Nigerian security forces opened fire this week on protesters in Lagos, killing at least 12 demonstrators and marking a deadly escalation in the weekslong protests against police brutality.
Since early October, tens of thousands of Nigerians have been marching in cities throughout the country, demanding the disbandment of a notorious police unit known as SARS—the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. An Amnesty International report published in June documented dozens of cases of torture and extrajudicial killing by the unit. But the incident that sparked the movement was a video of what appeared to be an unprovoked killing of a man by SARS officers in the Delta State on Oct. 3. Authorities claimed the video was fake and arrested the man who made it, only provoking more anger. On Oct. 11, a statement from the office of President Muhammadu Buhari promised to disband the unit, but the protesters—who have now taken broader aim at state impunity and a police force widely considered one of the most corrupt in the world—were not assuaged. The movement has also attracted an unusual amount of international attention. It’s been trending on social media for weeks and everyone from the U.S. State Department to Joe Biden to Beyoncé has weighed in to condemn the government’s heavy-handed response.
On Thursday, I spoke about the situation with Osai Ojigho, the director of Amnesty International Nigeria. I reached her via Skype in Abuja, Nigeria, just after Buhari had finished addressing the nation. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Joshua Keating: What did the president have to say?
Osai Ojigho: I think he just made things worse. It was like, “You guys are an inconvenience. I’m doing my best. We will not be cowed. Everybody should be calm.” You don’t say things like that when people are already depressed. Everyone had been waiting for him to speak for weeks, so this was really disappointing.
Why has the SARS unit, in particular, become such a flashpoint?
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad have this idea that they’re above the law. And I think they’ve been indulged for a while. They were set up to respond to violent crime, armed robberies, and the like, in the 1990s. Over time they gained a reputation for being very brave and effective and catching notorious criminals.
But along the line it got into their head a little bit. They felt they were a bit invincible. It didn’t happen overnight. It was just little things at first. It started with threatening someone, getting involved in quarrels on the street that they should not be involved in and taking money off people. Then some officers went further by torturing suspects to show they were effective. The use of torture is widespread in Nigeria, but you’d think that with SARS, because of the special training they have, they’d have better ways to interrogate suspects. Then the problem grew over time, and no one was punished, so they started getting bolder. That’s why our report in June 2020, was [titled] “Time to End Impunity.” It’s taking too long.
Beyond SARS itself, are there larger factors for why these protests took off now, in particular?
The protests were inspired by an incident that happened in Delta State, and was shared on WhatsApp, that showed a young man being shot, then the officers that shot him driving off in his car.
When that video was trending, people were shocked. I think young people saw themselves in that young man. Young people have been the most visible participants in this protest, and they’ve also been the most vocal. The beauty is that it’s young people from all walks of life: poor people, rich people, men, women, different ethnicities, different faiths, all united in one purpose.
The other beauty is that it’s not led by civil society organizations. These protesters are not affiliated to any organization. It’s a people’s movement. It’s a new kind of movement for Nigeria.
We’re celebrating 60 years of independence from Britain this October, and I think the authorities misread the mood. We’re in an economic recession, COVID hit a lot of families really hard; people have lost their jobs. A few days before the independence holiday, the government increased the fuel tariffs, which means everything is more expensive now. When you feel the mood of the nation, a lot of people are disillusioned, especially young people. They say to themselves, “I don’t have a job, I don’t have incentives, when I try to do something for myself, the police harass me and accuse me of being a criminal all because I want to have an iPhone.” It’s very negative when you feel you’re targeted for just being yourself. They feel, if the SARS is allowed to continue carrying out extrajudicial killings and torture, they might not have a future.
Were you surprised by the violence of the response from authorities?
We’ve seen violence from the authorities in managing protests before. But what was shocking for me about what happened on Tuesday this week is the fact these young people were nonthreatening, not affiliated with any political, religious, or ethnic group, and I would have thought that the government would have found it easier to speak with them, because they don’t speak “civil society-speak.” They’re just demanding their rights. I would have thought [the government] would have been more empathetic with them.
Have you, or your colleagues at Amnesty, faced any threats because of your work documenting SARS abuses?
We haven’t faced any direct attacks, but we’re always conscious of the fact that we’re in the government’s thoughts, and they listen and watch whatever we say carefully. We’ve had to take certain security measures, such as securing communications on our phones, particularly when we’re gathering information from victims of violence. I personally am very conscious of my security as the spokesperson for the organization. Even if state actors don’t directly attack me, nonstate actors who might be sympathetic to the government might see me as a threat. We know that the authorities want to know who the leaders of the protests were, they want to know who is accountable.
The government has now promised to disband SARS, but that’s done little to stop the protests. What do you think they could do that people on the street would actually see as meaningful?
One thing that is important to stress is that this isn’t the first time the government has done something around police reform. There have been several panels set up over the years to make recommendations about how the police could be better, but what we found was that over the years those recommendations have not been taken seriously.
With the SARS unit in particular, the government has placed restrictions on it before, in 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019, even February 2020: reminding them of their duty, that stop and search is not their duty, that they should stop harassing people, stop extortion. But they keep coming back and doing the same things.
So, now they’ve actually dissolved the unit, but people fear that it’s a cover-up, particularly when the government came back a few days later to say they had established a new tactical unit. What’s needed is accountability. The protesters want the government to give them names of the cases their looking at, and what steps they are going to take to prosecute them in court.
There have been a lot of comparisons between the movement in Nigeria and the anti–police brutality protests that broke out in the U.S. and other countries around the world after the killing of George Floyd. Do protesters in Nigeria see themselves as part of that global movement?
Yes. When the Black Lives Matter protests were going on earlier this year, in Nigeria people were trending #NigerianLivesMatter, #AfricanLivesMatter. These are communities that have also experienced police excesses, so seeing how people in America came out to express their dissatisfaction was quite interesting for us, and gave some impetus to the protests we’ve seen since the eighth of October.
This movement has garnered a surprising amount of international attention, particularly on social media. Do you think that’s having an impact on the situation on the ground in Nigeria?
Definitely. That is what has sustained the protest. People are like, “Oh my God, if Nigerians are protesting in Washington, New York, London, then I should be protesting in my own city.” I like the fact that a lot of world leaders have endorsed the #EndSARS protest. Twitter gave #EndSARS its own emoji.
People are shocked: “Oh, you’re harassed just for having an iPhone?” I have dreads and people say, “Oh, I love your hair.” But in my country, I can be arrested for my hairstyle. If I have a nice car, I can be arrested—I couldn’t have worked for that car.
It’s a good vibe. The positivity that people saw, I think that attracted them to the movement.
For a long time, there’s been negative press about Nigerians, and young people in Nigeria. We’re accused of being cybercriminals, of being dishonest, or being destructive. The protests show our best side, that we can work together regardless of tribe or religion. We got a chance to showcase our love for life and community.