The unraveling of the EndSARS protests in Nigeria

Nov 07, 2020|Yvette Uloma Dimiri

Unemployed “lazy” Nigerian youths, in less than two weeks, upended the bigotry of low expectations. The #EndSARS protests allowed many of us to show real love for this country for the first time in many of our lives. 

After almost two weeks of peaceful protests, the Nigerian military opened fire on #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll gate and at multiple other locations around the country. Now, we are all consumed with grief over the scenes at the toll gate. Grief, as they say, is love with no place to go.

We didn’t want it to end like this: full of lifeless bodies and fragranced with conspiracies. After two weeks of protest in Nigeria, the police were already responsible for over 56 deaths. Amnesty International, after preliminary investigations, confirms an additional 12 died at the Lekki Toll massacre alone. 

A protest is a legitimate strategy and sometimes the only way powerless people have to fight for their rights. In the case of #EndSARS, Nigeria’s young people were reclaiming their constitutional right to safety and life, free from torture and harassment from a vicious unit in the police. 

A clear assessment of how one of the most powerful movements in Nigeria’s recent history unravelled will help paint a clearer picture of what happens next; how we come back stronger.  


A protest staged for the world to see

Protesting is theatre and needs an audience. Gaining local and international attention was one of the quick wins of the #EndSARS protesters. Nigerians who took part in the #EndSARS movement put on one hell of a show. But this was not acting: the movement was less about raising placards at the Lekki toll gate and other locations around the country. It was more about provoking a response from the government (resignations, panels, shows of empathy, executive orders, and more) due to the widespread injustice. 

As we wrote before, nothing changes unless the political elite sees it as a problem. In the case of the #EndSARS protests, responses have come in from governors, the Inspector General of Police, from President Muhammadu Buhari, and from Vice President Osinbajo. Brand24 estimates that within the first 10 days of the protests, over 150 million people would have seen or interacted with the movement. Although not quite up to the nearly 1.6 billion people that interacted with the Black Lives Matter protest, #EndSARS won the conversation of the moment.

The international media has been particularly effective at increasing the pressure. After all, when the Vice President broke his silence he (oddly) had printed out tweets from Bloomberg and BBC Africa on his desk. 

When the IGP announced the disbanding of SARS, it looked like victory. The protests appeared to have been successful until things started to take a turn. 


Money and thugs

The successes of the protests should be celebrated, but success often brings with it the seeds of failure. There is a growing body of literature about why leaderless (decentralised) protests are so powerful. 

Generally, there are three ways to shatter nascent organisations; violence, starving resource flow, and spoiling.

Violence fatigues public sentiment. Once people started seeing “alleged” EndSARS protesters freeing prisoners, they were inclined to reassess their commitment to the movement.

Violence can be mobilised by state actors but it can also be a result of opportunism among an idol population.

Boredom and youth is not the best of combinations. Nigeria, as is well documented, has an abundance of young people with nothing to do—consider the 56% unemployment rate for people under 35 all living in a country whose GDP reduced by 6% in the second quarter of the year.

If it can happen in Chicago and London, that thugs, typically young men, have access to weapons independent of a state actor, Lagos should not surprise anyone. Nigeria ranked 14th out of 178th states in The Fragile States Index (FSI)—one of the most fragile states in the world and in fact nearing alert-level for fragility

But days before violence inspired by the protests picked up, organisers of the protest documented that their accounts had been restricted. The EndSARS movement saw the first signs when movement of funds were restricted. One organisation, the Feminist Coalition, could only use bitcoin to accept donations. Luckily, Nigeria has one of the fastest cryptocurrency adoption rates in the world. BuyCoins, a local cryptocurrency platform put the country’s total trading volume across all channels at well over $200 million per month. This was very much a situation of opportunity meeting preparation.


No leaders, plenty of spoilers.

Decentralised protests are effective precisely because of their lack of appointed leadership. It encourages rapid grassroots organisations. In five days, the Feminist Coalition funded 100 protests across in 25 of Nigeria’s 36 states. People got organised fast.

The strategy showed its vulnerability when young Nigerians were invited to dialogue with the state and the federal government. Not only was it unclear who would participate but also our demands were varied: notable #5 for5,  #7for7 and the list of 23 demands

Unfortunately, this is ripe territory for spoilers. Not the Game of Thrones kind. In political science, spoilers refer to people or parties who believe the emerging peace threatens their power, ideology, and interests and so work to undermine attempts to achieve it.

Spoilers of #EndSARS claimed they were not adequately represented, or they never agreed to the next steps. These dissenting voices were in pockets of social media (usually found responding to calls for dialogue. All of this casted doubt not only on the seriousness of young people but on the viability of any deal once negotiated to end the protests. It may seem like a small thing, but spoiling can be disastrous.

One of Africa’s most infamous instances of spoiling began in August 1993 when President Juvenal Habyarimana of Rwanda signed the Arusha Peace Accords, which promised to end a civil war in which approximately 10,000 people had been killed. Habyarimana died after his plane was shot down in April 1994. This action by those who felt threatened by the deal resulted in a genocide where over 800,000 Rwandans died in less than three months.


Missing in Action

Despite the well-known echo-chambers of social media, you might have been hard-pressed to find a Nigerian on Twitter that missed the EndSARS movement. While the largest pool of funds spent over ₦60 million covering everything from legal aid to masks, in retrospect there was one apparatus missing.  

If change truly depends on the political elite then we need them as allies and plenty of them. Consequently, as anyone in media will tell you, you need to be where your audience is. 

Channels TV and AIT alone hold 28% of Nigeria’s television viewership at peak evening news hours. We need to be speaking to that audience.

NTA, Channels, and AIT can enjoy between 1.6 billion to 3 billion views a month. These networks were slower to cover the protests. A global study found that Baby Boomers – (57-64 years-old) named TV News channels as their most trusted source of information. This created a dissonance between Nigeria’s young people and the older political elite. What young people saw as an all-consuming problem, threatening their lives,  older people saw simply as fly that needed to be swatted.  This could have been combated with a network of surrogates occupying airtime on relevant traditional broadcasters, and buying ads where necessary. 


Thinking time

A protest does not solve problems, it only brings light to them. What solves problems is clear thinking and access to power. 

Understanding how the strengths of the movement were weaponised to deflate it gives us useful information for getting organised in the future. 

Indeed, it is only by reckoning with the unravelling of the protests that we can have a substantive hope. Neither the fru-fru kind of hope nor the kind that ignores the grim context of our political leadership. This hope is looking squarely at our challenges and shortcomings and through effort and community believing we are making it better.

Since progress does not move in a straight line, it appears the only real achievement is our perseverance. Democracy, if we do it well, will mean leaving behind the kind of country where unlike our parents, we might actually be surprised if our children return home from protest with horror stories.