Is This Nigeria’s Arab Spring Moment?

The protests that began as a movement against police brutality have much bigger goals—including regime change.

LAGOS, Nigeria

On the afternoon of Oct. 20, technicians from the Lekki Concession Co.—the company operating the Lekki toll gate that became home to Lagos residents protesting police brutality in the Nigerian state for over two weeks—showed up to the protest venue and began to remove CCTV security cameras. For weeks, while other protest venues were plagued by violence, the toll gate had remained safe and calm. Now the cameras watching over it were being taken away.

According to the governor of Lagos state, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the cameras were merely license plate readers, but protesters feared ulterior motives. Sanwo-Olu had earlier announced a statewide curfew. As residents of Lagos scrambled to get home, protesters remained on the streets.

But as the evening stretched on into night, the unmonitored toll gate now had its big LED screens and electricity shut off. The young Nigerians who had congregated at the toll plaza continued singing and waving their Nigerian flags in the dark.

Then, around 6:30 p.m., members of the Nigerian armed forces advanced onto the site of the protests in 10 trucks and began to open fire on the unarmed protesters. Eyewitnesses reported seeing more than 10 people killed, with some of their bodies taken away by the army in trucks. According to a tweet from Sanwo-Olu, just one person died of blunt force trauma to the head.

For its part, the Nigerian army asserts that the videos made and circulated were doctored, and President Muhammadu Buhari did not even acknowledge the shootings. But Amnesty International said in a report that 12 people died. Forensic analysis of pictures and videos available on social media proves that the videos are indeed authentic despite the government’s denial of the massacre.

The protests began on Oct. 8 as a call for the Nigerian government to close down a unit of the Nigerian police force known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS. SARS was established in the 1990s to tackle the growing spate of kidnappings and armed robberies in Nigeria. Since then, the unit—and the Nigerian police force more broadly—has been accused of police brutality.

A 2016 report by Amnesty International accused SARS officers of regularly detaining young adults unlawfully and extorting money from their families. For years, Nigerians had demonstrated online and physically to call for the end of the rogue police unit. Since 2017, the government, through the inspector general of police, has repeatedly pledged to scrap the unit or announced changes to its operation—changes that have not exactly been followed by the unit.

But the protests have since grown into something bigger: a call for better governance in the country. As the protesters and online coalitions formed, five demands were presented to the government: the immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for victims of police brutality and compensation for their families, an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reported cases of police misconduct within 10 days, psychological evaluation of all disbanded SARS operatives before they can be redeployed as police officers, and an increase in the salary of police officers. But these demands were not and have still not been met.

Now, there is a shared uneasiness about the willingness and ability of the Nigerian federal government to listen to the demands of Nigeria’s people and act on them. With this uneasiness comes a growing desire for a new government.

The current president has been largely absent. Save for election campaign season, Buhari rarely speaks to the people and has not hosted a media chat since December 2015. “People did not vote for the inspector general of police, but they voted for the president, and when the president can’t guarantee [the] safety of Nigerians, it is expected that the protests will evolve into something bigger,” said Adefemi Talabi, a Lagos-based security consultant. “It is obvious that the quality of governance, and in fact the policing in the country, will only get better when there is a change in the regime, but Nigerians are scared to call for that regime change.”

But in whispers and conversations away from the mainstream, even outside protester circles, regime change is what many Nigerians think is necessary right now. Buhari’s military past and the almost total control the government has over the media mean that conversations about the failings of the government can’t be heard on mainstream radio and TV.

For their part in publicizing the protests on TV, Channels Television, AIT, and Arise TV were fined 3 million naira (nearly $8,000) each by the National Broadcasting Commission over their “unprofessional coverage” of the protests. Beyond solving Nigeria’s very obvious policing problems, the country struggles with severe poverty, insecurity is still high, and the International Monetary Fund projects an economic recession.

“It is not necessarily about Buhari—it is about an elected leadership that isn’t doing its job,” said Ebere Ogu, a digital marketer. Even before the protests against SARS, there were reports of extortion and kidnappings. “The president is either not hearing about these things or he does not care. This is not acceptable. He needs to leave if he can’t perform his duties,” Ogu added.

For many Nigerians, the protests go beyond dismantling the police unit. This is an essential first step in demanding better governance from a government they elected. But it is also an appeal to a government that does not do enough for the citizens; in other words, if the country won’t provide for its citizens, at least don’t kill them.

