Activism is alive in Nigeria

Activism is alive in Nigeria
Nigerian youths protested over the weekend across the country

The world has been turned upside down this year.

We have witnessed a single virus halt economies, lockdowns close cities, and protesters reopen them. We have seen schools go online for survival, countries collaborate—and compete—on a vaccine, and companies embrace remote working. 

But as you look closer at all of this, one demographic has been at the centre: the youth. Whether millennials or Gen Zs, they have been at the centre of nearly every crisis. And in Nigeria, they are not protected. 

Previously accused of being lazy despite being the greatest casualties of Nigeria’s job crisis, they have been asked to make do with working on farms. 

In the past, we argued that Nigeria’s uniqueness came down to the fact that leaders felt they did not need Nigerians. In a country without a social contract, the governed have nothing to cling to. Of course, this is not new; Chinua Achebe argued years ago that “the trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership”.

Karl Maier, author of ‘This House has Fallen’, put it beautifully. “It is as if [Nigerians] live in a criminally mismanaged corporation where the bosses are armed and have barricaded themselves inside the company safe.”

Today, those arms manifest grotesquely in the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit within the Nigeria Police Force.

Names like “The Temple”, “the Theatre”, and “Officer in Charge of Torture” are routinely used by members of this police unit to describe their special interrogation rooms (read: torture chambers) in police stations across Nigeria. 

Section 34 of the Nigerian Constitution which prohibits inhumane treatment? Ignored. The Anti-Torture Act of 2017? Unenforced. Police Service Commission? Weak. 

Everyday life has become hell for young Nigerians across the country when they come face to face with SARS officers. In one heartbreaking account, a trader in Anambra state interviewed by Amnesty International recounted his story with the overzealous unit: 


“Four policemen blindfolded me and handcuffed me and pushed me into their car. They drove for about two hours and stopped at a particular spot. They removed my blindfold. I saw that I was beside a borrow pit inside the bush. I had no idea where we were. They told me that my life had come to an end, as I would be executed shortly. Their leader told them that they should shoot me as soon as he gave the signal. I was crying and pleading, but they refused to listen. They all pointed their guns at me.

I heard the command to shoot and heard the sound of rapid gunshots. I passed out. When I regained consciousness, I saw that I was inside their vehicle, blindfolded. They took me back to the cell... They said I would not be so lucky the next time. I had no option but to agree to their terms.

I transferred the money using my mobile phone application, and they allowed me to go. One of the officers told me that they would kill me if I revealed my ordeal at SARS to anyone, including my family members.”


This is just one of many recurring stories in prison cells across the country. Amnesty International has documented at least 82 cases since anti-torture legislation was passed in 2017. The stories are a symbol of state failure and the inability of the guardians to safeguard the life of citizens. 

Enough is enough.

Nigerian youths, as the nation now sees, are capable of effecting far more than “small change”. The new tools of social media have reinvited social activism, and they will be used.

The narrative that ‘it is just social media’ should die. With good reason too. 

Everything we understand about the offline to online transformations in our lives across sports, banking, work, family, education, and faith apply just as well to the Office of the Citizen. This is the year where Harvard degrees will be earned online. It is the same year that the Catholic Church has learnt to embrace online mass. And it is the year that many people paid their last respects to their loved ones via live-streamed burials.

Older generations would have us all believe that the only activism that counts is protesting on the streets. They would have us believe that activists on social media are only digital warriors, incapable of crossing the chasm from internet justice to social upheaval.

Oh, how wrong they are.

In the last few days, a social media campaign that started in 2017, #EndSars, reignited and has rallied Nigerians in Abuja, Lagos, Warri, Benin, Ibadan, London, and Washington DC in protests on the streets.

These protesters have been beaten, shot at, arrested, and chased by armed men representing the very institution whose existence they are challenging. Activism that challenges the status quo now indeed begins on the internet.

Nigerians should make no mistake about what we are witnessing. This is not a one-off reaction that will disappear in a few days. Far from it. The argument that high-risk activism is empowered by strong ties amongst its members, using the civil rights campaigns in the 60s as the gold standard, is now being challenged.

Today, decentralised pockets of closely tied digital relationships among feminists, technology entrepreneurs, human rights advocates, and many others are validating the strength of online communities. This is in addition to the natural advantages that come with the internet such as information dissemination, digital recording, and capacity for global support.

No force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.

We are witnessing the marshalling of untapped energy towards a single cause. SARS is just the cause for today. This model will be applied to many others; the infrastructure for activism that ends up on the streets is starting online.

