On 21 October 2020, during a peaceful demonstration in Lagos, witnesses reported 12 people had been shot dead and many more injured by police. Demonstrators had been protesting against police brutality and the controversial SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) unit over a number of weeks.
The shooting occurred at a rally that had continued in defiance of the 24-hour curfew introduced earlier in the day, with nationwide protests the focal point of Nigerian current affairs since October 8 2020.
The controversial SARS unit of the Nigerian police force was formed in 1992 to combat crimes associated with robbery, motor vehicle theft, cattle rustling, and firearms. However, since its inception, it has been implicated in extensive human rights violations: carrying out extrajudicial killings, illegal arrests/detentions, and widespread torture.
In a 2020 report, Amnesty International recorded at least 82 incidents of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020, with Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria saying:
“Nigerians are outraged by the impunity with which SARS perpetrates horrific human rights violations”
In the same report, Amnesty International documented 15 cases where SARS arbitrarily confiscated property, abused their position to extort and steal money, property, and other valuables from suspects and their families.
Young people between the ages of 17-30 are the most at risk of being arrested, tortured, or extorted by SARS; often being accused of being internet fraudsters or armed robbers. The targeting of youth has undoubtedly played a significant role in the formulation of the current protests, which are predominantly led and populated by young Nigerians.
Nigeria also has one of the youngest populations in the world, with a median age of just 17.9
Victoria Pang, a 22-year-old graduate who was at one of the protests in the capital said:
“Our parents say there was a time when things were good, but we have never experienced it”
This is a sentiment that has reverberated across Nigeria over the last few weeks, with many young people feeling marginalised by a gerontocratic government.
Another contributory factor is the decline of the Nigerian economy in recent years. In 2016, Nigeria saw its real GDP fall for the first time since 1995. The downturn has been accompanied by a massive rise in the unemployment rate over the past four years – from 12.1% in 2016 to 27.1% in 2020. Around half of Nigeria’s citizens live on about £1.50 a day.
The country has also seen a steady breakdown along ethnic and religious lines, with thousands of people dying at the hands of jihadists in the north-east and the imposition of Islamic law in several states displacing thousands of Christian Nigerians. This has added to the nation’s economic woes, with foreign entities reluctant to invest in a region plagued by instability.
The economic turbulence and political insecurity in Nigeria has created an atmosphere primed for civil disobedience and contributed to the widespread discontent driving these protests.
On 12 October, the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, said “the disband of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform”, suggesting that protests had been successful in pushing for meaningful change. However, the shootings on Tuesday indicate that his words do not reflect the actions taken by government forces.
This use of violence in response to protests in Nigeria has received widespread condemnation from across the international community.
US presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has urged Buhari and the Nigerian military to end the “violent crackdown on protesters”, calling for more dialogue between the government and civil society.
Human Rights Watch has also been vocal in its criticism of the response of Nigerian security forces, with Aniete Ewang, the NGO’s Nigeria researcher saying:
“People exercising their right to protest and calling for an end to police brutality are themselves being brutalized and harassed by those who should protect them”