A Turning Point For Protests in Nigeria with End SARS-Veteran Journalist Chido Onumah
November 13, 2020
By Ajong Mbapndah L
The End SARS protests have redefined the nature of protests in Nigeria, says veteran Journalist, writer and media trainer Chido Onumah. In an interview with PAV, Onumah opined that the protesters have largely achieved their aim which was to register their displeasure about the state of Nigeria using End SARS as the pivot.
“The End SARS protests have redefined the nature of protests in Nigeria. For one, it has galvanized young people and shown them the power of organisation and solidarity,” says Onumah.
While the Nigerian government may have succeeded in tainting the protest with unfounded claims that it was a movement of young people from the Southern part of the country eager to remove President Buhari, the last may not have been heard from the protesters ,Onumah said.
“I think overall the protesters achieved their aim, which was to register their displeasure about the state of the country using End SARS as the pivot. They must go back to re-strategise, build a pan-Nigerian coalition that addresses the major concerns of young people and citizens across the country and present a minimum agenda for the transformation of the country, an agenda that speaks to unity, freedom, equality and opportunities for all Nigerians wherever they may be in the country,” said the highly respected media personality.
Thanks for accepting to answer our questions Chido Onumah to discuss the current situation in Nigeria and the End SARS demonstrations. Could we start with a historical context, when and why was SARS created and what did it do wrong to incur the wrath of Nigerians?
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was set up in response to the spate of armed robberies in Lagos, the commercial capital of Nigeria, in late 1992. The history of SARS is reflective of its operation which was the cause of nationwide protests recently. Its history is rooted in the violence which has been the hallmark of not just the Nigerian State and its security apparatuses, but many of the neo-colonial states in Africa.
SARS has its origin in the confrontation between the Nigeria Army and the Police. Following the death of a senior army officer at a police checkpoint in Lagos in September 1992, the army went after any police personnel they could find. Many police officers allegedly resigned while others abandoned their duty posts and stations for fear of their lives. The violence the army visited on the police led to a breakdown of law and order and the collapse of law enforcement in the state for weeks. After the army ended its onslaught, the police returned to the streets and had to deal with an increase in the crime rate. SARS was a quick response to this crisis. Because there were anti-robbery squads in existence, “special” was added to SARS to distinguish it from these other anti-robbery squads.
Gradually, the operations of SARS extended beyond Lagos to other parts of the country. Almost from the outset, SARS became notorious for abuse of rights of suspects and detainees, but it wasn’t until about a decade ago that these atrocities attracted media and public attention. With the expansion of technology and social media in the country also came the problem of online crimes, the advance fee fraud or 419 as it is known in Nigeria. SARS took up the task of dealing with this scourge. SARS operatives, many ill-trained and poorly remunerated were unleashed on universities and cities across the country.
Rather than dealing with the problem, typical of law enforcement in Nigeria, they became the problem, extorting money from suspects, detaining people illegally, and sometimes executing suspects for failing to meet their financial demands. They also because pawns in the hand of politicians and influential members of society who used them to settle personal scores or advance their political and economic interests. Because it had special (no pun intended) power being that its leadership was answerable only to the Inspector General of Police, its operatives became law unto themselves.
May we know how the End SARS protests started, what was the final straw that pushed Nigerians on the kind of protests that we are experiencing today?
The crisis has been brewing for long. As I mentioned, for about a decade now the atrocities of the SARS unit have been the subject of social media commentary and reports of groups like Amnesty International. But the buildup to the current protests started in 2017 when some activists launched a campaign on Twitter to end SARS and reform the Nigeria Police. In 2017, a petition signed by over 10,000 people was submitted to Nigeria’s National Assembly calling for a total disbandment of SARS. After the social media uproar, there were peaceful protests in cities across Nigeria.
