On October 1st 2020, Nigeria marked 60 years of independence. However, the mood was less than celebratory for a lot of Nigerians due to the perceived shortcomings of the deteriorating nation state. Days later, a video of alleged Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officials shooting a young man surfaced on the internet sparking widespread outrage. Using the hashtag #EndSARS, Nigerians of all walks of life, spoke out to demand police reform and the disbandment of SARS.
This call for the disbandment of SARS would not be the first time. SARS had undergone multiple reorganisations in the past, including in February 2020 when one of its offices in Ògùn State was closed down after the killing of a 21-year-old local footballer.
Talks of protests began and despite efforts to quell them, some notable Nigerians were insistent and the #EndSARS protests began.
As the protests went on, more and more horrific personal accounts of atrocities at the hands of SARS personnel came to light. It seemed almost everyone had a story. Accounts of extortion, unjustified arrests and deaths going unrecorded.
Different pockets across the country mobilised mass collections of youths to protest. No leader, one voice and six demands. Some donated, some engaged in online activism, some used the arts, some education and some encouragement. It was gaining ground and garnering a lot of international attention.
As as the so-called ‘lazy Nigerian youths’ continued to show up day after day and the protests continued, many of us wondered whether this would be a turning point. The protests weren’t perfect but we watched in real time as Nigerians rapidly adapted with women at the helm, creating their own effective infrastructures, legal and medical services, catering, logistics and more, making efforts towards transparent crowdfunding; accounts of people helping and supporting each other, lost and found items, pictures of youths cleaning the street.
*But alas, the peaceful protests turned increasingly violent and on the 20th October 2020, Nigerian soldiers fired live ammunition on unarmed peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos State. * There are reports that multiple Nigerians died with numerous injured. However, despite eyewitness accounts and reports, the government refutes these claims.
A Year On
Today makes it a year since that day in Lekki Toll Gate, since the image of that bloodied Nigerian flag became etched in our memories. A reminder of the lives lost protesting, those lost at the hands of SARS, those we know and those we don’t, the lives lost at the hands of a system rooting against them.
As the one year mark came round, we’ve come across people to whom #EndSARS is synonymous with violence, the looting, fires, and damage that ensued. Some who remember it as ‘the youths’ vs the rest. Some who say that the youths should have known when to stop. Some who say it was co-opted for the funds. Some who say it changed nothing.
We hope that people remember that goods can be costed, perhaps even recovered but the same can never be said for the lives lost. We hope that people remember what the protests stood for. That it started as innocent civilians exercising their right to protest so that members of the police force do not profile, harass, extort and kill them. That many of them were protesting peacefully, passionately and even comically for accountability, good governance and even better pay for this same very police. Just a few months after the global Black Lives Matter plea to defund the police. That many of them were standing up for what they believe in, in the space between the Nigeria they live in and the Nigeria they envisioned and deserved.
Guillermina Seri says, “Every police agent embodies a minute replica of the state.” And there is no denying that where Nigeria is concerned, both are in dire need of reform.
The question is, when unarmed peaceful protesting results in loss of life and property, how does reform begin and what does it look like?