In Nigeria’s EndSARS protests, a generation poised to seize the moment

Half of Nigeria’s population is under the age of 30. And many of them participated in the protests over police brutality that rocked the country last month – meaning their concerns aren’t going away soon.

Alleged abuses by a special police unit, called SARS, have for years prompted criticism and failed promises of reform. Although the government has now pledged to disband SARS, and protests have subsided, the youth-led movement is still keeping up pressure. And the youths’ demands go beyond immediate justice, to the corruption and inequality they consider pervasive in Nigerian politics. 

The protests were leaderless, but organizations like the Feminist Coalition led the fundraising to provide legal and medical aid to protesters. The rights group’s starring role reflects the generation’s increasing calls for gender equality. But its daily updates on how money was spent also underscored one of the protesters’ main demands: greater transparency.

Idayat Hassan, director of an Abuja-based think tank, says the Feminist Coalition has shown Nigerians the “true meaning of accountability in just two weeks.”

“They achieved a feat no Nigerian government has been able to achieve,” Ms. Hassan writes in an email. 

And the youth-led movement could fundamentally change the country’s political landscape, she says – especially at the next general elections in 2023.


Amaka Amaku and her friend were singing along to the radio, driving toward the southwestern city of Ogbomosho, when police “came out of nowhere” to pull them over, she says.

The officers seized the duo’s phones and Ms. Amaku’s laptop because she did not have a receipt, then accused the 26-year-old entrepreneur of taking “hard drugs” when they found her contraceptives. Three of them kicked her friend out of the car and began driving Ms. Amaku away.

“I was afraid. I thought I would get kidnapped,” she says. “I didn’t have my phone, couldn’t scream, they were armed, and I didn’t know where my friend” was. They drove her to a nearby station, where other squad members showed up with her friend, and demanded a bribe to let them go, Ms. Amaku says. After some haggling, they agreed to pay 3,000 naira ($8).

The police unit that stopped them that October day three years ago was the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), disbanded last month amid weeks of protests across Nigeria and the diaspora beyond. Since its founding in 1992, the unit has perpetrated the very kinds of crime it was commissioned to prevent, critics say, with Amnesty International reporting at least 82 cases of “torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution” in the past three years alone.

But if protests have been suppressed – sometimes with violence – the movement’s broader aims are here to stay, many Nigerians say. The people driving #ENDSARS from the pages of the internet to the streets of Nigerian cities and now back online again are overwhelmingly young, like the country itself. Half of Nigeria’s estimated 182 million people are under 30.

Their generation, the first in decades to grow up in a democracy, is also fed up with its disappointments: the corruption and inequality that have become central concerns of their movement.

Bulama Bukarti, a sub-Saharan African expert at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, says the protests – the largest since Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999 – were a result of long-building frustration “and outrage that has accumulated over the years.”

“SARS has been a very brutal team for years and young people in Nigeria have been penting up the anger. They have been crying inwardly,” he says.

Demanding transparency

Outrage over the alleged abuses by SARS has simmered for years, prompting government pledges to reform. The latest tipping point for protests came in early October, when a viral video allegedly showed SARS members killing a young man in Delta state and driving off in his car. 

On Oct. 11, the government vowed to disband SARS. But trust between citizens and officials is low, particularly with previous promises not kept. And the situation worsened on Oct. 20, when soldiers shot into a crowd singing the national anthem and waving the flag at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, protesters’ de facto headquarters. At least 10 people were killed, according to Amnesty International. 

After initially denying involvement, the army admitted soldiers were present, but said they did not open fire on protesters, despite eyewitness reports. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a statement that “strongly condemns the use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos,” and called for an investigation.

