Analysts have long predicted the emergence of the bulging youth populations we see across Africa today. In doing so, they have repeatedly focused on matters of economic difficulty as the primary concerns likely to drive challenges to the political class. But the protests happening across Africa make clear that her young people’s concerns carry more dimension and include matters of personal dignity, free expression, the right to life.
From Namibia to Cameroon to Congo, African people, especially her young, took to their streets and to social media to demand and cry out for their lives, for safety, for economic justice, for human rights.
In this report, we seek to make sense of young Nigerians’ protests to #EndSARS, as a subset of these issues. We consider what they reveal about the challenges of poor governance about the country, the place of social media in the potential to organize for change.
Our analysis reveals:
Beginning on October 8, 2020, young Nigerian people have taken to the streets, at home and abroad, in one of the country’s largest organic protest movements in recent history. Frustrated by repeated harassment and violence at the hands of officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), these young people are demanding a disbandment of the unit, and prosecution of officers accused of crimes.
October’s protests were the latest in a series of calls to curtail the SARS unit which is infamous for well-documented and repeated acts of violence against Nigerian citizens. The unit’s crimes run the gamut from harassment and verbal abuse to extortion, torture and outright murder.
As we covered in the first social issues report in our COVID series, police brutality is not unique to Nigeria. Nor is bad governance, identified as a critical issue at the root of police brutality. Indeed, October was replete with voices of Africa’s people, from Namibia, to Congo, to Cameroon and Nigeria, calling attention to conditions that have festered because of bad governance, and demanding justice and change.
Many of these cries have been in the voices of young people, young women in particular. Like their peers across the world, they share values of idealism, a care for justice, and a sense of organizing power, likely due in part to the incredible mass communication technologies at their disposal. They are marshaling these capacities in unprecedented ways to demand justice and positive change in their societies.
This report focuses on young Nigerians’ protests for the disbandment of SARS. Using our proprietary African sentiment social listening tool, we conducted an overview of sentiment surrounding the movement as discussed on Twitter. In doing so, we hoped to illuminate some of the motivating narratives of the movement. We also surveyed a sample of Nigerians using our Versus “Ask” feature, to glean more data related to public views on the protest movement, and sentiment toward the state of the country in the days since the in-person protests ended in Nigeria. We place the #EndSARS protests, alongside the broader history of contemporary social movements that have gathered momentum on social media (the Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and more), and consider possibilities for the emergent future.
In police stations across Nigeria, signs reading “The Police is Your Friend" are displayed on walls. Yet few, if any, Nigerians view the police with such fondness. Indeed, mistrust between the Nigerian Police Force and Nigerian citizens is an old tale.
Between 2000 and 2007, Human Rights Watch reported 8000 killings by Nigerian police, including 785 killings in a 3-month period. Prior research indicates that this kind of violence and brutality is longstanding. In a 1988 analysis, criminology scholar Ettanibi Alemika found that both the pre-colonial and post-colonial governments used the police as tools of oppression, repression and exploitation of Nigerian citizens. “The history of numerous and disparate police forces in Nigeria since colonialism reveals a legacy of arbitrariness, ruthlessness, brutality, vandalism, incivility, low accountability to the public and corruption, ”Alemika wrote.
The widely reported brutality of SARS could then be described as a new iteration of an old condition in Nigeria. The unit was created in 1992 to combat robberies, kidnappings and crimes associated with firearms. But from early on, it mirrored the rest of the police force with regular use of torture. Since 2015, the federal government has taken up various strategies for reform and accountability in the unit. Yet, Amnesty International found in June 2020 report that “SARS officers continue to subject detainees in their custody to torture and other forms of ill-treatment with total impunity.”
Young people in particular are targeted by SARS officers for their hairstyles, tattoos and markers of wealth (laptops, expensive cell phones, cars); qualities that, in the eyes of the officers, seem to identify them as likely to be involved in criminal activity.
The #EndSARS first emerged in December 2017 when a video of the killing of a young man was shared across social media. Many responded with stories of their own encounters with the unit. “The demand for an end to SARS dominated Twitter activities by Nigerians. Citizens used #EndSARS to list allegations of extra-judicial killings, wanton arrests and dispossession of properties through physical assault and other intimidation tactics,” Nigeria’s Premium Times newspaper reported at the time.
