In October of 2020 however, young Nigerians revolted against entrenched injustice and a rigged political system in a way this nation has never quite seen before.
Reports that yet another young man had been brutalized by police officers in Delta State, sparked nationwide protests that were first spearheaded by celebrities before they were seized on by an army of young Nigerians desperate for change.
For decades, the notorious police unit, SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) cemented a reputation for extra-judicial killings, extortion, profiling and a slew of human rights abuses, with young Nigerians as their main fodder.
When the #EndSARS protesters took to the streets in early October and grounded the Nigerian economy for full measure, they were demanding not just for an end to decades of police brutality, but for a reset of the Nigerian state and better governance from the political elite, going forward.
#EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos
“The #EndSARS movement is the clearest indication yet that whilst majority of Nigerians have logged out of participation in the electoral process – for reasons we can’t begin to expand on here – they very much still care about their survival in the face of police brutality and to a certain extent, the outcomes of governance on their survival,” says writer and blogger, J.J Omojuwa.
Hoodlums and thugs would soon hijack the protests, however. On October 20, 2020, the #EndSARS protests were quashed when soldiers shot into a crowd of peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, just before dark.
Many still believe that the thugs who infiltrated the ranks of the peaceful protesters were hired by government personnel in order to hand the authorities a cast iron reason to impose curfews and take the wind from off the sails of the demonstrators.
Legal practitioner, Ilemona Onoja, disagrees that the #EndSARS protests were “hijacked.” He prefers to use the word “attacked.”
“The #EndSARS protests were not hijacked. They were attacked. First, by hoodlums and thugs sponsored by people with access to the highest levels of power in this country,” says Onoja.
“Then they were attacked by security agents deployed by a government which deliberately refused to see the protest as what it was – a genuine clamour by the citizenry for better policing and an institutionalization of the respect for human rights.
“The actions of the government before, during and after the protest reinforces the belief that made protesters refuse to leave the streets after the #5For5 demands were supposedly met.
Police attack #endsars protesters again in Abuja. (Twitter/ncbn)
“The display of insincerity, hypocrisy and crude illegal force shows that the government has no intention to reform the police and in so doing improve the life and welfare of Nigerians.
“Instead it is desirous of maintaining an oppressive system of policing that violates the constitutional rights and freedoms of the very people that it is supposed to protect in the first place,” he adds.
Long walk to freedom
Among young political analysts, opinions remain divided on whether the protest achieved its aim of resetting Nigeria’s perniciously rigged political system or whether the impact of the protests will manifest in years to come.
“Fighting injustice is not just about righting a wrong, it’s a complete overhaul of the system that enables it and redefines how human lives are prioritized going forward,” says Oluwaseun Ayodeji Osowobi, Executive Director of Stand To End Rape–an NGO.
“Over the years, the SARS unit has operated with impunity; harassing, arresting, extorting and reportedly killing young Nigerians who have been profiled as “fraudsters.”
#EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos
“If young people cannot feel safe in their country especially with a unit created to protect them, what then is the essence of policing? The protests are an awakening to refuse the prolonged violence perpetrated by SARS and redefine what our democracy should look and feel like — safety.
“It reinforces that with a collective voice, we can find strength to push back, demand accountability and wield our power to determine our future. This is in the hope that our interests to dismantle political tyranny will take precedence and we’ll choose leaders that truly represent and prioritize our wellbeing. The fight for social justice is not a sprint, it is a marathon,” she adds.
Adeeko Ademola, an Abuja based digital content creator, says the protests provided a glimmer of hope for his beleaguered nation. “I think that the #EndSARS protests have succeeded in exposing and unravelling Nigerian politicians and the government at all levels for who they really are.
“The overall reaction of Nigerian leaders to the #EndSARS protests have shown not just every other thing we have witnessed so far, but also the callousness of our leaders when it comes to listening to the cries of their followers.
