From EndSARS, Nigerian youths now demand real change
Dancing, chanting and determined: thousands of young Nigerians are jamming the streets of megacity Lagos to protest police violence and vent at a society they feel sidelines them.
West Africa’s economic hub and beating heart, normally bustling with traffic, is at a standstill as demonstrators have occupied major roads day after day since last week.
The gigantic Lekki Toll Gate, a key junction in and out of the city of 20 million people, is the main stage for the ongoing festival of contestation.
DJs take turns on a makeshift stage in front of a jubilant crowd, while others set up pool tables and hustlers sell soft drinks nearby.
Convertible Mercedes and beaten-up cars park side by side in the middle of the crowd, windows down and pumping music, as onlookers drink beers and raise clenched-fisted salutes.
Better-off protesters distribute water bottles and soft drinks. Popular food chains hand out provisions. Nigeria’s green and white flag goes from hand to hand for selfies.
Rich, poor, feminist and gay, celebrities and street kids, everyone chants the same slogan: “end SARS now”, in reference to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a police unit widely accused of human rights violations.
The slogan, initially launched to denounce the unit after a video of a man being allegedly killed by police went viral last month, has become a rallying cry against injustice and for more freedom.
– ‘Not going anywhere’ –
“If we have money on our bank account, they say we are Yahoo boys (cybercriminals). If we wear earrings, they say we are gay (illegal in Nigeria). If we have dreadlocks, they say we smoke weed,” Femi Daniel, a 33-year-old demonstrator tells AFP.
“We are tired, we are not free in this country.”
Bowing under pressure and faced with a massive online campaign supported by celebrities like Cardi B, Kanye West or Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, the government dissolved SARS and announced a raft of police reforms.
It is Nigeria’s entertainers and pop stars, icons whose influence stretches across social classes, rather than politicians who are supporting the movement +4
It is Nigeria’s entertainers and pop stars, icons whose influence stretches across social classes, rather than politicians who are supporting the movement
But it has not been enough to appease the anger and determination of the street.
The creation of a new SWAT team to replace SARS is among the newly announced measures that protesters oppose.
Quickly, the hashtag #EndSWAT was added to #EndSARS and hundreds more people continued to join the movement in a string of cities including in the capital Abuja.
“#EndSARS united us. Now our eyes are open and we are fighting. Our independence is starting now,” Daniel says.
Cynthia Shalom, a famous actress in Nigeria’s Nollywood film industry, is determined to keep the movement going.
She insists the government address five main demands: the release of all arrested protesters, compensation for families of victims of police abuse, the setting up of an independent investigative body, psychological evaluation of all disbanded SARS officers and an increase of police salaries.
“They think we are joking. They look at us, sitting in their offices, and they think we are kids partying and that we will go home. I can tell you, we are not going anywhere, I am so proud of our generation,” she says.
– ‘Protests have snowballed’ –
“The protests have snowballed into an outlet for latent anger and frustration,” Leena Koni Hoffmann, associate fellow at Chatham House wrote.
“Nigeria has the largest number of young people in poverty in the world, as well as the most food insecure households in West Africa.”
This social uprising is first and foremost the result of a generational divide, where the youth does not identify with its ageing rulers.
President Muhammadu Buhari, 77 and a conservative Muslim, is at the helm of a country where half of its 200 million people are under the age of 30 and where the median age is 18.
It is Nigeria’s pop stars, icons whose influence stretches across social classes, rather than politicians who are supporting the movement.
“We don´t have a leader. But the youth, the masses wanted us, the celebrities, to speak out. Now I am out, and I’m staying here,” Peter Okoye, a singer known as Mr P with 9 million Instagram followers, says.
Standing on his luxury 4×4, the performer’s voice crackles as he shouts to the crowd.
“I shouldn’t be here you know. I am 40, I have a good life, I made it. But one day, my son, my daughter, they will ask me what I was doing in October 2020, and I will tell them ‘I was fighting for you’.” AFP