Young people are most at risk of harassment and extortion from SARS officers, according to Amnesty’s report, particularly those with dreadlocks and tattoos (which a high-ranking police official linked to “cultism”), or expensive equipment. Nigeria’s well-funded technology sector has minted middle-class youths who can afford items considered luxuries in a country where 51% of the population lives in extreme poverty

But calls for accountability for police and beyond have resonated among youth for a variety of reasons, including socioeconomic frustrations. Unemployment among people ages 25-34 stands at 30.7%. Meanwhile, the affluence of the political class is often on display. President Muhammadu Buhari, for example, spent 10 days in London to treat an ear infection in 2016, despite the billions of naira budgeted for the clinic at the president’s residence. 

Young people took to the streets in the first place, Mr. Bukarti suggests, because they had no experience of military or colonial rule, when taking on the government was taboo.

“Young people are disentangled from the colonial and military mentality and showed that they are ready to take up leadership of their country and demand better,” Mr. Bukarti says.

The protests were leaderless, but organizations like the Feminist Coalition led the fundraising to provide legal and medical aid to protesters. The starring role of the rights group, whose leaders declined to be interviewed for this article, reflects the generation’s increasing calls for gender equality in a society still steeped in patriarchal attitudes. But its daily updates on how money was spent also underscored one of the protesters’ main demands: greater transparency in politics.

Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development, an Abuja-based think tank, says the Feminist Coalition has shown Nigerians the “true meaning of accountability in just two weeks.”

“They achieved a feat no Nigerian government has been able to achieve,” Ms. Hassan writes in an email. 

The road ahead

Though street protests have ended, that clamor for accountability has not. Failed promises of police reform in the past have fueled this year’s protests, Mr. Bukarti says, making many Nigerians wary of the new pledge to disband SARS. In August 2018, for example, the government set up a judicial inquiry into SARS, but the commission’s finding has yet to be released to the public almost two years after its submission. 

Last week a panel in Lagos began hearings on police brutality, after waiting for the appointments of youth representatives. Protesters have demanded justice for the alleged victims of SARS, the release of arrested demonstrators, psychological training for SARS officers before their redeployment, and higher police pay to discourage extortion in the first place.

If sustained, the youth-led movement could fundamentally change the political landscape in Nigeria, especially at the next general elections in 2023, says Ms. Hassan.

“The politics of 2023 will not be the same; the youth who [make up] 51% of the voting population is going to decide and possibly in a different way,” she says. 

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#EndSARS Protesters Shot By Nigerian Police

When Nigeria’s president made a rare, televised address to the nation on Thursday evening, he made vague references to “ongoing developments,” namely calling on “our youths to discontinue the street protests” — not mentioning once the fact that his security forces had killed people in the streets amid the country’s most powerful protests against police brutality ever.

What Muhammadu Buhari clearly didn’t want to mention was the Nigerian military opening fire on thousands of peaceful protesters Tuesday evening, killing at least 12 and injuring several hundred. Though he didn’t acknowledge the brutal suppression — the rest of the world has.

It’s being called the “Lekki massacre,” after the shootings took place at a toll bridge in that affluent suburb. It was there that protesters have demonstrated for the past two weeks as part of an ongoing movement calling for an overhaul of Nigeria’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.

The violence has been condemned by world figures including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres — but has also taken off on social media, with people using the hashtag #EndSARS to call for an end to the violence.

Buhari, in his address, scolded the protesters as “unpatriotic” and told people to “seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgment.” But the activists behind the End SARS social movement have for years been calling to disband a police unit that has been accused of extortion, kidnapping, harassment, torture, and extrajudicial killings — the demonstrators argue what they’re doing is the height of patriotism in Nigeria’s nascent democracy. Here’s a breakdown of how Nigeria got to this point, why the protests are happening, and who is involved:

The heroes!!! Some of them you might or might not even know! But they have stayed up all night to send a message to the world! I hope the message is loud and clear!!!!
We still dey!!! ALUTA CONTINUA 💪🏾

SARS was created in 1992 under military rule — before Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 — to address armed robberies and kidnappings. Its officers were granted special privileges: They were allowed to use unmarked cars and wear plain clothes. Protesters say that SARS has operated with impunity, and a number of recent incidents have triggered outrage.

