In 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad was set up by the Commissioner for Police to curb a spate of armed robberies in Nigeria. By 2009 it had become a large and powerful unit, and its focus expanded beyond armed robbers to internet fraudsters. It had also become largely uncontrolled.
Members of the unit were allowed to carry guns, drive unmarked cars and operate without badges or uniform. They became known for their violent harassment of innocent young Nigerians. They also forced young Nigerians to withdraw money from ATMS and make transfers under duress.
There are numerous examples of people who have been raped, harassed, flogged, extorted, injured or killed by the unit. In 2016 a campaign was launched calling for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad to be disbanded. It became widespread and drew some attention. Within three years the unit had been reformed, overhauled, decentralized and disbanded about three or four times. But without success.
In October the first protests started against the infamous police squad. Mostly young Nigerians gathered in the front of the House of Assembly in Lagos State to demand the end of the unit. Within days, thousands of protesters had gathered in 100 cities around the world, with the #EndSARS trending globally. The government announced on October 11 that, yet again, it was disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. But the protesters have not let up. They are now calling for wider reforms of the police.
The protest is not just about the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. It’s the result of pent-up anger over the dehumanizing policies of government, maladministration, injustice, hunger as well as high energy and fuel prices.
The cumulative effect of these roll into one. That’s why the protesters have refused to end their action. It seems this is seen as a once in a lifetime opportunity to address critical national injustices.
This generation of young Nigerians seem to be doing a good job. There is good coordination, arrangements are made for food and water as well as music to keep them busy. Medical personnel on standby, ambulances and mobile toilets for convenience are also provided. Nigeria is said to be the poverty capital of the world. Yet young Nigerians have been protesting for over a week across the country without looting shops. They have ensured that the streets are cleaned after the day’s protest and that there’s no violence or lawlessness.
Another key factor that makes this protest unique is the use of social media. The way this has helped mobilize protesters is unprecedented. Over 70% of the population is under 30 years of age. Unemployment stood at 21.7 million in the second quarter of 2020. The youth account for 13.9 million of this.
Young Nigerians are, therefore, most affected by government policies that have led to lack of jobs and meaningful sources for livelihood. Other triggers include the lavish lifestyle of political leaders. The government budgets more money for the members of the National Assembly than for health and education.
One takeaway lesson is that a new social contract is being written. Nigerians are creating a new understanding of how leaders and public servants should relate to citizens. Secondly, the youth are reinventing governance in Nigeria and bringing about a new culture of asserting rights among the citizenry.
The 30% of Nigerian who are adults and have experienced military rule seem to have that etched deep into their psyche. They are afraid of a man in uniform. This has become a part of Nigerians’ conditioning.
However, the youth believe that the men in uniform are meant to serve the citizens and to protect them. It is a different relationship entirely. Young people are more exposed to the fact that things could be better and are ready to take their destiny into their own hands. They want to reinvent the country and to be a better place to live.
Their access to the internet also informs their action. They are able to reach the world from their bedroom.
The history and experience Nigeria had during the military era doesn’t resonate as much with young Nigerians. But, they must have read history and are, therefore, not unfamiliar with the past. But they have proven not to be deterred by the use of force of any kind.
For years, Nigeria has been ruled by leaders who are quite elderly. These have not succeeded in finding solutions to the nation’s challenges. Corruption and hunger are rife. It is obvious that young Nigerians feel alienated and are now ready to take the bull by the horns and ensure good governance.
Politicians and leaders are waking up to a new politically conscious society. Take the comment from Chairman Nigeria’s Governors Forum, Kayode Fayemi of Ekiti State; “various state governments are beginning to see how important it is to have a good relationship with young people. Given the awakening of this new political consciousness, it will not be business as usual for the country’s political leaders”.
The #EndSARS protest started as we might actually be at the threshold of a prolonged agitation that may likely blow the wind of sweeping changes that are long overdue. Should the protest continue, government will require a careful and strategic approach to manage the situation. The spontaneous nature of the protest in many states across the country should get government strategists and handlers thinking.
The most difficult protest to contain or control is a protest without faces or coordinators. Therefore, extreme caution is needed to manage this delicate moment. Employing intimidation, repression or confrontation may escalate the already tensed situation.
Some people are of the opinion that since the government is yielding to the demands of the protesters, they should calm down and allow for the implementation of their demands. But there’s lack of trust and confidence in the government that it will do what it promised. Until evident actions are seen, there may be no end to the protest
Also, the swift change of the name from SARS to SWAT at the peak of the protest is ill-timed, ill-advised and suspicious. The hasty action may the youths longer on the streets as #EndSWAT trends.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration should learn from other countries where similar nationwide protests have rocked their spaces in the past. Our government should study how they managed the situation and successfully navigated their ways through.