#EndSARS: How a Hashtag Helped Spark a Revolution in Nigeria

As featured in Edition 37, available here.


By HANNA BAJWA

The #EndSARS movement in Nigeria garnered remarkable attention through its social media campaign in 2020. In the wake of the Arab Spring, researchers credited social media as a catalyst for change, a pattern which the #EndSARS movement follows.


Originating in late 2017, the #EndSARS campaign was aimed at drawing attention to the human rights violations committed by SARS – the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The squad was created in 1992 to fight violent crimes, however since its formation it has been documented committing various human rights violations. Amnesty International released a report detailing 82 cases of “hundreds of young men being subjected to torture and other forms of ill-treatment by SARS officers across Nigeria”. The report also highlighted the fact that most SARS officers commit their crimes knowing they will never face arrest, prosecution, or punishment. Due to that, the #EndSARS movement aimed to raise public awareness and speak out against the unit, ensuring their crimes were known domestically and internationally.


The movement gained momentum again in October 2020. Now almost 28 million tweets bearing the hashtag have been posted on Twitter alone. Protests of solidarity and demonstrations occurred in various cities worldwide. Celebrities such as Beyonce and actor John Boyega issued statements of support online, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey encouraged users to donate bitcoin to the #EndSARS organiser’s cryptocurrency wallets after the Government had frozen the activists’ bank accounts.


Actions taken worldwide and within Nigeria proved effective. Within a few days of the protests, on October 11th, 2020, the Nigerian Police Force announced that it was dissolving the unit, effective immediately. This was a major victory, however some protestors recalled that similar announcements have happened before, which resulted in the unit simply being rebranded rather than disbanded. Due to this scepticism, protests have continued.


The response of the Nigerian government has been quite telling, as they focused on efforts to end the protests rather than solving police brutality in the country. The creation of a new unit: the Special Weapons and Tactics Force (SWAT) - which has resulted in its own hashtag, #EndSWAT - and the failure to commit to the prosecution of SARS officers has continued to fuel anger in many Nigerians. Several states in Nigeria have set up panels to investigate SARS abuses, yet historically, these panels weren’t successful in carrying out justice, leaving people pessimistic of its outcomes. In 2019, a presidential panel recommended 23 SARS officers be prosecuted for abuses, but to this day this recommendation has not been implemented.


In December, the protests continued with ‘Phase II’ of the #EndSARS movement, despite the previous protests ending after the army opened fire on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate plaza in Lagos. But because the underlying grievances of the protesters remain unresolved, they continue to fight on. A massive security force deployment kept a ‘Phase II’ protest from occurring at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos earlier in December. Additionally, the Government has focused intense pressure on waging a full-scale information war, claiming that the protests have been entirely hijacked by ‘hoodlums,’ and vastly overstating the degree of violence and destruction perpetrated by protesters.


Despite these setbacks, Nigerians continue to push for change. Although the international attention the movement garnered helped greatly, long-term policy change must come through lower-profile, careful international organising that targets the pressure points of the Nigerian state in a way that is sustained and committed for the long-term.


These protests have also shed light on other underlying issues with the Government, which has led to some protestors shifting the focus of the #EndSARS movement to encompass these issues by prolonging the protests, as there was significant media attention on them now. Important among these underlying issues is the current rate of youth unemployment and the sense of hopelessness that this has engendered amongst young people.


The beginning of the #EndSARS movement has now broadened past ending police brutality and has brought underlying issues such as economic hardship, maladministration, and the damaged relationship Nigerians have with the rule of law onto the surface. No presidential pledges will satisfy the hunger and expectations of the reawakened Nigerian population, especially the youth. The people are tired of empty promises. They demand change and will not shy away from actively working towards it.


Image: Unsplash (Ayoola Salako)

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