The Inspector General of Police promised reforms to the force, but the unit continued to operate with impunity. Last month’s protests began in response when a new video surfaced of SARS officials allegedly killing a young man and driving off with his car. Young people took to the streets in Lagos, Abuja, Ibadan and other cities bearing signs that said “iPhone no be gun o,” (which means, “My iPhone is not a gun/license to kill me,” in Pidgin English, a popular native language) and “Young Nigerian not target practice,” and more. Other stories of harassment and brutalization followed, fueling the movement. The protests spread across the world as Nigeria’s diasporic communities also rallied for protests. They continued in Nigeria until Tuesday 20th October, 2020 when at least 12 people were killed by members of the Nigerian military at Lekki in Lagos, as reported by Amnesty International. The protests have since garnered the attention of the international community. Nigerians in the diaspora continue to organize protests to draw attention to issues on the ground in Nigeria.
Social media was a critical site for fundraising, and for coordinating protest-related resources. Nigerians continue to use it to make sense of next steps for the movement, and to identify strategies for long term organizing.
The following section analyzes some of the key topics and narratives emergent in conversations around the protests on Twitter. We opted to focus our analysis on Twitter alone, as protesters took to the platform to articulate their experiences around the movement, and much of the news reporting on the protests relied on Twitter as a primary source.
We also used our Versus Ask™ product feature to survey our Versus Scouts for additional insights.
This covers the top relevant trends in conversations from October 8 to October 19, 2020.
Versus Twitter breakdown from Nigeria
Mentions covered across Nigeria during the period
Note: As the charts above illustrate, sentiment distribution for all three hashtags covered on Twitter trended mostly neutral. This was largely due to the activity of many users who posted the hashtags without surrounding comments to draw attention to the movement. Significant negative sentiment tended to follow stories of victims.
Stories of the harassment and brutality committed by officers were prominently shared in Twitter conversation of the #EndSARS movement. Family members and friends of police brutality victims shared experiences ranging from torture to outright murder. Mentions also called attention to the alleged promotion of officers who were previously accused of torturing citizens to death. Stories of alleged atrocities by an infamous SARS branch in Awkuzu, Anambra were particularly gripping for their horror. The story of 20-year-old Chijioke Iloanya’s disappearance at the hands of officers there, and his family’s struggle to find him was animating for the movement, as it illustrated the extent of brutality and inhumanity that drove the protests. (Of note: Chijioke’s family has, for years, been calling for justice in the matter of their son’s disappearance as this July 2020 report shows). Twitter also saw sentiments on the effects of the killings on the actualization of dreams and aspirations of the youths.
In making sense of the persistence of these acts of SARS brutality, conversation pointed to a lack of accountability as seen in the redeployment of accused officers without prosecution on their offences. People also highlighted problems with the structure of the Nigerian police system.
Twitter conversation placed the conduct of Nigerian Police Force within the context of broader systemic issues of poor governance. Amongst the main rallying cries in this regard was the cost of governance, seen in the salaries and allowances at various levels of government, particularly those of members of the federal legislature. To highlight the extreme disparity, these lawmaker salaries were compared with the minimum wage in Nigeria, and salaries and benefits for lawmakers in far wealthier countries.
Several Twitter users also juxtaposed the compensation package of the police personnel against politicians' allowances. Some called for improved welfare for the policemen arguing that it could reduce their tendency toward extortion and brutalization. In this analysis, the police were also victims of bad governance. Some advised police officers to consider taking their own protest action in the form of a strike, to send a warning message to the government.
In addition to calls to #EndBadGovernance in relation to ending SARS in Nigeria, tweets nodded at calls for justice from other parts of Africa, including justice related to gender-based violence in Namibia and child labor in the Congo, framing all these issues as larger issues of poor governance across the continent.
In addition to making sense of SARS brutality in Nigeria, the #EndSARS hashtag was used to share scenes from the protest grounds across Nigeria, using both text, photos and video. Those scenes showed protesters sharing personal stories of violence and harassment at the hands of the police. Images and video of vigils in honor of those killed by SARS were also shared as they happened across the country on Friday, October 16th.
