Nigerian Demonstrations Becoming About More Than the Police

Following nationwide demonstrations--first against the elite Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and then the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit, its successor--the Buhari administration has abolished the former and promised wide-ranging reforms of the police.

On October 18 the inspector general of police (IG) announced that the International Committee of the Red Cross would provide training in humanitarian law and human rights issues with respect to the use of force in arrest and detention. The IG also said that other "development partners" will be providing additional training, but he did not name them or provide details.

Demonstrations have taken place in Lagos, Abuja, Warri, Enugu, and Makurdi; all except Abuja are in the predominantly Christian south. There have been no reports of demonstrations in Kano, Kaduna, Sokoto, or Maiduguri, all located in the predominantly Muslim north. The authorities have closed some roads in Lagos, leading to some factory closures. The media is reporting two deaths in the Yoruba state of Osun in conjunction with an attack on the motorcade of the governor during #EndSARS protests on Saturday.

While the police remain the principal focus, demonstrators are also protesting Nigeria's bad governance. The demonstrators, according to Western media, cite grievances ranging from poor educational opportunities to electricity shortages. There also appears to be an age dimension: most demonstrators are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Indeed, at least some of the protesters are pushing back against Nigeria's deeply conservative social norms.

Social class plays a role as well--many demonstrators have access to laptops and social media. They claim that the police single out young people with laptops and label them as criminal "yahoo boys," a popular term for cyber fraudsters in Nigeria. For many--perhaps most--of the accused, this is a misnomer: SARS has been known to target those working in Lagos' fast-growing (licit) tech scene. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Google's Africa team have come out in support of the protesters.

Has the "Arab Spring" come to Lagos? If the demonstrations are owned by relatively cosmopolitan, urban young people that enjoy the benefits of technology and a modicum of Western education, they are likely to fizzle out. A reality of Nigeria is that it is profoundly conservative across its religious and ethnic divisions. Up to now, the security services have been restrained with the demonstrators. However, the Nigerian army has already said publicly that it will defend the state against demonstrators if necessary. Security service violence against demonstrators, should it happen, could make the current unrest much worse.

Learn more about John Campbell's upcoming book, Nigeria and the Nation-State: Rethinking Diplomacy with the Postcolonial World, out in early December 2020.

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