By Niyi Akinnaso
The ongoing #ENDSARS protests started very well exactly two weeks ago and the protesters had legitimate demands. Their initial demand was simple enough: Dissolve the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, because of the highhandedness of its officers, who were notorious for profiling youths and arresting, molesting, maiming, and even killing them in the name of going after robbers and fraudsters, especially the so-called bioreports-bioreports Boys.
Incidentally, it was General Muhammadu Buhari, as Military Head of State, who established SARS in 1984 to tackle the growing problem of armed robberies in the country. The human rights abuses of the police unit began in the 1990s. The abuses quickly attracted the attention of Amnesty International and other rights groups, which began documenting a series of grave allegations against the unit. These abuses have worsened in recent years, ironically since President Muhammadu Buhari came to power.
The rise in abuses may have been due to three factors. One, SARS began to focus more and more on youths, partly because of the high incidence of cyber fraud committed by so-called bioreports Boys and partly because of the teeming population of youths, many of whom move about with sleazy mobile phones, tablets, and laptops. SARS wrongly profiled many youths and arrested them. Typically, innocent youths often resist arrest and the payment of bribes to be let off scotfree. Many were wrongly arrested, molested, mailed, and killed in the process.
Two, the lethargy with which the Buhari administration has responded to cases of kidnapping and herdsmen’s rampage must have emboldened SARS officers, who then took the law into their hands. Amnesty International alone documented at least 82 cases of torture, maltreatment, and extra-judicial killings by SARS between 2017 and 2020 alone.
Three, the insatiable demand of police officers for bribe is a sore point for all Nigerians, especially the youths who have been the target of attack by SARS officers.
In 2017, these excesses by SARS prompted youths and activists to take to the streets; to send out a tweet with the #ENDSARS hashtag, which went viral; and to send a petition to the National Assembly, signed by over 10,000 people. Ever since that year, successive failed attempts have been made to reform or disband SARS, one in 2017 by the then Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris; one in 2018 by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, when he was Acting President; and two by the present Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu in January 2019 and February 2020.
It is against these backgrounds that the ongoing #ENDSARS protests took off on Thursday, October 8, 2020. Two separate killings by SARS officers within three days provided the immediate motivation. The victims were young men, who were shot dead on the spot, each in front of a hotel
The spontaneity of the protest, its widening membership within 24 hours, and its lack of leadership were immediately noticeable. Within 72 hours, the Federal Government responded to the protesters’ primary demand. SARS was disbanded.
Unfortunately, however, the announcement was made by the IG, who had made similar promises before and flouted them. The protesters insisted that they wanted the President to issue an executive order on the dissolution of SARS or speak to the nation about the dissolution. Just as the protesters were making this demand, the IG came around within 48 hours to announce the formation of Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT) as a replacement for SARS. More insensitive is the training of officers for the new unit even as the protests raged.
In the meantime, hoodlums, miscreants, touts, and thugs had crept into the crowd of protesters. In Osun, for example, known political thugs of an opposition party were among the miscreants, who beat their way through peaceful protesters to attack Governor Gboyega Oyetola and his convoy as they hurried back into their vehicles after taking a long walk with the protesters and exchanging views them.
In Lagos, Abeokuta, Benin, Abuja, Jos, and other cities, miscreants had turned the protests into bonfire, jailbreak, and wanton destruction of lives and property. The time to bring a halt to its continuation was heralded by the appeal of party leaders.
By Tuesday night, various state governments, especially in the Southwest, had imposed a curfew and the IG had deployed the special anti-riot squad nation-wide.
Various lessons abound for the protesters and the government. But let me address one issue outright. True, the #ENDSARS protests appear leaderless on the surface, but one wonders how a leaderless group of protesters was able to raise over N70 million within a few days and how the feeding of protesters was quickly arranged, especially in Lagos. Moreover, who coordinated the protesters’ demands? But these were only the easy tasks for the protesters.
A major lesson for them or any group planning a prolonged nation-wide protest in Nigeria is the high possibility of having to contend with the infiltration of jobless youths, thugs, touts, and other miscreants, who would use protests as a cover to perpetrate various kinds of atrocities, while also looking for avenues to loot shops and markets as they did in Osogbo.
This, of course, is not peculiar to Nigeria. It is a feature of widespread protests everywhere there is a high rate of poverty and unemployment or there is weak or biased leadership. This, for example, is the case in the United States, where the #Black Lives Matter protests were infiltrated by Trump supporters and others, who looted shops, burned buildings, and even killed some of the protesters.
The government has far too many lessons to learn from the protests.
One, the growing youth population is a ticking time bomb, as poverty and unemployment levels rise. Two, the intelligence architecture at the national and sub-national levels is weak. The direction of the protests, their infiltration by miscreants, and their fueling by opposition politicians were evident within hours. Decisive, rather than piecemeal, action should have been taken within a few days of the protests.
All that was needed was the President to quickly meet with state governors, speak directly to the protesters, assure them of the dissolution of SARS, and announce the setting up of Judicial Panels of Inquiry in each state to which protesters should submit their grievances and demands. Fortunately, however, that’s where we are now, but it should not have taken two weeks to arrive there.