On October 3, the killing of a young man by alleged members of the Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit known in equal measure for its brutality and lack of accountability, quickly reverberated across social media. A video of the killing led the #EndSARS movement to resurface online and resulted in nation-wide protest accompanied by an outpouring of immense international support.
SARS was established during the early 1990s to address armed robbery and violent crime in Lagos and the surrounding suburbs. SARS eventually became a part of Nigeria’s national police strategy to combat armed criminals however, public criticism increased with claims of impunity and human rights violations by the unit against Nigerian citizens. In 2016, Amnesty International reported SARS as “A police unit created to protect the people has instead become a danger to society, torturing its victims with complete impunity while fomenting a toxic climate of fear and corruption.” At the same time, Nigerians continued speaking out online, and #EndSARS began to trend on social media accompanying stories of SARS’ violence and abuse.
In response to growing demonstrations against SARS, the Nigerian government moved to dissolve the unit on October 11, in what President Muhammadu Buhari publicly described as “The first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people.” Buhari also promised to replace SARS with a new unit called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). These concessions came hand in hand with continued incidences of repression. Curfews were put in place in Lagos and several other cities to address violence at several rallies. In an incident that gained widespread attention, soldiers opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing several.
Premise asked contributors in Nigeria their thoughts on the ongoing situation. A total of 1,550 responses were collected across the country, revealing just how salient the issue is. Contributors also had the opportunity to share their thoughts in free text, the results of which were particularly revealing.
Nigeria is Following #EndSARS Closely
The overwhelming majority of contributors indicated they are following the SARS protests. Nationally, nearly 60% indicated they are following “very closely” and over 25% indicated following “somewhat closely.” In Lagos alone, Nigeria’s most populous city and the epicenter of the SARS protests, over 90% of contributors indicated following either “closely” or “very closely.” Sources of information for getting updates on the protests varied widely, while the most popular sources reported included online news, TV news and social media.
Distrust of the Police and Support for the Protests
Contributor responses reveal deep personal distrust of police in Nigeria and very low favorability of police within communities. Just over half of Nigerians indicate they distrust the police, a figure that jumps to over two-thirds in Lagos.
Given the above, it is perhaps unsurprising that the #EndSARS protests enjoy significant support among Nigerians: roughly 70% of respondents nationwide back the protests, with support increasing to nearly 85% in Lagos.
Do Proposed Reforms Go Far Enough?
Nationwide, nearly 60% of contributors support their government’s decision to disband SARS. Support among Lagos residents is even with this figure.
Survey responses indicate broad support for reform, but the question remains whether the reform measures proposed to date will prove enough. Earlier this year, the Nigerian Senate proposed measures to decentralize the national police (allowing states or zones to assume control), a measure that appears to have broad contributor support.
In contrast, the replacement of SARS is not viewed as insufficient by a majority of respondents. In Lagos, only 25% think the reform measure goes far enough.
While there is a broad consensus in the belief that law enforcement reform is necessary, it bears note that a significant majority of contributors reported concerns about crime in their communities.
In Their Own Words
Respondents shared moving commentary on how they saw the situation. We employed a free text aggregator, which uses a language model to cluster syntactically similar responses, then creating a word cloud reflecting a variety of views.
Below are a few examples of the responses received:
“I only seek for a better Nigeria and peaceful protest.”
“Government should do more than just talk. The current situation is beyond SARS. A common Nigerian is tired of the hardship and corruption going on in the Government. So the government should do more and take action steps in making Nigeria better again.”
“End SARS, end bad governance, end corruption. Nigerians are dying on a daily basis… you can imagine raising flags protesting for an end to SARS and guns aiming at you with the gun holder saying ‘drop your weapon’ – it’s just a banner.”
“The #EndSARS protest is not just about the police and SARS. It’s also against bad governance, oppression, and corrupt politicians who are currently in power to enrich themselves and their generation with no national interest or agenda in mind. All they do is syphon and loot public funds. Right now there is no one in the government that I can say I trust would do the right thing. They are all corrupt politicians.”
“The Nigerian Soldiers killed and [are] still killing innocent and unarmed protesters, while the president is yet to say a word about this situation so far. It’s really disheartening to have a statue as the president of a country like Nigeria. The cost of governance is too high and these are part of what the people are fighting, the last time I check Nigerian’s REP and senators is the most highest paid in the whole world while we have the most highest number of jobless graduates in the whole world as well.”
“I strongly recommend that this government should be reformed, because there is no need to fight the protestors that are criticising the government if they are ruling right.”
“Peace is all I pray for.”
As is visible above, while the #EndSARS movement was sparked by law enforcement abuse, the actual issues the movement seeks to address are complex. Many of the responses are about the state of governance in Nigeria, as well as systemic corruption. A common thread in many of the responses was the country’s youth: Nigeria is a young country with young people at the center of the movement in a sense, fighting for their future.
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