#ENDSARS Protest in Nigeria: A Symbol Of Democracy and Power

In an uncommon style and strategy, the youths’ fury, symbolised by the slogan, #ENDSARS, against human rights abuses by the police, rocked the nation, down to its’ foundation, making 2020, a year that witnessed the toughest and most widespread revolt of the youths in Nigeria.


The ripple effect of the nationwide Youths’ revolt in Nigeria, tagged #ENDSARSNOW Campaign, is yet to settle down, more than one month after it started in October, 2020. It is expected that reports from Panels of investigation set up by state governors shall unravel the truth of what really happened, the number of casualties in the process and level of destruction of properties that took place.

Nigeria, officially named the “Federal Republic of Nigeria”, is a diverse African country commonly known as the “Giant of Africa.” Located in West Africa, North of the equator, Nigeria stretches along 923,768 square kilometres of land. It is the region’s largest economy with high potential in human and natural resources such as gas, minerals and oil; with a diversified agriculture. Nigeria is the most populous country in the continent and the global seventh, with a population of more than 200 million people, that almost every 1 in 6 black people on the continent is counted as a Nigerian. It is estimated that 65% of this total population comprises of youths, below 35 years of age. This group constitute the majority of the population. Unfortunately, this population that should constitute the nations’ work force is rather brutalised, ignored and denied of basic provisions to harness their natural potentials.

When Nigeria regained independence from the British colonial rule on October 1, 1960, there were significant efforts to consolidate democratic governance and sustainable development. In the 60s, Nigeria was rated among the fast developing countries with India and Korea. Today, these countries are more developed, as corruption plagued the nation and became a major impediment to good governance and national building.

The high level of corruption in Nigeria eroded public confidence and undermined credibility, thereby entrenching bad leadership and poor public service delivery. Democracy and freedom of speech were strangled and the system’s path to true national prosperity and nationhood derailed. Political leaders were consumed with egregious breaches of trust, enriching themselves from public treasury and shading the truth, that for 60 years of nationhood; and 21 years of democracy, perennial leadership problems still persist, breeding poverty, hunger, incompetence, under-development, insecurity, abuse of human rights and organizational incapacity to respond to emergencies.

The recent #ENDSARS protests by Nigerian youths across the country, against the widespread police brutality, endemic corruption, bad governance, lack of accountability and transparency in governance, etc. were clear demonstration of complete loss of hope and lack of confidence in Nigeria’s leadership. They are poignant reminder of a failed system and they do not feel that Nigeria works for them anymore; after all, there is no sufficient support for their interests and aspirations. They are rather, victims of police brutality, extortion and abuses of the basic fundamental rights. It became obvious to them that the promises of their leaders are mere empty rhetoric; and they collectively decided that the situation was no longer acceptable.

SARS, as it is commonly known, has existed for nearly three decades. It was one of a number of special police forces set up in the 1990s, to address rising violent crimes in the country. The unit is spread around the country and often operates in plainclothes, brandishing heavy weapons and setting up roadblocks for indiscriminate searches. Over time, the unit developed a reputation for abusing its power and many in Nigeria have accused the unit of perpetrating those crimes they were set up to arrest. There harassment and egregious abuses of human rights have become a serious and insidious problem, which has generated a widespread anger and confusion, that they are often indistinguishable from armed criminals. A human rights group has accused SARS officers of using “torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish and extract information from suspects”. The youth therefore rallied against SARS, widely viewed as abusive and beyond reproach, in response to these developments.

The high level of corruption in Nigeria eroded public confidence and undermined credibility, thereby entrenching bad leadership and poor public service delivery. Democracy and freedom of speech were strangled and the system’s path to true national prosperity and nationhood derailed. Political leaders were consumed with egregious breaches of trust, enriching themselves from public treasury and shading the truth, that for 60 years of nationhood; and 21 years of democracy, perennial leadership problems still persist, breeding poverty, hunger, incompetence, under-development, insecurity, abuse of human rights and organizational incapacity to respond to emergencies.

For the first time in the history of the nation, the entire Nigerian nation was held hostage by the angry youths of the nation, who were protesting against the perceived ongoing security atrocities such as; human rights abuses, extortions, arrests, illegal detentions, torture, maiming, killings and other dark areas in the nation’s life. They focused on defending the rule of law and good governance and were symbolically raising the national flag and singing the national anthem on many occasions.

The Inspector General of the Nigeria Police Force, Muhammed Adamu, reaction to the protest, on October 11, 2020, did not help matters. He formally accepted the youth’s demand to end SARS, but immediately replaced it with Special Weapon and Tactics, (SWAT). To the protesters, this gesture did not demonstrate good faith because it has happened several times in the past, when the youth had protested police brutality and extortion. With no credible response and basis for trust in the willingness from government to address their real grievances, they continued their protests.

