Nigeria is targeting youth protesting police brutality
Young people staged a generation's greatest anti-government rebellion, sparked by relentless police violence. Rattled, leaders vow reforms, then use authoritarian methods, big and small.
LAGOS, Nigeria—politicians Nigeria's have shown a response to the demands of a huge youth-led revolt over police violence that recently brought the world to a halt and caught global attention.
The administration commissioned police brutality panels and the president vowed to disband the notoriously violent police force known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS.
Although at the same time, protestors believe the government is undertaking a targeted campaign against people affiliated with the rebellion to intimidate, obstruct and smash the movement—to undermine whatever good will the government hoped to create.
"They persecute nonviolent, and frankly very patriotic, young people," said Chidi Odinkalu, Africa's senior manager at the Open Society Justice Initiative.
Nigeria—the most populous country in Africa—was upset last month by an insurrection that developed into the government's greatest widespread resistance in years. The protests started as an outrage against the SARS police unit, but became a bigger rebellion over poor governance.
The government introduced a two-pronged policy to try to avert the controversy. It has sought to convince people to listen to the protesters — commission investigation committees and declare disbanding SARS. Yet it simultaneously uses its authority to repress and bully protestors by tossing many people in prison and threatening some in big and small ways.
One indication of the government's two-faced attitude was on view in a crowded hearing room in Lagos overlooking the beach, where a jury was scheduled to host a police brutality hearing.
Two young feminists were asked to attend the protest panel. But the youth panelists boycotted the hearing because Nigeria's Central Bank had just seized one of them's bank account, saying it was linked to terrorists. In recent weeks at least 20 campaigners and organisations have frozen Central Bank accounts.
"How do I ask my country's people for better governance, for an end to police brutality," said Bolatito Olorunrinu, one of the youth panelists, a 22-year-old student at Lagos State University, "and my government turns to brand me as a terrorist? It's saddened."
Warned of threats to their life, some high-profile movement activists identified by the hashtag #EndSARS have concealed or fled the country. There was a media uproar when Modupe Odele, a prosecutor supporting the demonstrators, said the airport seized her visa. She claims traveling was prohibited, but her passport was recently restored.
Earlier this month, the country's chief police officer said his agents had arrested over 1,500 people before and during the demonstrations accused of engaging in violence.
The government moved to use its powers to stop the protest. Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, outlawed marches. Strong state governors in the north last week called for social media surveillance, which had played a decisive role in mobilizing the marches.
Like the U.S. Black Lives Matter campaign, #EndSARS was triggered by online police brutality videos exposing a decades-long cycle of violence. Just like the demonstrators behind the Arab Spring, youth used social media to organize demonstrations on a scale that terrified officials unused to power.
Muhammadu Buhari is Nigeria's democratically-elected civilian president. But in the 1980s, he was the military dictator of the world, with a discipline fondness—famously requiring late civil servants to work for frog hops.
Despite attempting to convince young people last month that their voices were heard "loud and simple," his pronouncements emerged as high-handed and disingenuous. Nigerians are suspicious of showing through his oppressive tendencies, General Buhari's side.
The military was deployed on the site of a long-running peaceful #EndSARS protest in Lekki, an affluent Lagos city, shortly after sunset. Floodlights halted. And soldiers started firing.
How many people died that night is still unclear, but a famous disk jockey who broadcasted the shooting live on her Instagram — Obianuju Catherine Udeh, identified as DJ Switch — said she saw at least fifteen dead bodies and that security forces took them away. Amnesty International said at least 12 dead police and troops.
Nigerian security services brutality is nothing new. In the northeast, home to Boko Haram terrorist group, soldiers and babies and locked up kids raped children. In the capital, Abuja, and neighboring Kaduna, Shiite minority demonstrators were killed.
Yet #EndSARS drew influencers of social media, artists, Nollywood celebrities, and reality TV stars. The Lekki event attracted international criticism, including from Joseph R. Biden and Beyoncé, president-elect.
"Shooting demonstrators in Kaduna's relative backwaters is one thing," Odinkalu said. "Shooting demonstrators under Lagos' clear gaze is another matter. Higher democratic implications."
The Lekki shooting was one of the topics Lagos investigated before it was boycotted over the frozen bank account. Adesina Ogunlana, a lawyer who appeared at the hearing and said he represented the #EndSARS campaign, likened Lekki shootings to tinko, a kind of sun-dried Nigerian beef.
"Small looks. But when you put it in your mouth, it gets bigger. Goes higher. Gets larger," Mr. Ogunlana said at last week's hearings, holding a well-thumbed copy of "David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell, nibbling bitter kola to fortify.
Lekki was just one case of violence, "but involving the military, involving the Lagos state government," he said. "Sure, it includes thousands and thousands of young Nigerians."
At last month's Lagos inquiry, the panel heard a businessman testify that SARS police hurled him from a two-story building in 2018, breaking his neck. They witnessed a parent being tortured for 47 days by SARS operatives accusing him of robbery.
Lawyers who have served on many such lawsuits cannot mention a single instance where a security force suspect was disciplined or charged.
Wherever it can, analysts claim, the government followed #EndSARS demonstrators instead. But this wasn't easy, since the campaign had few readily recognizable founders.
"No oga," or big boss, Jola Ayeye said recently on the popular podcast she co-hosts.
As the #EndSARS demonstrations waned, the news started circulating that state governments were hiding food donated by some of Nigeria's richest people that could have been distributed to their poorest to support them during the pandemic lockdown.
Many Nigerians believe that governors kept supplies to hand them over while they wanted political help.
This sent more street waves around the world. People broke into factories, bringing rice sacks and noodle cartons. Even people ruined land.
Then arrests arrived.
"They rounded up the streets with no proof, nothing. Lots of people in prison," said Yemi Adamolekun, Enough Is Enough Nigeria's executive director, a non-profit supporting democratic government and transparency. "Significantly increased police violence."
Now that the demonstrations ended the streets are back to life.
In Surulere, an old Lagos suburb, traffic queues replaced demonstration crowds flapping the national green and white flag. Hawkers are back outside the shop, selling mock coral beads and books offering the keys to collect money. Residents are no longer afraid to venture to avoid a bullet.
But in a world where mainly wealthier, wealthier men rule a population with an average age of 18 and an annual real income of $2,200, now that the youth have learned the strength of their protest muscle, they say they might use it again.
"You can't say what will cause another rally," said Ariyo-Dare Atoye, Nigerian Democracy and Constitution Coalition's convener.
"People will have incentive to do so again," he added, when the government was given ample time to respond to the problems.