Chatter about the incidents on the protest ground also reveals how different communities of young Nigerians viewed the issue through the lens of their personal experiences. For queer youth who are regularly targeted by police on account of their queerness, naming their LGBT+ identities was a critical element of their protest. They regularly used the hashtags #QueerLivesMatter and #QueerNigerianLivesMatter alongside #EndSARS to articulate this intersection in their struggle. At times, this was met with resistance from fellow protesters, with at least one queer protester sharing incidents of harassment from other protesters at protest grounds.
In northern Nigeria, where insecurity has metastasized to include spates of banditry and kidnapping, the hashtag, #SecureNorth became a rallying alternative to #EndSARS.
Another trend in Twitter conversation related to the protest sites, emphasized the collection and distribution of resources. The hashtags served to rally resources, as users shared information to support fundraising such as bank account numbers, and links to fundraising sites. Protesters also used the tags to request resources from individuals and organizations coordinating them.
Later, when the government began restricting the bank accounts of persons organizing protest resources, they shared those reports on the tag. Those restrictions were believed to be designed to halt protests, as were repeated acts of intimidation and use of force by government forces, including the alleged murder of some peaceful protesters.
When the protests took a dark turn as suspected political thugs - some of whom identified as pro-SARS protesters - began disrupting protest sites across the country, protesters also shared these scenes and their efforts to manage them. Ultimately, the tag captured the final day of in-person protests, as links to a livestream of the shooting of peaceful protesters at Lekki tollgate were shared.
Key individuals and organizations who managed donated protest resources were also an important element of discussion. Amongst them were the Feminist Coalition, #EndSARS response, Modupe Odele and FK Abudu, and numerous others. Conversation particularly celebrated the effectiveness of these organizers in coordinating resources for the protests, including funds for banners, security to protect protesters, emergency health resources, establishing a call center, and more. Many juxtaposed their effectiveness against the relative ineffectiveness of governance in Nigeria. Several notable Nigerian influencers in entertainment also led protests, including Folarin “Falz” Falana, Davido, Peter Okoye, Innocent “Tuface” Idibia and others.
From the outset, Nigeria’s diaspora populations were part of the protest movement, likely due to its emergence online. Diaspora protests took place in cities across Europe and North America shortly after the on-the ground protests began in Nigeria. They continued to spread through Nigerian communities in much of the world reaching a peak in the days following the shooting at Lekki tollgate.
Globally prominent individuals also supported the movement. For instance, Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey tweeted the hashtag #EndSARS with the Nigerian flag early in the protests. He also shared the donation info for the created by Feminist Coalition. Some Nigerian news sites reported the action as a form of support to the protest.
Twitter users also deployed the hashtag to call the attention of other globally prominent individuals and organizations, including the United Nations and Black American artiste, Beyonce Knowles. Both eventually made public statements on the protests, and have continued to indicate support and concern for the movement. Other individuals who condemned the violence unleashed at the Lekki Toll Gate include Hillary Clinton, now President-elect Joe Biden, Naomi Campbell, and many others.
To supplement data from Twitter, and make sense of sentiment in the weeks since street protests of #EndSARS ended, we at Versus, conducted surveys with a sample size of 1,500+ Nigerians across the country aged 16 to 65. Surveys included questions designed to explore sentiment toward the protest, and the following government’s response to the protests. Below, We have laid out our key findings below:
Less than 39 percent of respondents indicated that they have had encounters with SARS, but more than 50 percent indicated that they participated in the protests in some way. More than half of the respondents who indicated participation in protests, did so in pursuit of justice for themselves or others who had faced brutality from SARS officials. Importantly, the second largest pull of protesters viewed issues with SARS as a subset of larger social issues that cut across sectors.
Understandably, nearly 60 percent of respondents identify despondence, fear and sadness among their dominant emotions toward the nation in the wake of the Lekki Toll Gate incident. More than 70 percent of respondents expressed low confidence following the speech given by President Muhammadu Buhari on October 22, 2020. And more than 65 percent of respondents indicate they are very-to-moderately unlikely to remain in Nigeria in light of these events. Yet, hope remains. A substantial number of respondents- 43 percent - indicate they are motivated to continue to fight for change in Nigeria.
We asked our Nigerian respondents if they had their Permanent Voting Cards (PVC) following a thread of conversations online that led to a popular conclusion that more youth involvement in politics and a push for voting is the best start to charting the way forward. About half of our overall respondents (50 percent) said they do have it. Interestingly, of that number, an average of over 65 percent were married or in a partnership and had a higher level of education (whether some college credit, bachelor’s degree or trade/vocational training). Over 60% who said they didn’t have their PVCs had no schooling.
