UW-Madison graduate student Ayodeji Adegbite reflects on the meaning of #EndSARS and what he wants the world to know about Nigeria’s youth movement. Ayodeji is a PhD student in History of Science, Medicine and Technology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Ayodeji’s research interests include the history of health, infectious diseases, and environmental and social change in Africa. His MA thesis explored how colonial infrastructures and knowledge shaped the geography of yellow fever in British West Africa and changing understandings in its transmission and control. He is presently in the third year of his PhD program in History at UW-Madison.
Ayodeji received his BA in History and International Studies and a Master’s degree in the Center for Peace and Strategic Studies at the University of Ilorin where he wrote his first MA thesis on “The Lagos State Management of The Ebola Crises and Its Implications on Health Security.” He has a keen interest in environmental humanities.
Share with us what you know about #EndSARS and the political rise of Nigeria’s youth?
“The #EndSARS is a grassroots movement by Nigerian youth to end all forms of police brutality. SARS is a Special Anti-Robbery Squad created by the Nigerian government in 1992 to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes in the country. The unit, however, became what it was created to end, committing the same crimes that it was meant to protect people from. The SARS and to a large extent, the majority of Nigeria’s police force are constantly accused of torture, harassment of youth, extortion, and extra-judicial killings. SARS officers profile youths and detain them because they dress in a certain fancy way, carry iPhones or laptops, or drive expensive cars. They then force detainees to pay large ransoms to obtain their personal items, which SARS officers confiscate. They rape women, mount illegal roadblocks, and arrest without warrant. For a few years, the #EndSARS hashtag that first surfaced in 2017 cast a harsh light on the police brutality that the youth face in Nigeria every day. Yet, several promises by the government to abolish SARS and reform the police have remained unfulfilled.
The present #EndSARS movement, which has attracted almost 30 million tweets on Twitter, was revitalized when a video that circulated online showed a man being beaten by members of SARS.
In early October 2020, days after, several Nigerians including celebrities and activists expressed outrage on social media over the killings. Omoyele Sowore of #Revolutionow, Nigerian musicians Folarin Falana (aka Falz), and Douglas Jack Agu (aka Runtown) encouraged people on social media platforms to come out, converge and physically protest against this police brutality. Days after, several protests took place across different states including Benin and Abuja. About 2000 people heeded this call in Lagos on the 8th of October 2020, according to Falz. In Lagos, youths marched to a police station. They handed in a #5for5 petition demanding an end to the SARS unit, and also police reforms. The protests then engulfed the rest of the country. Celebrities like Wizkid, Davido, Burna Boy, and foreign ones like Cardi B, Drake, Rihanna have since thrown their support behind the movement. The protests dominated social media feeds on almost every continent and, made its way into the U.S. presidential race. ‘The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy,’ said Democratic nominee Joe Biden in a statement.”
What do you think everyone should know about SARS and the current movement to reform policing and Nigerian society?
“As a historian, one thing that comes to mind immediately is to view the Nigerian security force as a product of the past. The Nigeria security apparatus as a whole was not created to secure the lives of Nigerians. It still bears elements of its colonial origins and of military dictatorships, and it has most often served as a tool of the Nigerian political elites. As the most populous country in Africa with one of the largest youth populations, Nigeria must maintain an adequately funded, well-trained security apparatus sophisticated enough to confront 21st-century challenges. But it needs to address the real challenges that the country faces, not continue to oppress its people. The harsh effects of the COVID19 pandemic hit at the heart of a country already overstressed by insecurity. Boko Haram terrorism remains a menace, there’s widespread kidnapping, and herdsmen-farmers clashes continue to exacerbate insecurity in the country.
When the COVID19 pandemic broke out there were warning signs. The security forces that are meant to enforce pandemic lockdown killed more people in the early months of the pandemic.
But the pandemic exposed more than the poor conception and practice of security in Nigeria. Security cannot be limited to armed and national security. Threats to life in Nigeria manifest in badly maintained roads that have become death traps, inadequate to non-existent health infrastructure, rising unemployment, a poor education system, rising fuel prices, increasing electricity tariffs, and rising poverty levels. Despite the exploits of its vibrant, productive, and energetic youth at home and abroad, Nigeria remains ‘the poverty capital of the world,’ while the political elites continue to amass wealth at the detriment of the masses. In the midst of all this, the Nigerian political class remains one of the highest-paid in the world. The Nigerian elites are the greediest class in the world. Decades of maladministration and corruption are crystallized by the rule of the most insensitive government in the history of postcolonial Nigeria, that of Muhammadu Buhari. The president’s silence in the face of it all is deafening.
