Protests against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have rocked major cities in the country since October 3 when a video showing two young men being brutalized and one of them shot in the street went viral. The protests against the SARS unit became a trending topic on Twitter in several countries, and by October 9, the hashtag #EndSARS has been tweeted over 2.4 million times.
These protests have once again placed the virtual network of netizens on the frontlines. This is a “new country” of Nigerians spanning non-geographical boundaries, yet united by a common identity.
When considering this phenomenon, Benkler’s networked public sphere comes to mind. Political conversations online are not just mere talk, fuming with passion but with no substance. It’s understandable that this might often be the impression portrayed; however, these discussions in virtual networks are an evolution of Habermas’ public square of antiquity, and are an essential aspect of any democracy.
#EndSARS—from political conversations to a movement
Social movements usually go through four stages of evolution: emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline.
Young Nigerian netizens connected in these virtual networks started having Twitter conversations around #EndSARS and police brutality as far back as 2017. This led to the emergence of an #EndSARS movement that same year.
However, the coalescence of the movement from online conversations to offline advocacy was ignited on October 9 this year and since then, many Nigerian cities and diasporic communities have been witnessing the #EndSARS protests. The popularity of the protest is based on the authenticity of the message, as the impunity of SARS police units and their odious practices are well documented.
In addition, as I have argued previously, the #EndSARS protests have received a favorable response because they remained politically neutral and non-violent, avoided ethnoreligious labels, and have a collective power structure.
Perhaps this might explain why the movement has so far managed to sidestep the asymmetrical dependency observed in mainstream media coverage of protests by social movements. Traditional media’s insistence on dwelling on the misdemeanors of protesters usually leads to the attrition of the message. Within the Nigerian context, the #EndSARS protesters seem to have learned from the pitfalls of the social media coverage of the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protests which, sadly, amplified the errant behaviour of protesters to the detriment of their message.
Nonetheless, the #EndSARS movement must evolve to the third stage of its development—bureaucratization—or face extinction.
The dilemma of a movement
The Nigerian youths behind this movement seem to have validated Mackinnon’s Consent of the Networked as a call to action—that netizens should move beyond being mere technological spectators and take ownership of their digital future as active actors.
The #EndSARS movement possesses the moral high ground by its abhorrence of violence in pressing for their demands of police reforms in Nigeria. However, this advantage amounts to nothing if the movement does not engage with power.
The Nigerian political landscape is littered with many broken promises by governments, past and present. This apathy is exacerbated by numerous government pronouncements on reforming SARS, from August 2015 up to now, which never saw the light of day. Nevertheless, there must be a reconsideration of tactics, negotiation with authorities with short- and long-term demands and measurable targets. Otherwise, this failure in strategy may result in losing everything, and this will be devastating.
The unleashing of apparently establishment-sanctioned thugs in Benin City and the deployment of the military in Abuja as an excuse to suppress the mass action are pointers that this government will stop at nothing to subdue this protest action.
The fact is, however, that after the coalescence stage, social movements can only sustain the momentum of protests for a limited time. Sooner rather than later, fatigue sets in and the mass action fizzles out. The disjointed demands by individual(s) and groups in the #EndSARS movement are fuzzy and not sustainable in the long run. The solution is a collegial leadership that emerges from the participatory consent of the different collectives of the #EndSARS movement.
This is not as chaotic as it may sound. The networked citizens on Twitter, have already collectively dismissed some distracting proposals by some individuals in the past days. This is imperative going forward because police reform is a marathon and not a sprint. The movement is currently passing through a precarious moment—to either consolidate the wins of the past weeks or suffer a stillbirth. Or worse still, it risks the gains of these past weeks being hijacked by rabble-rousers, as occurred in the 2011 Egyptian uprising or, more recently, in the French Yellow Vest movement.
An evasive, insincere government
Sadly, the Nigerian government has not shown any commitment to reforming the police. Rather, it wallows in the self-delusion of expressing verbal platitudes that are as ineffectual as they are dishonest.
The federal government directed state governments to institute public panels of inquiry to investigate cases of police brutality. This is because, according to the Nigerian constitution, only state governments can set up such investigations. However, the federal government was not entirely sincere because, without prerequisite legislative pronouncement, such panels are “dead on arrival.” In addition, state governments have no legal backing to enforce the recommendations of any panel because, under the exclusive legislative list of the 1999 Constitution, the police can only be directed by the president. This explains why the recommendations of the panel of inquiry instituted by the Rivers State Government on SARS were never implemented.
The federal government is totally out of its depth about how to address this crisis. Gone are the days when cosmetic proclamations bereft of any substance are enough to buy time or calm the tide. The government is yet to implement the report of its own panel of inquiry—improving police welfare, ensuring that officers always act in accordance with the law, protecting the rights of Nigerians and sanctioning errant officers—a year after it was submitted. Pray, why should anyone trust the government to implement the recommendations of any report, when it has not implemented any from numerous past panels? To make matters worse, the authorities have consistently deployed force against demonstrators, killing, arresting, intimidating and destroying their property.
Unfortunately, these diversionary antics do not fly with Nigeria’s young people, who are demanding concrete action and not flowery words. They are calling for all SARS officials who have ever acted above the law to be prosecuted and jailed. The Nigerian government does not yet understand that democracy is not only about winning elections but more importantly, it is about accountable and transparent governance.
In the final analysis, only the President of Nigeria has the constitutional powers to reform the police. The big question remains—will President Muhammadu Buhari stand up to his task and be counted? So far, it seems he either does not understand the demands, has made up his mind not to do anything—or both.