announced the formation of a new SARS in a different uniform. It was to be called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), perhaps because somebody in Aso Rock, the seat of power (at least for now), was enamoured of the American acronym, but it revealed Buhari’s cluelessness about what is happening in the country. This was followed by rumours that the internet might be shut down (although the protesters seemed prepared for that), and a press release from the army declaring itself ready ‘to fully support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order’, and warning its rank and file not to be ‘distracted by anti-democratic forces and agents of disunity’. More pertinent was a witness in Kogi State:
Yesterday … a politician carried vigilante to where the protesters were, it turned into a brawl, one of them wanted to set gun na so boys rush gun commot from the nigga hand o. Useless youth, instead of joining us in protest to salvage his future, he was busy doing maiguard [servant].
In short, enough is enough.