The #EndSARS protests, therefore, represent a vehicle to channel and convey the frustration of the masses.
Events in Nigeria can quickly affect all of West Africa and destabilize the region. The ripple effects will be felt across Africa. In fact, there are fears that the Lekki massacre and the chaos that has engulfed the country afterward, if not properly managed, can lead to a civil war. Conflict entrepreneurs have seized the opportunity to incite fear and sow hate and divisions on social media platforms. The looting and destruction of public and private properties that have descended on the country will definitely set the country back several years. The world needs to pay attention.”
How have you supported #EndSARS from the U.S.?
“It is very important for Nigerians in the diaspora to support this movement. Well-meaning Nigerians in the diaspora have held solidarity rallies and protests. They also continue to support with funds and on social media platforms. Nigerians in the diaspora also help ramp up international pressure on the government.
On Wednesday, the 14th of October 2020, I drove with some Nigerian friends to Chicago to join the protest there. I’ve also joined the Union of Nigerians in Madison Area UNIMA, to deliberate on how Nigerians in the diaspora can further help the movement.
One of the reasons I’m sharing this information at this particular time is to ensure that the protesters killed and injured during the protests are not rendered invisible and erased from history. And, that this is happening in the wake of George Floyd killing and the Black Lives Matter movements that ensued in the United States speak to the racial and colonial history of policing and the imperative of widescale reforms in policing across the USA and Africa.
It is important to memorialize this movement and the sacrifices of the protesters for a country that had given them so little. The government has since unleashed its propaganda machinery, giving contradictory statements in denial of the Lekki massacre. A long-awaited presidential speech meant to address the grievances of the nation failed to mention the massacre at Lekki, setting the tone for textbook erasure and normalization of death, with which Nigerians are all too familiar. Even though I’m not in Nigeria, one of the things I can do is to try and write the right history for posterity.”
Which people and organizations involved in the movement have inspired you? And, also, how are the protests organized?
“The truth is that no single individual or group can take credit for this movement, except perhaps those who laid down their lives. They are my inspiration. Everyone is tired.
The movement is organic, and it belonged to everyone and no one in particular. It belongs to all the youth. But we can’t yet talk about it in the past tense. It’s not a sprint, this task, it’s a marathon!
Youth protesters displayed enormous ingenuity and sacrifice during the protests. An exhaustive list of groups and individuals, including social media influencers, celebrities, comedians, and ordinary Nigerians were united by the brutal force of the police and by the desolate Nigerian predicament. Therefore, while images of political activists like Aisha Yesufu’s clenched fist became a symbol of the protest, Feminist Coalition a not-for-profit group helped in coordination, logistics, and mobilization. Others like Falz, Debo Adebayo (aka MrMacaroni), Rinu Oduala (aka SavviRinu) leveraged on their fame, physical presence, and social media posts to educate and amplify the voices of others. Celebrities leveraged their fame and names, but thousands faced bullets as they took to the streets across the country. A Tweet from an Abeokuta protester best captures the mood, ‘no celebrity!! No public figure!! Just us and our voices!!#EndSARS.’ The protest was organic, and many ordinary people brought their pain, sweat, and blood to it.
What the protests lacked in a centralized leadership, they made up for in a nonconventional organization, leveraging on the social media technologies. Youths alternated between social media and protest sites. Several people contributed to the protest through online engagements and donations. The decentralized leadership defeats the government’s typical move of targeting and compromising protest leaders. The ‘Sorosoke generation’ loosely translated as the ‘speak-up generation’ as the protesters called themselves, simply encouraged speaking out and speaking up against all forms of oppression, and an end to injustice. They built a social and technological infrastructure and support to amplify their long-silenced voices to inspire and sustain the most powerful movement in Nigeria since the 2012 #OccupyNaija protest.