Policing by profiling is a common feature of the complaints against SARS. The unit’s remit to pursue robberies and fraud has meant that young Nigerians who seem “affluent” — owning an iPhone, for instance, or driving a nice car — are often considered to be criminals worth extorting for money. Police have also been known to target physical features such as dreadlocked or brightly colored hair, as well as tattoos as indicators of criminal affiliations.

Earlier this month, a clip in which SARS officials appeared to shoot a man and steal his car in broad daylight went viral, stirring a public outcry.

In response, a group of 42 young Nigerians staged a 72-hour protest outside the Lagos State House of Assembly starting on Oct. 8. That act of defiance quickly grew into the latest movement, with demonstrations happening across Africa’s most populated country. Outside Nigeria, members of the country’s diaspora have staged their own protests. In all, people have protested in over 100 cities around the world in solidarity and with a clear agenda: a better Nigeria starting with the end of SARS.

In response to mounting public pressure, Buhari formally dissolved SARS on Oct. 12, promising “extensive police reform.”

But Buhari’s announcement came with caveats: Former SARS officers will remain part of the police force, redeployed to other divisions. A new task force, SWAT, will replace SARS.

Many were deeply displeased with Buhari’s caveats, and so the protests continued, leading up to Tuesday’s violence.

On Tuesday morning, the governor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced a last-minute statewide 24-hour curfew, saying he was concerned that “criminals and miscreants” had infiltrated the protests. There was no evidence to suggest this had actually happened.

The news broke just before noon on Twitter and gave Lagosians until 4 p.m. to get home — in a city renowned for its traffic. Many protesters who were already out stayed put at the Lekki toll gate, where they staged a sit-in and sang the national anthem while waving Nigerian flags.

According to eyewitness accounts reported by Reuters, CNN, and the BBC, the evening turned into chaos when the power was cut and uniformed personnel — now believed to be members of the Nigerian army — barricaded protesters at the toll gate and began firing live rounds.

Some protesters fled to churches and hospitals for the remainder of the night. Lagos-based DJ Switch, whose real name is Obianuju Udeh, livestreamed the chaos to 130,000 people.

The Nigerian Army denied any involvement in the incident, dismissing reports about it as “fake news” — a term popularized by US President Donald Trump and adopted by global autocrats and dictators to dismiss any factual information that is critical of their rule and policies.

After the shootings, the Lagos governor said that “forces beyond our direct control have moved to make dark notes in our history.” He claimed that there had been no deaths recorded, despite eyewitness accounts saying otherwise.

Human rights group Amnesty International has said that at least 12 people were killed between the Lekki area and Alausa, another Lagos suburb where there were reports of violence that night.

In a statement, the organization said it had received reports of CCTV cameras being disabled before the shooting took place. Some of the protesters killed on the ground were taken away by the military, Amnesty said.

Young Nigerians and What This Moment Means

More than 58 people are believed to have died since the protests began on Oct. 8 according to Amnesty International. In spite of the violence — and the terror of Tuesday night — the work on the ground continues, organizers and activists told BuzzFeed News.

“It has been a major roller coaster,” said an organizer, Oyin A, who declined to give her full name over fears of reprisal. “This is wrong. They didn’t do anything wrong. It was literally people just fighting for their rights.”

Oyin is one of the lead figures who helps to run the End SARS Response Unit, putting her experience in data solutions into action. The support resource group was created in a matter of days in collaboration with the Feminist Coalition, a collective of 11 young Nigerians whose mission is to champion equality for women in the country’s society. Today it operates a 24-hour hotline and online team for demonstrators to access everything from legal support to medical assistance in a nation where citizens are accustomed to providing life’s daily necessities for themselves.

