Why We Should Amplify the Historical #EndSARS Movement to Stop Police Brutality and Authoritarianism in Nigeria

When I am enraged, I write. So here goes. I explained here that there was an unprecedented movement going on in Nigeria. It started as an organized and collective anger against police brutality. See, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a unit of the police force was established years ago to deal with crimes related to robbery, kidnapping, car theft etc. Over the years, however, this unit had devolved into something of a rogue unit; a squad of thugs in uniform who began to perpetuate the very crimes they were meant to stop. They harassed innocent young men and women, they robbed, they raped, and worst of all they literally killed citizens. Now, the evidence reveals to us that the success of any policing unit whether in an ostensibly developed nation like America or a developing one like Nigeria is trust between citizens and the police. Where there is no trust, there is no legitimacy for the police. But how can citizens trust you if you arrest them for driving nice cars or using iPhones? 

So of course, people became frustrated. Year after year, people would just randomly disappear after encounter with the police. There were reports of extrajudicial killings, excessive blackmail, sexual assault and rape, innocent citizens getting framed by these thugs who sometimes went around without their uniforms. The long record of abuse continued to pile up and gradually, people started to complain. First, on social media a few years ago with the hashtag #ENDARS. But as with most important social movements, there was a tipping point. That tipping point—one  unlawful arrest and seizure and another point blank murder—occurred  this month when mass demonstrations began across major cities in Nigeria. This movement sparked something I had never seen in Nigeria. It was also when we realized that what we thought we knew about SARS barely scratched the surface of the monstrosity. BARELY. People shared stories, videos of heinous and wicked crimes committed by SARS; the impunity with which they killed Nigerians. 

I especially want to highlight Chijioke's story. Chijioke Iloanya was 20 when SARS officers arrested him at a child dedication ceremony in Anambra State. He literally committed no crime at all and yet instead of releasing him, these ghouls told his family to bring some money for his release. Like any concerned and desperate parent, his parents sold their property to obtain the funds. But upon returning, he was no longer in the SARS office. He has not been found since. Is he dead? Is he alive? His family don't know. And like Yoruba people say, it is better to lose one child's to death than to be held in the despair and hope of the purgatory that is "missing". At some point, news got to Chijioke's father about a river where the SARS officers of that branch often dump the bodies of their victims. In what no human being should ever go through, this man went through a pile of dead bodies, turning them one after the other, looking for his son. This is the kind of overwhelming anguish so-called officers of the law inflict upon the very citizens they swore to protect. Anybody that puts another human through this is an animal that should not live among the rest of us human beings. Such a person deserves to rot in prison for the rest of their miserable lives. 

So you will understand why Nigerians took the streets. And what a beauty to behold. Organized, unified, determined, energized, and yes angry, the protesters demanded an end to injustice and police brutality. The movement cut across class, gender, political ideology and was forceful in refusing to retreat.  In the weeks during which this protest was going on, the governance and collective good shared by organizers superseded anything the Nigerian government could have ever done for its citizens in all 60 years of its independence. The feminist group, Feminist  Coalition raised more than N140 million from contributions of Nigerians home and abroad to provide food, security, mental health, and legal aid to protesters and even relief for victims of police brutality and families of the deceased.  The utmost transparency with which they handled every expense is one for the history books. At some point, the Nigerian government tried to disrupt their fundraising. They found other creative ways to continue to raise funds, even getting the attention of Twitter's CEO Jack Dorsey. People remained undeterred by these subtle efforts to disrupt the movement. Young people came out with a drive and passion you rarely see much less in the middle of a global pandemic that has catapulted ennui into almost everyone. Social media became a valuable engine to spread people's voices. And so it did. The world heard us. Soon, international celebrities amplified voices, #ENDSARS started to trend globally. It was a joy to behold.  

The truth is SARS is a symptom of a much worse cancer—inept leadership, incompetent leaders, and failed governance. And I suspect these same leaders knew that; they anticipated what was brewing. It really is the most basic things. Isn't it always with African leaders? It's terrible healthcare, education,  roads. It's skyrocketed unemployment rates, abysmal systems. It's the basic things intrinsic to a functioning society. Yet, they are inexistent in the Nigerian society. President Buhari has failed in more ways that words can describe. To live in that country is to play Russian roulette with your life. Nothing works: not justice, not governance, not civil service. But the leaders continue to amass grotesque wealth; they continue to go abroad for their own medical treatments while Nigerians die from easily managed diseases; their own kids get the finest education from prestigious universities abroad while  Nigerian kids continue to wallow in dilapidated buildings, poorly staffed schools, and unappreciated teachers. 

You tell me.