In two weeks, the youth successfully created an administration that worked. They raised funds to take care of their welfare, created a good healthcare system and basic amenities to make the protest ground comfortable. They also generated a legal structure to maintain law and order as well as hotlines for protest-based emergencies. They worked together and ensured no one was compromised. They were organized, formidable and really poised to make their basic demand, not a “Golden Elephant.” From all accounts, the protests were peaceful, disciplined and in accordance with the Nigeria constitution, which made provision for freedom of all Nigerians to exercise their rights; which includes freedom of speech, the right to participate in peaceful protests and processions, without harassment or intimidation from any person or authority.They are the new generation indeed. The language has clearly changed in this hashtag era, the new generation! Could this be the beginning of an end? May be, that was why the Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka, stated that, “It was bliss indeed to be alive, to watch youths finally begin to take the future into their own hands.”

It was quite unfortunate that this great symbol of democracy later degenerated into mass destruction by hoodlums, leading to loss of lives and properties, vandalism and looting of government, public and private properties, including the looting of warehouses containing Covid-19 palliatives. It was terrible on Monday, October 21; when a crowd stormed a prison and freed inmates in Benin City in southern Nigeria. It was alleged that prisoners jumped the high fence and some were seen running away on the streets, a number which was estimated to be about 200 prisoners, although Nigeria officials have not confirmed if there were casualties from the prison break. It was evident that hunger, poverty and illiteracy were greatly weaponised by external forces, from unscrupulous persons to distract attention and frustrate the protest. The truth is that the youths have made their statement. This is a global community, which does not recognise cheap political distractions as a pervasion to social justice.

The unfortunate event of Tuesday 20th October 2020; of what appeared to be a premeditated violent crackdown on the protestors, which significantly escalated the volatile situation, was a rude shock to the entire nation. Earlier on that day, the Lagos State Government had declared a 24-hour curfew to take effect from 4 pm. According to reports, as the deadline was not practical, the state government extended the compliance time to 9 pm. However, before the reviewed curfew time, armed men in the uniform of the Nigerian military were deployed to the protest site at Lekki toll gate in Lagos.

Evidence available suggests that they did not order the crowd to disperse and they did not engage in non-lethal crowd dispersal action, but rather opened live ammunition on the defenseless assembled youth, some of whom were reportedly killed or wounded. Witnesses said assailants opened fire on a crowd of over 1,000 citizens on Tuesday evening to disperse them. This was backed up by DW’s Africa correspondent, Fanny Facsar, who got caught up in the violence. She said “peaceful protesters” were calling for an end to the curfew and decried police brutality but the dynamic started to change when people dressed in camouflage, gunmen, unclear whether military or what kind of Nigerian security forces, entered this site and started to shoot, shooting for quite some time. It was chaos, a huge mess.”

It was expected that President Muhammadu Buhari ought to have addressed the “Youths” earlier, to assuage their anger and restore hope in the minds of the Nigerian citizens, but this was not to be, until Thursday, October 22, 2020, being the 14th day of the protest, after the “October 20 Lekki Massacre.” Contrary to expectations, the response of the Nigerian Government to this globally criticized massacre was largely shocking and unconvincing. In a national address, President Buhari, called on protesters to stop demonstrating and engage with government. He appealed for understanding and calm and told the youths that their voice has been heard loud and clear, and government is responding. His emphasis was more on the achievements of his administration, citing the “Tradermoni and Farmermoni” initiativesas some of the major hallmarks. It was indeed very surprisingly that the globally condemned shooting at the protesters at Lekki, which led to the death of more than 12 Nigeria citizens, with many injured was not addressed in the President’s speech.

In the same vain, the governor of Lagos, Governor Sanwolu, in his first reaction after the shooting, had blamed the shooting on forces beyond his control. Initially, he said that no fatalities had been recorded, but later said authorities were investigating the death of one person. He said 30 people were injured during a shooting at a toll gate in the Lekki district in the midst of the protests. One man had died in hospital from a blow to the head, according to the governor. It was unclear if he was a protester. In a subsequent reaction to this statement, the Nigeria Army insists Lagos government requested troop’s deployment to Lekki, despite Governor Sanwo Olu’s denial. In a statement by the Acting Deputy Director, 81 Division Army Public Relations, Major Osoba Olaniyi, the army said the state government invited them to enforce the curfew and that they did not shoot any protester.

The questions remain; how much is the value of the ordinary Nigerian citizen to the government? Is it considered too cheap that it was easy to trample on the citizens who were demanding for justice, that were supposed to be protected? Or could it be a way to douse the consequences of possible sanctions from the international community? Who is deceiving who? One had at least expected government to show sympathy and empathy over the death of her citizens and demonstrate commitment to hold the perpetrators accountable. The true test of the sincerity of leadership of any nation is in her capacity to make people accountable for the crime they committed. Nigeria government is not an exemption.

An online report of the daily post on October 25, 2020, by John Owen Nwachukwu, a civil society organisation, Lagos Democratic Coallition; in a statement signed by the Secretary- General, Henry Ojugbana Esq. and the Convener, Senami Ojikutu, equally alleged that Governor Sanwolu’s actually ordered the operation, contrary to his denial of his involvement in the shooting of the protesters. In that statement, they argued that given the culpability for the fatal shooting and death of protesters, Governor Sanwolu’s panel of inquiry on “The Lekki Massacre” will not be independent of government’s influence and as such a journey to where. They demanded that an independent panel of inquiry should be constituted.

