When Nigeria’s president made a rare, televised address to the nation on Thursday evening, he made vague references to “ongoing developments,” namely calling on “our youths to discontinue the street protests” — not mentioning once the fact that his security forces had killed people in the streets amid the country’s most powerful protests against police brutality ever.
What Muhammadu Buhari clearly didn’t want to mention was the Nigerian military’s opening fire on thousands of peaceful protesters Tuesday evening, killing at least 12 and injuring several hundred. Though he didn’t acknowledge the brutal suppression — the rest of the world has.
It’s being called the “Lekki massacre,” after the shootings took place at a toll bridge in that affluent suburb. It was there that protesters demonstrated for the past two weeks as part of an ongoing movement calling for an overhaul of Nigeria’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.
The violence has been condemned by world figures including Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and UN Secretary-General António Guterres — but has also taken off on social media, with people using the hashtag #EndSARS to call for an end to the violence.
Buhari, in his address, scolded the protesters as “unpatriotic” and told people to “seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgment.” But the activists behind the End SARS social movement have for years been calling to disband a police unit that has been accused of extortion, kidnapping, harassment, torture, and extrajudicial killings — they argue what they’re doing is the height of patriotism in Nigeria’s nascent democracy. Here’s a breakdown of how Nigeria got to this point, why the protests are happening, and who is involved:
SARS was created in 1992 under military rule — before Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999 — to address armed robberies and kidnappings. Its officers were granted special privileges: They were allowed to use unmarked cars and wear plain clothes. Protesters say that SARS has operated with impunity, and a number of recent incidents have triggered outrage.
Policing by profiling is a common feature of the complaints against SARS. The unit’s remit to pursue robberies and fraud has meant that young Nigerians who seem ‘affluent’ — owning an iPhone, for instance, or driving a nice car – are often considered to be criminals worth extorting for money. Police have also been known to target physical features such as dreadlocked or brightly colored hair, as well as tattoos as indicators of criminal affiliations.
Earlier this month, a clip in which SARS officials appeared to shoot a man and steal his car in broad daylight went viral, stirring a public outcry.
In response, a group of 42 young Nigerians staged a 72-hour protest outside the Lagos State House of Assembly starting on Oct, 8. That act of defiance quickly grew into the latest movement, with demonstrations happening across Africa’s most populated country. Outside Nigeria, members of the country’s diaspora have staged their own protests. In all, people have protested in over 100 cities around the world in solidarity and with a clear agenda: a better Nigeria starting with the end of SARS.
In response to mounting public pressure, Buhari formally dissolved SARS on Oct. 12, promising “extensive police reform.”
But Buhari’s announcement came with caveats: Former SARS officers will remain part of the police force, redeployed to other divisions. A new task force, SWAT, will replace SARS.
Many were deeply displeased with Buhari’s caveats and so the protests continued, leading up to Tuesday’s violence.
On Tuesday morning, the governor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced a last-minute statewide 24-hour curfew, saying he was concerned that “criminals and miscreants” had infiltrated the protests. There was no evidence to suggest this had actually happened.
The news broke just before noon on Twitter and gave Lagosians until 4 p.m. to get home — in a city renowned for its traffic. Many protesters who were already outstayed put at the Lekki toll gate, where they staged a sit-in and sang the national anthem while waving Nigerian flags.
According to eyewitness accounts reported by Reuters, CNN, and the BBC, the evening turned into chaos when the power was cut and uniformed personnel — now believed to be members of the Nigerian army — barricaded protesters at the toll gate and began firing live rounds.
Some protesters fled to churches and hospitals for the remainder of the night. Lagos-based DJ Switch, whose real name is Obianuju Udeh, livestreamed the chaos to 130,000 people.
The Nigerian Army denied any involvement in the incident, dismissing reports about it as “fake news” — a term popularized by US President Donald Trump and adopted by global autocrats and dictators to dismiss any factual information that is critical of their rule and policies.
After the shootings, the Lagos governor said that “forces beyond our direct control have moved to make dark notes in our history.” He claimed that there had been no deaths recorded, despite eyewitness accounts saying otherwise.
Human rights group Amnesty International has said that at least 12 people were killed between the Lekki area and Alausa, another Lagos suburb where there were reports of violence that night.
In a statement, the organization said that it had received reports of CCTV cameras being disabled before the shooting took place. Some of the protesters killed on the ground were taken away by the military, Amnesty said.
Young Nigerians and What This Moment Means
More than 58 people are believed to have died since the protests began on Oct. 8 according to Amnesty International. In spite of the violence — and the terror of Tuesday night — the work on the ground continues, organizers and activists told BuzzFeed News.
“It has been a major roller coaster,” said an organizer, Oyin A, who declined to give her full name over fears of reprisal. “This is wrong, they didn’t do anything wrong. It was literally people just fighting for their rights.”
Oyin is one of the lead figures who helps to run the End SARS Response Unit, putting her experience in data solutions into action. The support resource group was created in a matter of days in collaboration with the Feminist Coalition, a collective of 11 young Nigerian women whose mission is to champion equality for women in Nigerian society. Today it operates a 24-hour hotline and online team for demonstrators to access everything from legal support to medical assistance in a nation where citizens are accustomed to providing life’s daily necessities for themselves.
Protesters continue to contact the group for support outside of the city, Oyin said, despite new curfews being announced daily.
“People were still like, ‘We want to do this. We want to protest,’” said Oyin. “We see the defiance in people and the way they were still so strong-willed about it.”