Jimoh Raji Atanda 52, father to late jimoh isiaka holding a bullet shell recovered just beside the body of his late son.
Jimoh isiaka was shot multiple times by the police during #endsars peaceful protest in Ogbomoso on 10th of October 2020.
He call for justice for his late son.

Protesters continue to contact the group for support outside of the city, Oyin said, despite new curfews being announced daily.

“People were still like, ‘We want to do this. We want to protest,’” said Oyin. “We see the defiance in people and the way they were still so strong-willed about it.”

The youth-led movement has been hailed for coordinating in a transparent and unifying manner, which they hope will make it a lasting force. “Young people have seen for the very first time the strength that we have in our own unity and our voice,” Oyin said. “It’s the government’s biggest mistake but is also our biggest win, our biggest success.”

Unlike previous movements — such as the 2012 Occupy Nigeria campaign born in response to the removal of oil subsidies that resulted in 13 days of demonstrations — the End SARS movement is one without leaders, Oyin said.

This is in part to encourage democratic participation, and in part to ensure no one has a target on their back. But it also shows that every young Nigerian can make their own decision about whether and when to march.

“Today, I can decide I don’t want to protest anymore, but another person on the street might say, ‘Well, sorry, I have not heard anything that will make me go back home,’” Oyin said.

The fight against police brutality in Nigeria is multilayered and one that has unified most communities in a nation that has been strongly divided by tribal loyalties and conflict in the past.

However the same can’t be said for Nigeria’s young queer community, who say they are often profiled, targeted, and harassed by the police on the basis of sexuality.

Matthew Blaise, a nonbinary LGBTQ activist who was filmed in the midst of one of the protests, told BuzzFeed News he was using the moment to speak for queer young Nigerians. “It is something that we all know: When cis heterosexual people are telling stories, they tend to sideline queer people. They don’t tell our stories because queerness is not the default,” the 21-year-old said.

#EndSARS #Queerlivesmatter

Yell it in your streets. We get killed for being queer. It’s crazy

“Queer people are always targeted. We are always targeted for just existing,” Blaise said. “So I didn’t have to have a smartphone or look extravagant. I just have to exist as a queer person to be a target for SARS.”

Blaise’s experience with SARS has been defined by multiple painful altercations and has been further compounded by laws against homosexuality that deny him even the faintest potential of pursuing justice.

In Blaise’s case, as a femme nonbinary person, the harassment is driven by anti-LGBTQ sentiments, he said.

Blaise recalled one occasion when SARS officers ambushed him. “They asked me, Why am I behaving like a woman? Am I gay? Then they asked me to unlock my phone. I did not, then five of them came out from their van with guns, then pushed me into their vehicle.”

Blaise shared that after he was ambushed, he was driven to a police station where he was beaten.

His experience is just one in hundreds of chilling anecdotes that can be attributed to SARS. Activists have been collecting accounts of alleged SARS and other police violence and posting them online to websites such as

“We’re all so used to being stopped by the police. We’re all so used to being harassed by the police,” Michael Sonariwo told BuzzFeed News. “Every single person — I’m not exaggerating to you — all of my guys have a SARS story.”

Michael Sonariwo

Michael Sonariwo has been arrested more than five times by SARS operatives.

The 27-year-old event promoter who was raised in Atlanta relocated to Nigeria a decade ago and is taking part in the protests and using his platform to speak up. In the space of one year, he said, he was arrested more than five times.

Despite his frequent instances of harassment, Sonariwo is able to apply perspective and echoes the sentiments of most protesters who point to groups like SARS as symptomatic of deeper issues running through Nigeria: growing economic inequality and bad leadership.

“Some policemen are making 50,000 naira a month ($130),” Sonariwo said. “They’re supposed to support a family of two or three with that salary — some with 80,000 naira ($208) and support a family of three or four. So now they see young people with iPhones that cost 200,000 naira ($520). That’s more than their monthly salary, and the government treats them like animals. Have you seen their barracks? You treat people like animals long enough, they’ll act like it.”