“I believe that going forward, the #EndSARS protest would have created the perfectly needed motivation for Nigerians, especially the young ones, to speak out against bad governance and furthermore, reject bad leaders.
#EndSARS protesters in Alausa, Lagos observe candle light ceremony for victims of police brutality on Friday, October 16, 2020
“I also believe that the protests and the handling of the same by the government will be a reference point towards the 2023 general elections. It has the potential to be a defining moment for Nigeria if the momentum is kept up and going.
“My hopes for a better Nigeria got renewed during the #EndSARS protest basically because of the way and manner young Nigerians mobilised, organised and orchestrated a movement that shook the world in just a few days. I have never witnessed such level of organization within a short period of time especially by a group of people who are deeply divided along ethnic, religious and political lines,” Ademola adds.
However, journalist Ada Ubakala is not so sure that the protests signpost a paradigm shift of any sort in the larger Nigerian polity. “I don’t think that we have achieved that paradigm shift just yet. As young people, we are not ready for the power we say we want. We had legislative bye-elections a couple of weeks after the #EndSARS protests and not many young people knew elections were being held, let alone participate in the process.
“We still need to develop and harness our political strategy before we can say we are ready to take over from the thieving political class,” she adds.
#EndSARS protesters in Abuja
Civil Rights Leader/Human Rights Advocate and President/Founder of SIAF (Social Intervention Advocacy Foundation), Segun Awosanya, says the “protests have been a painful catalyst and watershed.
“As we heal the nation, we must heal our policing – good can emerge like a phoenix from this fire.
“This is why in order to rebuild the trust eroded in the last five years, SIAF had worked and is still working to bridge the divide between young men (the public generally) and the police – it was astonishing to find young people (young women especially (not necessarily the group at risk) – take up the engagement vanguard:
“The Nigerian youth and the female gender have proven their leadership of conscience mettle, but thuggery and hooliganism is an entire new category that the nation must address as a matter of urgency.”
Freelance writer and political commentator, Mark Amaza says “the EndSARS protests were a political awakening for a generation and half of Nigerians: on the brutality of the Nigerian state, the lack of sanctity for human life, and the need to take the duties of the office of the citizen seriously, which is to hold government accountable by not just voting but through every legal means.
“My only hope is that the momentum built up from it blooms into a thousand different flowers that deepens political engagement among young Nigerians.”
That momentum and young people occupying the office of the citizen by participating vigorously in politics, will no doubt be required going forward.
Aisha Yesufu leads the #EndSARS protesters in Abuja (TheCable)
“Young people can always organise themselves into a force for change. Going forward, that organisation has to find expression in partisan politics and elections because in the absence of that, we will always only be left with reacting to government policies rather than leading the change and making these policies ourselves through active and consistent participation in governance and politics,” says Omojuwa.
For researcher Chioma Ogwuegbu who has been surveying young Lagosians on the impact of the #EndSARS protests, “the majority of respondents say that they are now more interested in civic and political participation in Lagos. They say they are now more interested in governance and asking the government the right questions. To me, this is a win for the #EndSARS movement.”
The year 2020 may have been a difficult one for everyone, but it has to be remembered as the year when the Soro Soke (speak up) generation eventually came of age in Africa’s most populous nation.
Across most cities in Nigeria, these young, fearless protesters defied the odds, police and military tanks, bit the bullets and forced the government to take notice and disband SARS after two weeks of relentless occupation and chants.
#EndSARS protesters in Abuja (Twitter: @MadukaOkwudili)
The federal government also quickly ordered state governments to speedily set up judicial panels of inquiry to probe decades of police brutality.
For braving cold, perilous nights on dangerous streets to demand for accountability from government, for organising a near flawless protest, for forcing the entire world to take notice of and begin using the #EndSARS hashtag, for putting federal and state governments on the defensive for days on end, for forcing the nation’s vice president to issue a public apology on police brutality and for forcing the authorities to make certain concessions, the #EndSARS protester is the Pulse Nigeria Person of the Year 2020.