The latest round of protests started in early October, first on Twitter and spilling over to the streets of major cities across the country after reports of the shooting of a young man in the south-south part of the country by SARS officers. Let us not forget that in September, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) had planned nationwide protests against the insensate increase in the price of petrol and electricity which was called off to the chagrin of young people across the country after the NLC reached an “agreement” with the government. Before the increase in the cost of petrol and electricity, Nigerians had been complaining about poverty, corruption, insecurity, kidnapping, etc. The End SARS issue was just a trigger to propel young people who have been used—used as political thugs during elections—and abandoned by successive governments in Nigeria.
Who exactly are the people leading the protests, who speaks for the protesters?
They call it a “leaderless revolution.” Perhaps, that explains why it was sustained for so long. In the past when we had protests led by organised labour or members of civil society there were reports that government would pay off the “leaders” of such protests and after a few days, the protests fizzled. The protesters didn’t what to hear the word “leader.” It was a collective action. They didn’t want to be betrayed by so-called leaders. Of course, there are a few young people who because of their social profile or celebrity status are known across the country and around the world who directed the protests or presented demands to the authorities.
Overall, the peaceful protests remained leaderless, and the young people managed to make it work. Unfortunately, rather than government protecting the peaceful protesters, they hired other young people to disrupt the process and cause mayhem. That was the genesis of the violence and breakdown of law and order that the country witnessed in the last one week. Those hired by the State to disrupt the protests were so emboldened that they started burning cars and buildings while the security operatives watched. It created an opportunity for a lot of young unemployed youths who live on the streets to take advantage of the chaos to cause more destruction.
In Lagos, the deployment of soldiers who were seen in a video shooting at unarmed protesters at the Lekki toll gate was the trigger of the state-wide violence and destruction that followed. Seeing that security operatives had applied lethal force and subsequently abandoned their role to protect lives and property, enraged citizens took a cue and embarked on large scale destruction of public and private property, including forcibly raiding government warehouses where they helped themselves to all sorts of food items meant for distribution as palliatives to the people to cushion the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but wickedly shut away by state officials.
There have been reports and counter reports on casualties, what are your own sources on the ground telling you about exact figures on casualties?
We do not have the exact figures. That will become clear in the weeks ahead when many of the judicial panels of enquiry set up by state governors submit their reports and they are made public. For now, the reports on casualties are sketchy and many can’t be independently verified. But from initial reports in the media, clearly many protesters were killed and injured.
We have also heard incidents of a high court burnt in Lagos, buses burnt, prison breaks, etc., what impact do you think this could have on the true intent and purpose of the End SARs protests?
It is unfortunate that the peaceful protests took a violent turn. But the State should be held culpable, first for instigating counter protests and then standing idly by when there was a breakdown of law and order. There were things security personnel could have done to stop the violence without causing deaths or injuries. But they just watched and, in some cases, participated in the “looting” that occurred.
Clearly, the destruction was not carried out by the End SARS protesters. These were peaceful, focused, and organised protesters whose comportment was widely commended. The destruction was carried out by the precariat, victims of the violent onslaught of the Nigerian state over the last 60 years of political independence. Those who have lived on the fringes, who felt marginalised and left out of the prosperity and opportunity that the enormous wealth the country should have created. The End SARS protesters are organising online and offline and strategising on how to turn their efforts into a political movement that not only seeks to hold the government accountable but one whose members can run for political office.
What do you make of the way the Buhari administration has handled the crisis, did the speech of President Buhari help in anyway?
Perhaps, it would have been better if President Buhari didn’t make that broadcast. It was anti-climactic. People were expecting him, literally begging him, to address the country which would have assuaged feelings in the first few days of the protests, but he remained impervious to the anger and later death and destruction around him. And when he decided to speak, more than two weeks after the protests started, he did not address any of core issues around the protests. His insensitivity riled the protesters. President Buhari’s obliviousness is on a different level.