Out of the 1500+ respondents, 43.65% said they have had an experience with SARS officials, while 56.35% said they have not yet had an experience with SARS officials.
Of the respondents that have had an encounter with SARS, 25.5% left without an incident, while 19.1% said they were forced to pay officers in order to leave freely, and 16.9% said they were either verbally abused, threatened, experienced violence or were arrested.
58.8% of the respondents participated in the protests while 41.2% of the respondents did not participate.
Of those who indicated they participated or indicated support for the protests, most did so either to receive justice for themselves or others who they know have been impacted by SARS (29.7 percent of respondents). They also viewed issues with the brutality of SARS operatives as a subset of larger governance issues that cut across sectors.
Of the respondents that did not participate in the protests, 39.1% of them were due other commitments, 21.1% said that despite supporting the movement, they disagreed with the method the protests were handled, and only 3.8% said they were against the movement.
Following the aftermath of the protests, 67.9% of respondents said they are not willing to continue staying in Nigeria, while 13.4% said they are very willing, and 18.7% are still willing to continue staying in Nigeria.
57.6% of the respondents expressed negative sentiments ranging from fear to sadness about the country in light of the #Endsars protests, the Lekki Tool shooting and the events since then, while 34.3% said they were still hopeful, and motivated to do more. However, 8.1% expressed neutrality with the events and Nigeria as a country.
Of the respondents with no schooling complete, 64.2% said they are not willing to get more involved in Nigerian Politics, while 35.8% answered Yes to getting more involved in Nigerian Politics.
54.3% of respondents with at least a Bachelor's degree, are willing to get more involved in Nigerian politics , while 45.7% answered No to the above question.
74.4% of the respondents answered they were not confident about the speech made by the President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari in the aftermath of the Lekki Toll gate incident that occurred on Thursday October 22, 2020, while 9.2% said they were very confident about the speech.
41.7% of the respondents with no schooling completed said they had a Permanent Voters Card (PVC), while 58.3% of them said they do not have a Permanent Voters Card (PVC).
Of the respondents with at least a Bachelor's degree, 55.1% said they have a Permanent Voters Card (PVC), and 44.9% said they do not have a Permanent Voters Card (PVC).
#EndSARS is a subset of larger governance issues in Nigeria; governance issues in Nigeria are a subset of governance issues across Africa: -- As conversation around the #EndSARS movement unfolded, it became apparent that protesters viewed the brutality of SARS officers as a microcosm of larger issues with governance in the country. As illustrated in the key topics, the inequity between resources allocated for police welfare as against the cost of salaries and benefits for the federal legislature, was a point of concern for some protesters. Young people also expressed concerns about other infrastructural issues, including the poor data management infrastructure of the police force, poor health and transportation infrastructure, unemployment, and more.
Other movements across Africa nod at similar concerns. The emergence of these resistances and protests, particularly those led by young people suggests a new restlessness in the populations of Africa, demands for better governance. Moves toward greater accountability are already taking shape in Nigeria. Young people are attending hearings of the judicial panel constituted to investigate allegations against SARS as well as the violence that saw the end of the protests in Lagos. Lawmakers are being taken to task on their work, calls for voters’ registration processes have emerged as new political fervor has taken the body politic. The coming months and years will reveal how things fare for these young people in Nigeria and the rest of Africa.
Achievements/Impacts of the movement: This new energy for political participation is among the emblems of what many view as the biggest outcome of the protests. Though young people have yet to see the end of the SARS unit, many view the protests as an important moment because it inspired hope in Nigeria, a first for many. The breadth of resources that were pooled and organized and the care that young people showed for each other have been referenced as particular inspirations.
Marginalized Among Protesters: While the protests were unified in important ways, they revealed significant points of departure among young people that will be important to watch for as they build their political power. Of particular note, was the experience of queer youth during the protests. After queer protesters reported facing harassment at protest sites, the Feminist Coalition, a key organization that managed funds donated to the protests, released a statement, via Twitter, advocating for their place in the protests. The statement was met with much resistance, leading the organization to delete the tweet. Despite this, queer people continued to organize support for each other and to turn up to protests till the end of in-person protests. For them, their queerness is among the qualities that make them vulnerable to police violence. Whether the movement will mature into an intersectional one that can hold the complexity of factors that shape police harassment remains to be seen.