Why wouldn't Nigerians protest? It was only a matter of time. Instead of listening, the government used all types of tactics to repress protesters' voices. One operation allegedly transported mercenaries and disbanded thugs to break up the protests, incite violence, set protesters' cars on fire, and intimidate protesters.  Police killed some protesters, detained so many, but people continued and refused to be stopped. After all, the hallmark of any democracy should be the freedom to dissent, to protest, to express your disappointment with your elected leaders whose job it is to SERVE YOU. 

But then, suddenly, in a manner only a man who was once a dictator could so muster, things changed. 

On October 20, 2020, a curfew was announced that was supposed to begin at 4pm, which made no sense because how did they expect people to even get home? But before anyone could say Jack Robinson, men in military uniforms started firing at UNARMED peaceful protesters. There are videos of this online; of solders shooting into a crowd of people. Allegedly, government officials turned off security cameras and lights at the Lekki Toll Gates just before the massacre began. Think what you will about that. All I know is that it was a bloodbath.  They fired weapons into a crowd of protesters peacefully singing [the national anthem], sitting, kneeling. The particular details of the amount of victims (many of whom are either dead or receiving treatments in hospitals across Lagos) is still just as blurry as the video of the event. No one has been held accountable for the murder of innocent citizens. No one.

The handwriting became clearer that night at Lekki: this was state repression. The brazenness is appalling. What began as a peaceful protest devolved into the state murdering and terrorizing its own citizens. What Buhari and co wanted to do was to instill fear in the hearts of people. So that the next time we think of holding them accountable, we would think twice. Right now, the government keeps insisting all of this happened because protesters were violent. But it makes no sense that  people so organized, so committed to change would then compromise everything by suddenly becoming violent. People dared to ask for human rights and were killed for it. My first instinct was to say I couldn't believe it. But I could and I still can. Buhari was a dictator and what we are learning is that he will always be one. Because what kind of a democracy do you kill people for protesting? Sometimes, I wonder and I think, why were people so willing to vote  for a dictator twice? Why?

For days after this state-sanctioned murder, the president (nay, head of state), a former dictator, Muhammadu Buhari was conspicuously quiet. He refused to address the nation. For days (though it felt like years given the circumstance) we waited. And like Nero who fiddled while Rome burned, Buhari set fire to Nigeria and then fiddled. When I say the collective trauma of the past few days have been heavy, I might be understating it. I had never seen as much dead bodies, bloodbath, and massacre as I saw through videos and photos these past few days. I saw blood gushing from people's necks and chest cavities. I saw a mother hold the lifeless body of her son in her hands while she wept in abject despair.  As I write this, the wail-like sound emanating from her mouth continues to ring in my ears. But the head of state was quiet. And when he finally spoke, it was to threaten peaceful protesters even more, warning and giving the indication that he was ready to continue killing protesters if need be. The president of Nigeria did not offer  a single word of condolence to the families of the victims. He has doubled down, insisting that enough was enough and it was time to stop...protesting.

So yes, in a sense, it was time to retreat. But it was no surrender. What he and his cabals have done is to further embolden young Nigerians in our quest for a better nation and for better governance. People now realize the need to strategize and plan NOW for the 2023 elections. Because we can NOT go back to status quo.  So what can we do?  The past few weeks have taught us that we can do the work. We can use our education, skills, tools at our disposal towards a better society. And gosh, it has taught us that there are so many problem solvers among us. We can mobilize, educate and engage, we can continue to remind people, we can strategize and mobilize the grassroots across Nigeria. But it's not just about the presidency. It is local offices, local governments, state legislature, national legislature, the judiciary. We know now that we are not powerless. If anything, what the Feminist Coalition has taught us is that as a unit, we are powerful and can organize. So we need time, we need to be resolute, and we must never ever settle for anything other than a better Nigeria. A Nigeria that works. As I always say, this is a fight EVERYBODY must participate in. You can't leave it for a select few. You can't abandon it. you have to find a way to serve. You must speak up and engage and do better in whatever corner of the world YOU are in. It starts with all of us.

As for those of you that continue to deny the truth, that continue to remain loyal to an administration that has shown time and time again it has no concern for the people, that continue to obfuscate, that continue to deny the deaths of protesters despite glaring evidence of the murder and intimidation, you are stupid and you have no one to tell you. So here I am doing you a favor.

I want to end with a word for Nigerian women; so fierce, so organized, so resourceful, so wise. When the time came, they (we) rose up to the challenge. So I want to thank them for being so so so transparent with funds, for organizing ambulances, for feeding people, for providing legal help, for providing spa treatments, for providing free therapy, for setting up response lines, for speaking up and out, for tweeting, for posting relentlessly on Instagram, for being angry, THANK YOU. I have never been prouder to identify as a feminist—a  radical one. Women, we get the job done. 

Love, and continual solidarity


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