Reviewed by ‘Gbenga Sesan
October 2020 will always be one for the history books.
For almost three weeks, young Nigerians took to the streets in their numbers, from Lagos to Abuja, Ibadan to Jos, blocking major roads across cities and grinding commercial activities to a halt. Their demand? The complete shutdown of the notorious police unit known as the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS). Established to help confront a terrible wave of armed robbery years ago, SARS has since outlived its usefulness and morphed into something more nefarious, a coordinated criminal syndicate all but repurposed to endanger the lives of young people.
The #EndSARS movement did not start overnight. Previous attempts to get government to pay attention to police brutality go way back to at least 2017 with several online campaigns. Authorities on their part have announced the scrapping of the unit at least twice but none of these announcements have been successful in stopping the trauma that young people are subjected to on the streets.
The fire this time was ignited by a viral video that surfaced in early October. Police officers in Delta state were alleged to have shot a young man in broad daylight and made away with his SUV. The reports were however dismissed by the State Police authorities as misleading; but it was clear that young Nigerians were no longer going to accept the excesses of SARS. Enough was enough. Stunned reactions coalesced around the #EndSARS hashtag and musicians, Runtown and Falz called for a physical rally to register displeasure and demand justice.
People showed up, many more than anyone could have imagined. Gradually, the numbers began to swell and in different locations. Lekki tollgate, Alausa, Abuja, Jos. Before long, it became a truly national event, and the biggest demonstration of people power recorded in Nigeria in decades.
Unlike previous demonstrations, this one had no centralised chain of command negotiating with government officials. A common insistence was that there was no leadership and everyone was a stakeholder.
Even though there were no leaders, a parallel system erupted, powered by a coalition of feminist leaders, to deal with any issues and obstacles that arose. It was most heartwarming to watch young people organize across class, gender and tribal lines to provide support to the cause. From fundraising- over $400,000 raised- to security and healthcare, this system was inclusive and efficiently run, pointing to a promising and compassionate future. What started as a desperate cry for help soon blossomed into a national reckoning on social justice and accountability. Other demands include police reform and an end to bad governance.
After several aborted attempts, a new generation was finding its voice and using it demanding that people in authority speak up as well. About time too considering that young people make up the bulk of Nigeria’s population. This was enabled by the aggregating power of social media platforms, particularly Twitter whose founder Jack Dorsey, was ‘dragged to court’ following his call for donations via Bitcoin in support of the movement.
Pulling the full force of their cultural and global might on social media and in physical spaces, plus the strength of the diaspora, young people brought the world’s attention to their struggle. Solidarity protests took off in several other countries with a Nigerian presence.
Which is why it is an enduring tragedy what happened next. Military forces deployed to the Lekki Toll Plaza (the major protest centre in the country); on the evening of 20th October, opened fire on peaceful protesters. According to Amnesty International, at least 12 people died with many more injured.
Even while under fire from the forces of a state set up to protect them, young people kept their courage, rallying round the wounded, getting medical help across and most importantly, bearing witness to the tragic events. This latter part proved to be key as government forces embarked on a callous gaslighting agenda, opting to take zero responsibility for the murder and assault of citizens.
The #EndSARS protests in October were only the beginning of a new dawn of youth engagement and participation. The government may have temporarily halted the momentum, but history makes it clear that it is impossible to stop an idea whose time has come. After a period of rest, pockets of protests have begun to erupt independently all over again with online calls to end SARS and institutionalise good governance ongoing.
Young people deserve better. They know that they can demand better and they know that they can get better if they keep at the struggle. There is no sitting on the fence this time.
We are in it for the long haul.
To vote #EndSARS Protesters as YNaija Person of the Year 2020; visit ynaija.com/personoftheyear2020