For nearly two weeks angry young Nigerians have taken to the streets, blocking major roads across cities in Africa’s most populous nation.
They marched in tens of thousands chanting “Enough is Enough” against police brutality and violence.
The group’s initial demands were for a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti Robbery Squad, or SARS, to be shut down, but the marches have since morphed into protests campaigning for police reform and an end to bad governance in the oil-rich country.
One of the popular chants used during the protests was “soro soke,” which means “speak up” in the country’s Yoruba language.
It has become “an EndSARS battle cry… a tone of rebellion, a note of valid belligerency and a chant of unification in the Nigerian struggle against police brutality and terrible governance,” wrote Motolani Alake, a journalist for Nigeria’s Pulse newspaper.
Economic inequality has reached extreme levels in Nigeria, according to the United Nation Human Rights Commission, while Oxfam reported that in 2019 close to 70% of the country’s population lives below the poverty line.
Young people under 30 make up more than 40% of Nigeria’s population. They face severe hardship and chronic unemployment. According to Chatham House, “If Nigeria’s unemployed youth were its own country, it would be larger than Tunisia or Belgium.”
Now with this protest movement, they are making their voices heard and speaking up against the violence, harassment, and extortion they say they have endured at the hands of SARS officers.
The SARS unit was set up in 1992 to fight armed robbery and was given wide-ranging powers. Many of the officers do not wear uniforms or nametags that identify themselves.
There have been numerous complaints that they had now turned on the citizens and were perpetrating the very crimes that they were set up to combat.
Amnesty International documented 82 cases of police brutality in Nigeria between 2017 and 2020. In a damning report published in June 2020 the human rights organization said people in SARS custody were “subjected to a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.”
Complaints about SARS are not new. People have been speaking out online since 2017 about the unit, and there have been several, unsuccessful attempts by the government to scrap it, but the catalyst for the recent nationwide protests came in early October when reports surfaced in local media that police had attacked a young man and driven off in his luxury jeep.
It sparked the use of the #EndSARS hashtag and two popular musicians, Runtown and Falz, decided to hold an offline march to air their grievances.
Falz, whose real name is Folarin Falana, said they were expecting “a handful of people,” but were surprised when hundreds, including other celebrities, turned up.
“Everyone is dissatisfied and the government’s failing to react to this level of outcry is sheer disregard for the people. this administration is very insensitive,” Falz told CNN at the time.
Soon, the movement mushroomed organically around the country as years of frustrations and anger boiled over among the disenfranchised youth.
“Nigeria is facing a reckoning, one that is long overdue,” said Yetunde Omede, a professor of global affairs and politics in New York.
“With a growing youth bulge of under 30 years old, Nigeria can no longer ignore the demands of young people.”
During the protests, participants erected tents and DJ booths a