Often hailed as the “giant of Africa,” in 2018 Nigeria overtook India to become the poverty capital of the world while simultaneously boasting about having Africa’s largest economy.

“We’re really fighting a big fight, a fight bigger than you all think, and that’s why I said everybody needs to just start talking, do anything possible,” said Sonariwo, who has issued a call to the diaspora around the world to continue to apply pressure and raise awareness.

“Do you realize how brave guys are to go on the streets with all this trauma, with all these experiences? On the streets, the government doesn’t care about you,” he said.

“There are people hurting on the streets, I’m privileged. I know where I’m coming from because I grew up in America. The life I lived in America is not the life I’ve lived in Nigeria,” he added.

The bravery of the Nigerians of all ages from various backgrounds who have taken to the streets to demand change has been a source of hope for many who had felt that the country was a lost cause.

“I used to be a ‘Nigeria can get better’ person, but I gave up,” said Karo Omu, who left Nigeria in 2016.

Demola Osuntoki

Karo Omu at the London demonstration calling for an end to police brutality in Nigeria.

“This is the first time I’m feeling like it could possibly get better again, after a long time.”

The 29-year-old has continued to engage with the country’s issues through her charitable organization that aims to eradicate child labor in Nigeria and as a member of the Feminist Coalition.

With a renewed sense of hope, Omu has helped organize demonstrations for the diaspora in London and believes that the root of Nigeria’s broader issues lies solely at the feet of the government.

“Whatever you think it is, it still comes back to the way Nigeria has been managed by the government and the way Nigeria has deteriorated over the years,” said Omu.

“It shows there’s just so many cracks in the structure of the country, the government of the country, and it’s not just this administration — it’s been this way for many years.

“Now there’s social media, you can see what’s better out there. You can see how much people care about their citizens. It doesn’t mean any country’s perfect, but there’s so much to do. From police reform to education to healthcare, and I think the lockdown also played a role because we were indoors. We’ve had enough time to think, and we’ve thought about what could be.”

The battle for what could be is one with young people at the forefront, a jolt to a culture that typically reveres age above all else.

“The youth are recognizing their power and it’s really beautiful to see, but what would be even more beautiful will be some change happening,” said Omu.

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Facebook admits to incorrectly labeling #EndSARS content as misinformation

Facebook has apologised for incorrectly labelling Instagram content supporting #EndSARS as false information.

The social network admitted to Euronews that posts expressing solidarity with protestors in Nigeria had been labelled as misleading in error.

Facebook said they have the mistake and stated that they had let down “their online community in such a time of need”.

The apology came after backlash from social media users on Instagram when they noticed that a warning screen had been added to images using the solidarity hashtag #EndSARS.

The false information warning over the image also directed users to an article about a separate misinformation claim.

“The amount of ‘false information’ on Instagram, and they block this?” Ashley Banjo, a TV Presenter in the UK said in his Instagram story in response to his post being censored.

Facebook third-party fact-checkers identify false information as altered content or content with missing context on Instagram.

In addition to the label warning, content flagged in this way is hidden from the ‘Explore’ options on the app, and are less visible on Instagram feeds.

“We are aware that Facebook’s automated systems were incorrectly flagging content in support of #EndSARS, and for this we are deeply sorry,” a Facebook company spokesperson told Euronews.

“This issue has since been resolved, and we apologise for letting down our community in such a time of need.”

Facebook did not respond to Euronews’ question regarding how many posts had been incorrectly labeled.

Demonstrations and unrest in Nigeria began earlier this month, as citizens protested against the police unit known as Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The force has been accused of police brutality and targeting young Nigerians.

Amnesty International say they have received “credible evidence” that peaceful protestors were shot at, and it is estimated that at least 12 people have died.

The NGO also stated they have testament of at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.

The hashtag #EndSARS has been trending across the globe over the past few weeks with mounting international support for the demonstrators.

Click on the player above to watch Seana Davis’ report in The Cube.

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