Collectively, protesters raised funds, organized medical responders, entertainers, legal aid networks, and private security, and provided food for protesters, and cleaned up streets after protests. Ambulances were sent to attend to the wounded and injured and medical bills were cleared. They provided accommodation for the homeless. Protesters provided political education on the social media platforms about the protests and controlled narratives. They circulated stories and videos of evidence of police brutality, murder, torture, extortion, and gross abuse of human rights on social media. On Friday, the fourth day of protests, across the country, protesters organized and circulated an emotional candle night for those who have died since the beginning of the present protests and to those who died before. Protesters showed great financial transparency for funds raised and the expenditures made. Nigerian diversity and youthful exuberance were harnessed for a great cause.
The atmosphere created by peaceful protestors was simply magical. Protest sites became more than a space to articulate aggregated frustration about the state of the country but also spaces to imagine, live, and envision a Nigeria that the youth desire. The art, symbols, places, and events of the protests within a few days, became a microcosm of the Nigerian aspiration and hope. The youth simply created a Nigeria of their dreams by themselves. A united Nigeria. In 12 days, places like Lekki, one of the major centers of the protest in Lagos became a mecca of sorts: a home for the homeless. Indeed, if the motto of Lagos state is ‘center of excellence’ Lekki became a center for the youth to perform that excellence. At least, until the unfortunate event on the 12th day of the protest.
The government, shocked by this powerful wave and energy, came out to declare that it had disbanded SARS and replaced it with SWAT. But this is an all too familiar story. The government had previously disbanded the same unit on different occasions in the past only for them to resurface and continue their marauding. To be fair, the Lagos State Government and a few other states made significant efforts to meet the demands of the protesters and create judicial panels to prosecute erring officers. They called the youth for dialogue. But the protest has taken a life of its own. An atmosphere of distrust, nurtured by decades of unfulfilled promises, had left the people devoid of faith in the government. They won’t take the olive branch extended to them. They refused to come to the negotiation table, requesting that the government do the right thing and that the president address the country.
This lack of trust created and sustained an impasse as events quickly degenerated into chaos. Critiques have claimed that the lack of leadership was the Achilles heel of the protest. For, as protests gathered momentum, hoodlums-some of whom were sponsored by the government, others merely taking advantage of the disorder, took to the streets. They disrupted public order and vandalized properties. The government seized the opportunity to declare a curfew in Lagos State and it spiraled into violence.
A massacre ensued. When the government unleashed mayhem at peaceful protesters, who in the words of a Nigerian disk Jockey, DJ Switch (who witnessed, recorded, and was injured during the massacre) ‘only had the Nigerian flags and national anthem as defense.’ A tweet from the Feminist Coalition best captured the event that happened next, ‘The unified voices of Nigerians have been treated as a threat to democracy instead of an expression of it.’ More than that, the government went after the heart of the protest, ignoring the places where hoodlums were looting and destroying properties.
The looting and carnage and the breakdown of law and order recorded in major cities and towns that endangers the lives and properties of our families and folks in Nigeria could easily have been avoided.”
What can you say about The Lekki Toll Gate Massacre?
“Firstly, my interest in environmental humanities allows me to shine a different light on Nigerian environmental concerns, of which Lekki is at its center. Formerly a dreaded swampy neighborhood, Lekki has become the center for the Lagos state government and elites to imagine and propel Lagos and indeed Nigeria to an ever-elusive growth and modernity. Lekki is one of the fastest-growing construction and economic corridors in Africa. The Lekki Epe Toll Gate, the center of the peaceful protest, is a part of the economic instruments that generate millions of naira for the Lagos State. With the protesters blocking the Toll Gate from operating, millions of naira were estimated to be lost in the few days of the protest. Yet there are bigger warning signs. In an article published by Vanguard titled ‘Lekki, a time bomb waiting to explode’ in 2012, Jude Njoku commented on ‘the upward swing in construction activities in the area, (that) may lead to an environmental catastrophe.’ Njoku’s concern was the incessant flooding amidst a grave infrastructural deficit in Lekki. But like many countries, Lekki symbolizes how Nigeria continues to follow a path that Julie Livingston described in her book Self-Devouring Growth: A Planetary Parable as Told from Southern Africa; a cancerous model of self-consuming growth characteristic of global capitalism. A growth that consumes the future. A different tragedy befell Lekki on the 20 of October 2020, but the causalities are the same. At Lekki, the Nigerian government went to war with its future.
On the 20th of October 2020, the Nigerian Armed Forces opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate. Protesters had observed that the cameras at the toll-gate had been removed after the curfew.