In this new wave, empty announcements from public officials will not suffice. Nigerians have heard it all before. We understand that in this part of the world, the game is the game. 

This police reform game started as early as 2006 when a Presidential Committee gave recommendations on how to reform the police. Then in 2009, the most senior lawyer in the country, the Attorney General, established a National Committee on Torture to investigate unlawful killings and allegations of torture.

More ‘reforms’ reappeared in 2010 when Goodluck Jonathan announced that $196 million had been earmarked for police reforms. In 2017, the police even went as far as launching Force Order 20, which created Police Duty Solicitors to provide legal advice at stations.

In the last three years, announcements of police bans have been as frequent as they have been empty.

All talk, no action.

Meanwhile, detainees in SARS custody have been subjected to a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions, and sexual violence. These are offences that require prosecution.

Therefore, the movement must be supported with everything that we have to offer. As Achebe puts it, “If we want to climb out of the hole we are in, it is a job for all the people”. There have been volunteers on the streets, lawyers supporting them, companies donating to a medical fund, caterers serving the protesters, and influencers influencing.

Today, we pause to acknowledge the many campaigns, fundraisers, and protests taking place across the country. Progress does not just appear. It is always the result of people’s toil and sweat.

Anybody who cannot see the faults with this ruthless, aggressive, law-breaking unit of the Nigerian police is either lying, complicit in the oppression, or has buried their head in the sand.  

So, you decide, are you one of them? As you do, you may want some context about exactly what is happening:

1. Nigeria is over-policed and under-secured

This weekend, #EndSars became a global movement, reaching an estimated 100 million people through social media between 4th and 10th October 2020, according to an analysis of Brand24 data.

Eleven protests aligned with the #EndSARS movement took place around the world on Sunday alone, although protests started a few days earlier. The movement is decentralised, with no designated leaders, so mini-protests are likely to have occurred in other places.  

Nigerians have been protesting against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian police set up to fight violent crimes such as robbery and kidnapping. According to human rights watchdogs, SARS has been committing the very crimes it was set up to stop.

Data on SARS activities is limited, but a few years ago, Akanka analysed survey data on SARS harassment. The data confirmed that SARS has a proclivity for stopping young people between the ages of 16–35.

38% of Twitter users are between the ages of 18 and 29 and 26% are between the ages of 30 and 49 years old, so it is no surprise that the movement really kicked off on Twitter. Young Nigerians are questioning the legitimacy of the unit set up to protect them.

2. Does Nigeria meet international policing standards?

African police forces are notoriously understaffed; Nigeria looks like an exception. The United Nations (UN) recommends one police officer for every 450 citizens. Kenya has one for every 1,150, Tanzania has one for every 1,298, and Ghana has one for every 1,200. 

A decade ago, the UN reported that Nigeria had over 370,000 police officers and a police-to-citizen ratio of 1:400, which just about met the UN’s recommended figure. So many policemen, so little security.

Anecdotes on social media betray the scale of SARS’ terrorism. Courtesy of Amnesty International, we have a few of these stories documented:

Exhibit A

“One of the officers used an exhaust pipe to hit me on my teeth, breaking my teeth.” – Miracle, Anambra (23 years old).

Exhibit B

“They searched me, took my phone and all they found on me, handcuffed my leg and hands and bundled me at the back of my car. They told me to be slapping myself, and when I refused, they started beating me with the side of their machetes.” – Chidi Oluchi, Enugu (32 years old).

Amnesty international documented 82 cases like these between January 2017 and May 2020. Detainees in SARS custody have been subjected to hanging, beating, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.

Except for these 82 violations documented by Amnesty International, finding data on the scale of SARS’ operations is difficult.

It is no surprise that in 2016, Nigeria's police force was ranked as the worst in the world and ranked bottom out of 127 countries on the measure of whether the public view security providers—particularly the police—in a favourable light. 

A fundamental issue is that the Nigerian Police force is undertrained and ill-equipped. Consider Nigeria’s growing market for private security as proof. In Nigeria, some 1,500 to 2,000 security firms employ about 100,000 people.

Sunday evening came with what looked like a victory for Nigerian youth when the Inspector General of Police announced the dissolution of SARS. But SARS has been dissolved four times in the last four years. 

Despite the almost-victory, perhaps #EndSARS was really about something else, finding a new voice. By the looks of things, this is only the beginning.

Remember, no force on earth can stop an idea whose time has come.

Follow this Editor on Twitter @TimeyinPI


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Timeyin Preston Ideh

Timeyin Preston Ideh

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