Nigeria’s Revolt

Since October, protests against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad have brought tens of thousands onto the streets and deluged Twitter with stories of police brutality, under the #EndSARS hashtag. But though this upheaval received widespread global coverage and international celebrity support, in the Western media it was largely cast as an African variant of Black Lives Matter. Few attempts were made to situate it within the broader history of Nigerian struggles against the corrupt ruling bloc and its kleptocratic economic order. Domestically, the protests have been variously characterized as an uprising, an insurrection, the start of a revolution, an outpouring of anarchic rage; but #EndSARS is a fragmentary resistance, not a singular movement, and its actors cannot be easily classified as a homogeneous group. With a second phase of mobilizations now underway amid a vicious crackdown by the Buhari government, how best to understand the movement, both its structural conditions and political character? How might it compare to previous struggles; and what of its prospects?

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was founded in 1992 under General Babangida’s military dictatorship. This was in the context of an upsurge in armed robbery, as Nigeria’s urban-slum populations soared under the impact of the structural-adjustment programmes imposed by the generals and IMF. The squad has long been notorious for extortion, extra-judicial killings, corruption and torture. It operates with impunity. Typical victims are young men between 15 and 35 from low-income backgrounds, but SARS also targets middle-class youth – online platforms abound with stories of abuse and demands to abolish the unit. Following a video of officers shooting a young man in Delta State on 3 October this year, the demand to #EndSARS went viral. The hashtag had been circulating for years, but it had never sparked the kind of explosion that followed. When another report surfaced of officers killing a twenty-year-old musician, protests in Rivers State garnered national attention. Encouraged by Nigerian celebrities – Afro-popstars Wizkid and footballer Odion Jude Ighalo, along with a host of online influencers – crowds began to assemble outside the state governor’s mansion in Lagos. From there, protests spread to smaller cities and rural towns, eventually spilling across the border into neighbouring West African countries, and eliciting solidarity actions in North America, Europe and Oceania.

In response, on 11 October the government announced that SARS would be dissolved and replaced by SWAT, a Special Weapons and Tactics unit. But this rebranding exercise did little to stem the discontent. Protests continued, undeterred when bands of thugs – widely believed to be sponsored by the government – began to create chaos with the aim of discrediting the movement. When that tactic failed, the Buhari regime sent in the Army. Twelve unarmed protesters were shot dead by the military in Lagos on 20 October in what has become known as the Lekki Tollgate massacre. Nationally, 38 were killed that night, with many more injured and arrested. The upshot was to trigger another round of street protests, in parallel with riots and vandalism across the country. Notably, rioters broke into the stores where foodstuffs supposedly intended for the population during the Covid crisis were being hoarded by the authorities – rice, garri, sugar, salt, noodles. Police stations and hospitals were torched. Military repression was stepped up. Protest organizers had their bank accounts frozen and passports invalidated.

Muhamma du Buhari, a former general, ran in the 2015 election as a ‘born-again democrat’, winning a second victory in 2019, but his repressive response to the protests instead recalls his years as Nigeria’s military dictator in the early 1980s. Aloof, rarely communicating with the public, his reaction has exposed the systemic entanglement of politicians and police – the former often reliant on the latter to harass opponents and crush dissent. When Buhari announced on 7 December that ‘any act of hooliganism hiding behind lawful peaceful protests will be dealt with decisively’, the Nigerian political scientist Jibrin Ibrahim responded with a more accurate characterization: ‘law enforcement will sponsor hooligans and deal with peaceful protesters.’

Though a product of Nigeria’s dysfunctional democracy and economic disparities, the movement’s form has in large part been determined by the country’s divided oppositional forces. Historically, it is striking for being the first nationwide popular mobilization with no trade-union involvement. Since the 1980s, the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) had been at the forefront of opposition and democracy movements, not least in protests against the ending of fuel subsidies. Between 1999 and 2007, it called six effective general strikes, with notable success in resisting deregulation and passing legislation through collective bargaining. When the Goodluck Jonathan regime attempted to cut fuel subsidies in 2012, the NLC called another nationwide walkout. By now however, there were clear signs that the trade-union movement had lost touch with civil society – particularly its younger politicized layers. The protests brought a wider swathe of radicalized youth to the street, opportunistically supported by opposition politicians like Buhari. But while the unions saw it as simply another strike, the youth saw it differently. They were not willing to let the NLC dictate the terms of their struggle. Many questioned the organization’s representational legitimacy, accusing it of taking bribes and collaborating with the authorities to end the protests prematurely. The result has been a split between organized labour and a new generation of dissidents, one that has yet to heal. When I spoke to various activists in Abuja, Lagos and Port Harcourt, they were unanimous in their distrust for the unions.

The backdrop for this previous wave of popular resistance, known as Occupy Nigeria, was the country’s long period of oil-led economic growth. The present one, by contrast, has unfolded during the dual crises of a global oil slump – hitting petro-dependent Nigeria with particular force – and the Covid-19 recession. Poverty and inequality have been progressively worsening since the return to electoral democracy in 1999. Unemployment and inflation are skyrocketing, while incomes are in decline. Forty per cent of Nigerians live below the poverty line. The public health and education systems are a shambles, while the elite typically seek medical treatment in London or Saudi Arabia and send their children to private schools abroad. The current conflagration is inseparable from the political-economic system of extreme inequality and violence that plagues Nigeria. In the words of radical lawyer Adesina Ogunlana, it is ‘a metaphor about everything wrong in Nigeria, and not just a unit of the Nigerian police’.