Arise TV, a media house in Nigeria broadcasted some of the events amidst state propaganda to cover up. The government has since made conflicting statements about the Lekki massacre, from denying the incident to attempt to erase their death. Like the Zaria massacre in 2015, where Amnesty International reported the death of over 350 members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria with bodies secretly buried, and the over 150 pro-Biafra activists killed in South-Eastern Nigeria, the Lekki Massacre captures what Georgio Agamben called homo Sacer, or ‘bare life.’ Nigerian life is ‘constantly disposable and vulnerable to state power.’ These deaths are rendered invisible by the government’s speeches and machinery. According to DJ Switch, ‘They put off the light.’ Officers of the Nigerian military came ‘aiming and shooting live bullets.’ ‘The soldiers went away with the dead bodies.’ She said at least 15 people died. She has since shared this story in a widely circulated Instagram video.
When Falz was asked if he was afraid that the government would kill him for granting interviews about the protests and the massacre by CNN correspondent, he said ‘I am not afraid for my life, I could easily die anyway,’ with the poverty and the state of our health system ‘every single Nigerian is one sickness away from dying anyway.’ The tragedy is that protest and the massacre met a population who for so long have been deprived of common decency, living a bare life. It was easy therefore for protesters to defy curfew and the government orders. ‘I’ll waste you, and nothing will happen,’ SARS officials often say when they threaten (and sometimes kill) youths. They are now facing the reality of those whose bare lives they have too easily dismissed. People are rising up in protest.
While there had been a few skirmishes from thugs, many of whom were initially sponsored by the government to disrupt protests in areas like Alausa in Lagos, the Federal capital, Abuja, it was Lekki, where protesters have remained peaceful and inventive. This was the site targeted by the government. The government attacked the center of the protest where the future of the state was being negotiated.”
“In an article published by the Premium Times in 2019 titled ‘Anger of the poor,’ Bamidele Ademola-Olateju, stated that ‘the ingredients of violent agitation are threatening to come together …(t)he government must take active steps to guarantee legal right to basic needs like food, health and education. Failure to act will threaten Nigeria’s corporate existence.’ The widespread looting, amidst the chaos that has engulfed the country in the wake of the Lekki Massacre, captures the raging fury of the masses.
Poverty has been weaponized by the political elites. Poor people have continued to loot facilities where government Hod the Covid19 palliatives meant for them. Despite the immense hardships in the country in the wake of the pandemic, exacerbated by the lockdown, the government hid these palliatives in discreet facilities. At the time of writing this, the government has yet to provide a reasonable explanation as to why the palliatives were not given to the people.
Greedy Nigerian politicians need people to remain poor and subservient to them. But rising insecurity and hunger is always a bad mix.
As Federick Douglass puts it, ‘Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.’
Many of the so-called hoodlums that disrupted the protests are created by this cycle of poverty and despair nourished by the political elites. Many of them are not on social media and do not understand or care about the protests. They became the weakest link of the protest. Civil disobedience and riots are a way for them to articulate their grief of the oppression that they suffer. They are what Nigerian singer Burna Boy called ‘the monsters the government made.’ It is the hoodlums that are handed weapons and are used by the politician to oppress and rig elections. Unlike the peaceful protesters, hoodlums work for the government. During the protests, they also mixed with the protesters to profit from the situation. ‘Hoodlums’ lack rhythm, ideology, and education. As a product of a chaotic society, they only profit from chaos.
They must be taken seriously by any movement. We must find a way to understand and reach out to these hoodlums who would easily sell their loyalty to the highest bidder and steal ballot boxes for peanuts. But it has been done through deliberate alleviation of poverty and education. The hoodlums sustain the government and are the excuse the government used to launch military operations.
Going forward, there’s a need for restorative justice. An approach to justice in which there’s an organized meeting between the victim and the government, and sometimes with representatives of the wider community and reparations made. As DJ Switch said, ‘If you don’t bring people to book if you don’t bring justice to families, [the chaos] will continue.’ There has to be an account.
But most importantly, ‘This is our moment, we have to take this momentum forward’ as Seun Kuti, the son of the late Fela Anikulapo Kuti, said. It is unfortunate that the Nigerian government allowed a truly genuine social movement to degenerate into the chaos that has left the country on the brink. But we can’t afford to stop now. The journey is a marathon, not a sprint!”
Produced by Carly Lucas