The youth-led movement has been hailed for coordinating in a transparent, and unifying manner, which they hope will make it a lasting force. “Young people have seen for the very first time the strength that we have in our own unity and our voice,” Oyin said. “It’s the government’s biggest mistake but is also our biggest win, our biggest success.”
Unlike previous movements — such as the 2012 Occupy Nigeria campaign born in response to the removal of oil subsidies which resulted in 13 days of demonstrations — the End SARS movement is one without leaders, Oyin said.
This is in part to encourage democratic participation, and in part to ensure no one has a target on their back. But it also shows that every young Nigerian can make their own decision about whether and when to march.
“Today, I can decide I don’t want to protest anymore, but another person on the street might say, ‘Well, sorry, I have not heard anything that will make me go back home,’” Oyin said.
The fight against police brutality in Nigeria is multilayered and one that has unified most communities in a nation that has been strongly divided by tribal loyalties and conflict in the past.
However the same can’t be said for Nigeria’s young queer community, who say they are often profiled, targeted, and harassed by the police on the basis of sexuality.
Matthew Blaise, a nonbinary LGBTQ activist who was filmed in the midst of one of the protests, told BuzzFeed News he was using the moment to speak for queer young Nigerians. “It is something that we all know: When cis heterosexual people are telling stories, they tend to sideline queer people. They don’t tell our stories because queerness is not the default,” the 21-year-old said.
“Queer people are always targeted. We are always targeted for just existing,” Blaise said. “So I didn’t have to have a smartphone or look extravagant. I just have to exist as a queer person to be a target for SARS.”
Blaise’s experience with SARS has been defined by multiple painful altercations, and are further compounded by laws against homosexuality which deny him even the faintest potential of pursuing justice.
In Blaise’s case, as a femme nonbinary person, the harassment is driven by anti-LGBTQ sentiments, he said.
Blaise recalled one occasion when SARS officers ambushed him. “They asked me, Why am I behaving like a woman? Am I gay? Then they asked me to unlock my phone, I did not, then five of them came out from their van with guns, then pushed me into their vehicle.”
Blaise shared that after he was ambushed, he was driven to a police station where he was beaten.
His experience is just one in hundreds of chilling anecdotes that can be attributed to SARS. Activists have been collecting accounts of alleged SARS and other police violence and posting them online to websites such as EndSARS.com.
“We’re all so used to being stopped by the police, we’re all so used to being harassed by the police,” Michael Sonariwo told BuzzFeed News. “Every single person, I’m not exaggerating to you, all of my guys have a SARS story.”
The 27-year-old events promoter who was raised in Atlanta relocated to Nigeria a decade ago and is taking part in the protests and using his platform to speak up. In the space of one year, he said, he was arrested more than five times.
Despite his frequent instances of harassment, Sonariwo is able to apply perspective and echoes the sentiments of most protesters who point to groups like SARS as symptomatic of deeper issues running through Nigeria: growing economic inequality and bad leadership.
“Some policemen are making 50,000 naira a month ($130),” Sonariwo said. “They’re supposed to support a family of two or three with that salary — some with 80,000 naira ($208) and support a family of three or four. So now they see young people with iPhones that cost 200,000 naira ($520). That’s more than their monthly salary, and the government treats them like animals. Have you seen their barracks? You treat people like animals long enough, they’ll act like it.”
Often hailed as the “giant of Africa,” in 2018 Nigeria overtook India to become the poverty capital of the world while simultaneously boasting of having Africa’s largest economy.
“We’re really fighting a big fight, a fight bigger than you all think, and that’s why I said everybody needs to just start talking, do anything possible,” said Sonariwo, who has issued a call to the diaspora around the world to continue to apply pressure and raise awareness.
“Do you realize how brave guys are to go on the streets with all this trauma, with all these experiences? On the streets, the government doesn’t care about you,” he said.
“There are people hurting on the streets, I’m privileged. I know where I’m coming from because I grew up in America, the life I lived in America is not the life I’ve lived in Nigeria,” he added.
The bravery of the Nigerians of all ages from various backgrounds who have taken to the streets to demand change has been a source of hope for many who had felt that the country was a lost cause.
“I used to be a ‘Nigeria can get better’ person, but I gave up,” said Karo Omu, who left Nigeria in 2016.
“This is the first time I’m feeling like it could possibly get better again, after a long time.”
The 29-year-old has continued to engage with the country’s issues through her charitable organizations which aims to eradicate child labor in Nigeria.
With a renewed sense of hope, Omu has helped organize demonstrations for the diaspora in London and believes that the root of Nigeria’s broader issues lies solely at the feet of the government.
“Whatever you think it is, it still comes back to the way Nigeria has been managed by the government and the way Nigeria has deteriorated over the years,” said Omu.
“It shows there’s just so many cracks in the structure of the country, the government of the country and it’s not just this administration it’s been this way for many years.
“Now there’s social media, you can see what’s better out there, you can see how much people care about their citizens, it doesn’t mean any country’s perfect, but there’s so much to do. From police reform to education to healthcare, and I think the lockdown also played a role because we were indoors, we’ve had enough time to think, and we’ve thought about what could be.”
The battle for what could be is one with young people at the forefront, a jolt to a culture that typically reveres age above all else.
“The youth are recognizing their power and it’s really beautiful to see, but what would be even more beautiful will be some change happening,” said Omu.