Following the broadcast, videos started circulating on social media to the effect that the person that spoke was not President Buhari and that the “real” President Buhari passed away in 2017 during one of his many medical trips to the UK. Because of the hollowness of the speech, it was drowned in conspiracy theories. Of course, it was President Buhari that spoke in a recorded broadcast to Nigerians on October 22. Unfortunately, we are dealing with an enfeebled president who is utterly out of touch with the mood of the country.
There are some who feel that the politics of 2023 may be playing a role in the End SARs protests, any currency to this school of thought?
Everything in Nigeria today is linked to the politics of 2023. The End SARS protests have nothing to do with the politics of 2023 but a lot to do with the crisis of poverty, underdevelopment, and abuse of Nigerians by the State and its institutions. Of course, there are elements who want to take advantage of the protests to further their personal and political interests. As I noted earlier, the anti-SARS sentiments have been on for many years. It was only a matter of time.
We understand a number of businesses belonging to APC kingpin Ahmed Bola Tinubu have been destroyed, any reason why he is targeted?
Tinubu has come out to say he does not own some of the businesses linked to him that were destroyed. The jury is still out on that and why these businesses were targeted. What we know, which is unfortunate, is the destruction of media houses belonging to Tinubu—The Nation newspaper and TV Continental. We hope the panel set up by the Lagos State Government can find answers to some of these questions. I have my doubts though. The state government is deeply enmeshed in the mess. Take the question of who invited the military. First, we were told by the military that it was fake news and that the military was not involved in the Lekki shooting. The Governor of Lagos State denied sending in the military. Now, the military says it was invited by the governor. It is hard to know what to believe. The governor has many questions to answer.
A number of sports, music and Nollywood stars have fully embraced the End SARS movement, what impact has their presence had on the protests?
The impact has been huge. It gave traction to the process. It reassured citizens, particularly the downtrodden who were the catalysts of protests in the past that the “rich also cry.” In this case, the middle class. Usually, protests start in low income neighbourhoods and it is easy to quell them because those involved are not “influential” or “important” people. This time, the centre of the protests was Lekki, the neighbouhood of the nouveau riche. The involvement of celebrities and Nollywood stars brought international attention to the protests and the violent attempt by state to shut down the protests. Those outside the country led protests in different cities around the world and those in the country were at the forefront of the protests. The country hadn’t witnessed anything like that.
How should voices that are out for genuine change and reforms guard against opportunists trying to hijack the movement? We now see people, especially politicians, who have been part of the problems in Nigeria speaking in support of End SARS. Should they be trusted?
This was part of the concerns of the protesters. They are aware of this and are not taking any chances. Many of the politicians speaking out are trying to save face. Nigerians know the enemies of the people, those who feed fat on the misery of citizens and on the underdevelopment of the country, those who earn hundreds of millions every year for doing nothing, those who abuse their office and public trust, and those who steal directly from the people in the name of governance. For these groups, their comeuppance is near. Nigeria isn’t going to remain the same after the End SARS protests. People are ready for real change and they know they can attain it when they work together with determination.
We end with a look at the future. How far could the End SARs protests go, and what future do you see for the country?
The End SARS protests have redefined the nature of protests in Nigeria. For one, it has galvanized young people and shown them the power of organisation and solidarity. Of course, there are concerns and still plenty of work to do. Nigeria is a deeply divided country and one of the things government tried to do during the protests was to get other young people to break ranks. Government not only pushed the narrative that the protests were carried out by young people in the southern part of the country and that it was an attempt to remove President Buhari (a northerner) from power, they recruited other young people to disrupt the protests and instigate violence. The State did all it could to play up the fault lines in the country.
I think overall the protesters achieved their aim, which was to register their displeasure about the state of the country using End SARS as the pivot. They must go back to re-strategise, build a pan-Nigerian coalition that addresses the major concerns of young people and citizens across the country and present a minimum agenda for the transformation of the country, an agenda that speaks to unity, freedom, equality and opportunities for all Nigerians wherever they may be in the country.
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