The movement to #EndSARS is emblematic of a broader global trend of people power and protest. These movements are spurred in digital public spheres that allow more people, many of them young and hungry for change, to participate in politically consequential conversations. Other movements across the world--from the Arab Spring, to Black Lives Matter, to 2019’s Sudan and Hong Kong protests -- have gathered similar momentum on social media. Here are three qualities of these movements, embodied by the #EndSARS protests, that are worth highlighting:
Quick and organic emergence and growth: “Often, [protests begin] with an injustice captured on video and posted to social media. Demonstrations are hastily arranged, hashtags are created and before long, thousands have joined the cause,” writers at New York Times say of these movements. It’s a quote that reads like the telling of October’s #EndSARS protests which began with a video of the murder of a young man that spread on social media. The hashtag #EndSARS was reignited, musical artistes, RunTown and Falz the Bad Guy rallied the first protests, and quickly hundreds of thousands of others took to the streets too.
Diffused leadership: #EndSARS is also typical of this era of protest movements in the absence of centralized leadership. While critics called it a leaderless movement, a closer examination of trends on social media/events on protest grounds, suggest that it was a movement of diffused leadership as young people contributed their diverse expertise to the movement, as seen by an art sale to raise funds, a call center that was set up to manage calls for emergency security, legal and medical support, individuals with catering businesses offering food and drink, lawyers volunteering their services, and more.
A Transnational Character: Today’s protests often reach beyond national borders, as communities connected by a sense of shared values and/or shared humanity take up each other’s protests on social media and in-person. The protests that rocked cities across Europe following the murder of George Floyd in the United States offer a prime example here. The #EndSARS movement also saw similar international support, from Nigerian diaspora communities, the voices of non-Nigerian Africans online, and many globally prominent individuals.
Nigeria’s political class seems to recognize the place and power of social media--since the protests ended, legislators at national and state levels have resurfaced a controversial social media bill, which many believe is designed to quell dissent and free expression. Many have condemned the move, and young people are again using social media to spread awareness of the bill.
The evolution of the movement to #EndSARS and broader political culture in Nigeria through contemporary realities is, without doubt, linked to the communications technologies available to all political actors including private citizens seeking change.
Analysts have long predicted the emergence of the bulging youth populations we see across Africa today. In doing so, they have tended to focus on matters of economic difficulty as the concerns likely to drive challenges to the political class. But protests across Africa make clear that her young people’s concerns carry more dimension to include matters of personal dignity, free expression and the right to life.
For Nigeria’s young, October 2020 was a watershed. The month brought new hope, a sense of the power that is possible when they rally and organize for justice.
At the same time, they have come in contact with the dangerous edge of seeking political change, including the incredible risk to personal safety, even unto death.
Moreover, many of the changes demanded have not materialized. While most state governments have set up judicial panels of inquiry to look into reports of atrocities committed by SARS, some have not. In addition, the Federal Government has pushed forward with the retraining of a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, despite protesters resistance to the move, given the past reforms that have created little change. Reports of harassment from SARS and other security operatives also continue to emerge on social media. And in the last few weeks, government institutions have launched a widely covered clampdown on individuals who were visibly active in the #EndSARS protests. One young journalist has also been found murdered after being arrested by police.
As data from our Versus “Ask” survey to our scouts suggests, many Nigerians are, understandably, weary and fearful. Still, many describe a renewed fervor for change. Twitter continues to be critical for that, as young people use the platform to share information quickly about emerging actions of the government. They are also using it to push for accountability to the judicial panel process in states where it was instituted. Nigerians in the diaspora also continue to organize via in-person protest marches.
On other digital social media, including Facebook and Zoom digital conferencing, conversations linking issues with policing in Nigeria with other movements against state security forces are emerging. This includes efforts to link the struggles across countries and local contexts, both within the continent and in diasporic communities.
All of this suggests a dedication to the struggle for justice in Nigeria’s body politic, as well as the potential to build larger, more sustained movements for justice. It appears that collaboration across borders could be an important element of that work, as Nigerians, and their peers in other countries in Africa and the rest of the find parallels in their struggles.