In this new conjuncture, the Buhari government’s own move to slash fuel subsidies and increase electricity tariffs, in September of this year, provoked a wave of anger: the inflationary effect of fuel-price rises on other goods has devastating consequences for workers and poor households. Yet the NLC dragged its feet, only announcing a general strike after an extended period of prevarication, when activists picketed its Abuja headquarters. In another novel development, the government initiated negotiations with the unions before the strike was scheduled to begin. No sooner had the NLC entered these talks than it declared its intention to halt industrial action and accept the subsidy cut in exchange for a few trivial concessions, including tax exemptions for minimum-wage workers. This was considered a historic betrayal: resisting fuel subsidies through social alliances has been the centrepiece of the unions’ resistance to neoliberalization for over three decades. #EndSARS – a movement without leaders, and which rejects negotiations with the authorities as a road to corruption – erupted a week later. The ossified labour movement was subsequently forced to change course: at the beginning of December the NLC reversed its line on electricity prices and declared that the strike was back on.  

This leaderless, inchoate movement is also distinguished by its predominantly youthful composition, a product of the country’s generationally inflected politics. Nigeria has a young population – over 40 per cent are under 14 – but its gerontocratic political structures are dominated by figures from the pre-1999 dictatorships. Although youth campaigners won a legislative battle in 2019 to lower age limits for candidates contesting elections by five years, this reform was largely immaterial, as the cost of entering politics remains prohibitive for most young people. Among those under 34 years of age, 35 per cent are unemployed and a further 28 per cent are under-employed. Buhari has only exacerbated the alienation of this demographic, describing them as entitled, uneducated, lazy and uniquely disposed to crime. As Tarila Ebiede observed in the Washington Post, ‘tech-savvy’ twentysomethings are now pitted against the ‘clientelist or patronage driven oil economy’, whose dividends have failed to trickle down. The movement against SARS can thus be seen as, among other things, an unprecedented kick against the oil economy. Yet this picture of an old petro-establishment rattled by a green youthquake needs some qualification: the government-sponsored thugs are also drawn from this younger cohort, along with the militants (including armed gangs and religious cultists) in the Niger Delta. Their warm relationship with local politicians embeds them in the oil-fuelled patronage structures that have failed their fellow millennials, creating significant obstacles to youth solidarity.

Nigerian politics also remains profoundly patriarchal, but in this recent movement young women have taken their place on the front line, radicalized by earlier engagements and a recent feminist re-emergence. Activists like Aisha Yusufu, a leader of the 2014 #BringBackOurGirls campaign (aimed at rescuing the hostages of Boko Haram), and organizations like the 2020 Feminist Coalition, have rallied to the struggle against police brutality. The latter organized crowdfunding for medical and legal support, turning to bitcoins when their bank account was frozen.

As in earlier protests, immediate demands have been mixed with calls to deepen democracy, end corruption and improve social welfare. This programme has enabled it to transcend the traditional dividing-lines in Nigerian politics – religious, regional and ethnic (the country is almost evenly split between Christians and Muslims, as well as hosting over 250 ethnic groups with strongholds in different states). But in contrast to the NLC-led struggles, these myriad players have been brought into an avowedly ‘classless’ coalition. The historic fuel-subsidy protests adopted the language of the radical left, using social injustice as the crux around which systemic corruption and democratic deficits were discussed. At their heart was the conception of fuel subsidies as a meagre but essential form of social welfare, derived from the country’s vast petroleum resources. #EndSARS, on the other hand, was initiated by relatively well-off Lagos protesters and amplified by social-media celebrities, who have wished to restrict its demands to democratic reforms and a functional police force.

This latest movement has undoubtedly expanded the Nigerian youth’s sense of agency and political imagination, amid conditions of widespread poverty. Its minimum demands include re-training the police, releasing protesters and salary rises to end endemic corruption. The government is currently undertaking a police salary review, and judicial panels for victims of the squad have been established in most of the 36 Nigerian states. Yet it remains to be seen how far this will contribute towards building an effective left-democratic opposition. Those who tried to steer the movement towards social issues have been told to stick to the core message; some more experienced activists from the radical student movements of the 1980s and 1990s – taking on the military junta – have decided, or have been asked, to step back this time around. A cluster of organizations on the Nigerian left though have been mobilizing. Of note are the Take It Back network, which helped establish the African Action Congress (AAC) as a political party in 2018, and their united-front organization CORE (Coalition for Revolution). The radical journalist Omoyele Sowore, a student activist from the 1990s and founder of Sahara Reporters, the go-to site for the 2012 protests, was the AAC’s presidential candidate in the 2019 elections. He was arrested in a massive security operation mounted to suppress CORE’s #RevolutionNow protests of August 2019. Since then, the AAC has begun coordinating with community organizations across the country – supporting striking workers and citizens fighting inflated energy bills – as Baba Aye has reported for Africa Is a Country.

Given the widespread distrust of Nigeria’s state institutions, the organizations and campaigns clustered around the police reform movement will continue to operate mainly outside of party politics; but they may nonetheless have an influence on the elections in 2023. Here, the events of 2012 offer a precedent – and a warning. Both establishment parties in the 2015 election parroted the language of the streets, running on slogans of ‘change’ and ‘transition’. Buhari and his party, APC, benefited greatly from his positioning against subsidy cuts and corruption – his victory marked the first time an incumbent had been ousted by a presidential challenger. The 2023 elections will most likely see another two-party competition where the contenders adapt their messaging to an emboldened youth movement. The parties may try to recruit new members into their increasingly formalized bureaucratic machinery – without, of course, altering their core centrist-liberal ideologies. Nor will they relinquish their interest in maintaining a kleptocracy shored up by state institutions – the first-past-the-post parliamentary system as much as the Army and police – that descend directly from British colonialism. In the struggle to replace them with structures that are both equitable and accountable, ending SARS will be just a beginning.

Read on: Matthew Gandy’s map of financial insecurity and infrastructural collapse in Lagos.