Abidemi Tunji, a student at a university in Lagos, was arrested in the state’s Festac area and his family was extorted of 300,000 naira (about $800) in 2018. He was on his way back to the university from a friend’s house when he was accosted by plainclothes police officers and hauled into a bus without license plates. He now walks with a limp and has permanent scars on his back. “The government needs to go. The people that have been managing the protests are great, but I don’t buy into their ideas of zero violence. The government needs to go, and it has to be by any means possible,” Tunji argued.

The Buhari government, which has at least three more years in power, seems to understand that the protests against police brutality have become much more than a movement against that singular cause. Buhari uncharacteristically broke his silence in a nationwide address to threaten protesters while rolling the credits on some of the ostensible achievements of his administration. “SARS is back on the road, and we need to go back to protest because the battle has not been won,” Tunji said.

But Buhari’s speech has dampened spirits and scared off Nigerians in Lagos. Since the army shot and killed protesters on Oct. 20, nobody has been brought to book. Protesters are scared that it will happen again. When paid thugs disrupted the protests at Alausa—the Lagos state seat of power—the police just looked on. Among middle-class Nigerians, the conversation has slowly changed from fighting for Nigeria to leaving the country permanently.

However, there are some fundamental changes that have occurred. Young Nigerians—especially millennials and Generation Z—are not scared to protest. In Rivers state, the governor banned protests, declaring them illegal, and young Nigerians took to the streets chanting in defiance. While the protests have ground down to a halt in Lagos, they are still going in other parts of the country.

Perhaps the biggest change that has occurred due to the protests exists in the consciousness of a new generation of voters. The Feminist Coalition—a group of young Nigerian feminists championing equality for women in Nigerian society with a core focus on education, financial freedom, and representation in public office—began raising funds to support the protests as well as provide legal aid for protesters arrested by the police.

At the end of each day, the coalition opened up its books to show how much was raised and how the money had been disbursed—a stark deviation from the Lagos state government, which has repeatedly refused to open up its books despite court rulings.

“Nigerians have seen the Feminist Coalition receive donations, disburse funds, and basically show how a government can be run. This is one of the lessons learned from the protest. It is also an indictment on the type of governance that Nigerians have gotten,” said Socrates Mbamalu, a journalist and conflict researcher. Ogu added: “This is the Nigerian Spring—it is led by the youth, and it shows that things can get better, shows how things can be done better, also shows that if given the chance, the youths will do better.”

The battle against police brutality unfortunately has not yet been won. Police are back to harassing citizens, and there have been several reported sightings of SARS officers. Citizens now understand how far the government is capable of going and vice versa. Mbamalu believes that it is only a matter of time until the power held by the government begins to wane. “In the world, uprisings are won by the army. At the moment, the army is not on the side of Nigerians, so citizens are at a disadvantage, but the way the government acts in the next few months will tell.”

Since the protests in Lagos have tapered off, no police involved in the violence against protesters or indicted as SARS officers have been arrested or charged in court. The police have since arrested over 480 alleged looters around the country.

The next general elections in Nigeria will be in 2023—and that seems a long time for Tunji. Youth activists are mulling joining the established political parties or starting new parties and crowdfunding candidates, just like with the protests. Social media remains the greatest weapon for young activists. Voter registration drives have been planned, and a few people are making plans for a digital museum of the Nigerian experience. “People are saving photos and videos so they can recall them when the time for elections comes.

This generation might be the first that will not be based on religion or tribe but on track record. Of course, there are party loyalists, but even the party structures are breaking,” Mbamalu said. In Lagos especially, the All Progressives Congress, the ruling political party, is seen as untouchable, but now, especially with the response to the protests, young people think the party is in for a rude awakening in 2023.

There are rumors that the government is looking at revisiting a social media bill that would give it the ability to shut down the internet in part or fully—a move that would hinder protests that grow organically online. Lawmakers have made their disdain for the protesters clear. On the floor of the Lagos State House of Assembly, Mojisola Alli-Macauley, a member of the state legislature, asserted that the Nigerian youth protesting were “high on drugs all the time, most of them. They go to social media to do all sorts of things.”

As the protests have threatened the Nigerian status quo of governance, a crucial factor has been the faceless and leaderless nature of the demonstrations. With a decentralized structure and no clear leader, it is difficult for the government to make under-the-table deals to end the protests. “When it’s time to protest again, we know our opponent better, and we know how to face them,” Ogu said.

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