In a similar statement by concerned Nigerians, issued on 22nd Day of October 2020, they stated that “The deadly attack on peaceful protestors, which from available evidence appears to be by agents of government on 20th October 2020 represents one of the most serious crises in our nation’s history. Among the signatories were: which was signed by: Dr. Olisa Agbakoba OON, SAN, Prof. Jibrin Ibrahim, Bishop Mathew Hassan Kuka, Prof. Attahiru Mohammed Jega, OFR, Funke Adekoya, SAN, Prof Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, Mr. Femi Falana, SAN and Prof. Konyinsola Ajayi, SAN. They argued that no nation can survive a war between its security agencies and its youth. This attack on unarmed protesters holding the nation’s flag and singing the national anthem will go down in infamy and will be engraved in the minds of Nigerians as one of the worst abuses of its citizenship.” 

They called on President Muhammadu Buhari to take immediate urgent steps to address the widening trust deficit between the Government and the President on the one hand, and the Nigerian youth and its people on the other. They stated that to move forward, the President must take decisive action to close the trust deficit by identifying and arresting immediately the persons that instructed for soldiers to shoot protesting youth at the Lekki Toll Gate. They equally suggested that government should institute an urgent independent inquiry on the events at Lekki toll gate leading to the use of live ammunition on the protestors; and the apparent use of sponsored thugs or hoodlums by security operatives to infiltrate and break the peaceful protests. All those identified to be responsible for this must be held to account and prosecuted, they demanded; amidst other conditions.

Global leaders have equally expressed support in this call for restoration and restructuring of Nigeria. The United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) have joined the chorus of disapproval against the harsh crackdown on anti-police brutality protesters in Nigeria. The UN demanded an end to police “brutality” in Nigeria on Wednesday, after Amnesty International reported that Nigerian security forces shot and killed peaceful protesters in the latest escalation of the two-weeks-long unrest. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres urged “the security forces to act at all times with maximum restraint.” He also called on protesters “to demonstrate peacefully and to refrain from violence,” spokesman Stephane Dujarric said in a statement. Guterres said gunmen that opened fire on peaceful protesters Tuesday evening in Lagos caused “multiple deaths” and numerous injuries. The UN chief urged the Nigerian authorities to investigate the violence and “hold the perpetrators accountable.”

Similarly, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on Wednesday also, condemned the killing of protesters and called for justice. “It is alarming to learn that several people have been killed and injured during the ongoing protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS] in Nigeria,” he said. “It is crucial that those responsible of abuses be brought to justice and held accountable.” Dr Ngozi Okonjo Iweala, a two-time Minister of Finance in Nigeria; and leading contender for the post of Director General, World Trade Organization (WTO), also applauded the resourcefulness of the Nigerian youth in making their voices heard.

In her own reactions, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Fatou Bensouda in a statement, posted on tweeter (@IntICrimCourt) on Thursday, said that “My office has been closely following the events around the current protest in Nigeria and the reaction of the Nigeria’s law enforcement and security agencies. Any loss of life or injury is concerning. We have received information alleging crimes and are keeping a close eye on developments, in case violence escalates….” she added while calling for restraints.

The fact remains that Nigeria has been vandalized and citizens are saddened to tears. Experts have argued that in other to prevent the country from sliding into anarchy, there should be concrete measures towards reconciliation, restructuring and restoration of the Nigeria nation. The various sub-national units should become independent and economically productive for a more sustainable growth. There is urgent need to call the over 400 ethnic groups, women and youths inclusive; to steer up the road to true federalism.

At this critical moment in the life of the nation, Nigeria needs a visionary servant leader, to advance a more efficient and effective leadership in pursuit of positive changes in people’s lives. It has become imperative that the cost of governance should be significantly reduced, to make adequate provisions to foster access to basic services that are prerequisites for effective human capital development, support investments and create jobs for the citizens. This is important, especially now that the masses have realised that power belongs to the people. It is certain that unless young people are trained and job opportunities created, the society will only be raising a population that becomes a liability rather than an asset. This is the time to pay more attention to the development of character. Great will be the peace and prosperity of a nation, when her statesmen establish themselves in integrity of character; and direct the energies of the nation towards culture of virtue and development of character. This is important because it is through integrity, nobility and personal industry can national industry proceed.

The time to heal the nation and restore her dignity, to fundamentally regenerate “A New Nigeria” has come. Outgrowing cynicism and the rhetoric of presentation which has trailed Nigeria leadership should be the narratives of the moment. There should be timelines for decisive actions and steps to address the trust deficit. This should serve as element of accountability and transparency, in bringing freedom and justice to these victims of democracy; and restore the nations lost glory. Surely, the labours of our heroes past shall never be in vain. The quest for respect of human right and good governance remains sacrosanct. Therefore, I am in total support of the struggle for justice and good leadership in our nation. “On #ENDSARS I stand”, as a symbol of democracy and power in Nigeria.

Edel-Quinn Agbaegbu is the Executive Director of Every woman Hope Centre (EWHC); and Nigeria’s Country Representative, National Biodiversity Strategies and Action Plan (NBSAP), Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) 

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