#EndSARS PROTEST: How Nonviolent Movement Became Violent

Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on the #EndSARS movement.

By Prince Vincent-Anene

Nonviolent resistance is a powerful tool for ordinary civilians to transform their governments. Individuals and organizations facing restrictive, oppressive or authoritarian forms of governance may be able to employ nonviolent methods to amplify their voices, challenge power dynamics and press for reforms. In their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan noted that nonviolent civil resistance is far more successful in creating broad-based change than a violent campaign.[1] However, despite the greater chances of success, it is evident from the work of scholars that not all nonviolent movements succeed, and many ultimately escalate into violent conflicts. As a result, some nonviolent movements fail to achieve progress. More specifically, in Nigeria, what began as a peaceful protest by a motley of interest groups against key issues ranging from the rising unemployment and inflation, inequitable distribution of the palliative, increasing insecurity, and the excesses of officials of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in some part of the country snowballed into violence after the police fired tear gas and live bullets to disperse protesters.[2]

#EndSARS emerged on social media as a call for the proscription of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The immediate trigger of the movement was a tweet posted on the @AfricaOfficial handle on October 3, 2020, which reported the killing of a young boy by agents of the SARS, a Nigerian Police Force (NPF) unit, in Ughelli Delta State, Nigeria.[3] The tweet claimed that the agents dropped his dead body on the road while making away with his car. Although the Nigerian Police denied the shooting in this case, it was not enough to quell public anger as more videos of police shootings were shared across social media platforms.[4]

Essentially, the movement in a piecemeal process started when Segun Awosanya and other activists on Twitter began to demand that the SARS be scrapped.[5] In a matter of days, protesters had lined the streets of Lagos and Abuja demanding an end to SARS. Pressured by the publicity that the protests had generated, the Nigerian government swiftly announced the disbandment of SARS. This move, however, was not enough to appease the protesters in light of similar pronouncements made previously by the government. For instance, in December 2017, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) announced that SARS had been banned from conducting stop and search operations following several reports of harassment. This ban was publicly re-announced by the IGP in 2018 and 2020, reflecting the ineffectiveness of previous orders.[6]

Similarly, in 2018, the presidency announced an overhaul of SARS, stating that the National Human Rights Commission would investigate cases of abuse. This statement was followed shortly by the announcement of a centralized FSARS (Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad) which would come under the supervision of the Inspector General of Police as opposed to the previous version which was under state Commissioners of Police. Mere weeks later, the IGP announced the disbandment of FSARS, stating that the unit would go back to being a decentralized NPF and under the command of state commissioners. Considering past practices and disappointments, protesters added to their list of demands, calling for the compensation of victims of SARS brutality, retraining of police officers, and trials of indicted SARS officials.

Equally, despite the chances of success, the youths’ approach to decentralized leadership, as the online and physical protests were not led by a single individual, or a career activist made it difficult for the government to negotiate peace with all the groups. This type of leaderless protest carried the logic that prominent leaders are likely to be jailed or killed, and should thus be protected. The structures were spontaneous and loosely organized. Even though these kinds of protests are hardly infiltrated and corrupted by the government, and are often driven by technology; evidently, this type of arrangement has its challenges: too many local leaders and groups engender conflicting messages and the use of tactics that are not supported by all.[7] They lose their messages and are not sustainable over a long period. Therefore, organizing, leading, and maintaining momentum waned after a few weeks of social media and physical protests. Though many social media influencers and celebrities were present at the physical protests, they were not seen as the sustainable voices or leaders of a movement in the long term.

In response to the #EndSARS protests, the government swiftly announced that it had disbanded SARS and that a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team will be in operation. This announcement further provoked protesters who were concerned that SARS personnel would simply be drafted into the new SWAT team.[8] Although the #EndSARS protest was targeted towards disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, Nigerian youths also used that opportunity to protest bad governance, unemployment, insecurity, and poor infrastructures among others. They were also protesting the existing political climate which enthroned mediocrity in governance. Some of the youths even called for the resignation of the President, President Muhammadu Buhari. Hence, the #EndSARS protests also sought to upturn the existing socio-political structure within Nigeria. As mentioned earlier, the #EndSARS Movement started off as a nonviolent protest. Young people were determined to hold the government accountable for their state without causing disturbance or turmoil. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria also ensures the right to peaceful protest as one of the inalienable rights of all Nigerians. The constitution has also stipulated that the state would protect protesters provided they remained peaceful.

On October 20, almost one week since the peaceful protest started, the men of the Nigerian army opened fire on unarmed protesters bearing the flag of the nation. To open fire on protesters who bore the national flag, was an attack on the nation herself and a treason. The Nigerian army denied this, however, the youths were aggravated, and the protest became violent, especially in Lagos State.[9] And the police stepped in to squash the protests; the police crackdown was followed by riots in Lagos with government structures razed and shops looted. The violence and looting soon spread to other parts of the country, causing several states to declare curfews. The question now becomes, what can a protest achieve in the 21st century by being peaceful? Can the political elite incite violence in a peaceful protest to find a justifiable reason to quench such protest? Could the protest have achieved more than just disbanding the SARS if it remained peaceful?

In the past, people have adopted the means of violence in upturning oppression and unjust rule. This is seen in the French Revolution and the American War of Independence, among others. But is this means still useful in the 21st century? With the rise of more modern forms of government and the dependence on constitution, leaders would justify the use of state power to quench violent forms of protest thereby making it impossible for the protesters to achieve their agenda. To me, the bane of the #EndSARS protest was the violence that ensued on October 21, 2020. Moreso, it appears that the government sponsored hoodlums to hijack the protest for the movement to be criminalized. With the criminalization of the protest, the movement lost popularity both domestically and internationally. Hence, there were justifiable reasons for the government to force the state power to stop the protest. What followed was a series of curfews in different hotspot states of the movements. It was difficult to differentiate between peaceful protesters and the hoodlums who looted both shops, stores, government offices, public and private warehouses. In a bid to stop the hoodlums, restore peace and order, the government also ended the protests.

[1] Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent conflict, Columbia University Press, 2011.

[2] Uwazuruike, Allwell Raphael “#EndSARS: The Movement Against Police Brutality in Nigeria”, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 2020.

[3] Oluwadara Abimbade, Philip Olayoku, Danielle Herro, “Millennial activism within Nigerian Twitterscape: From Mobilization to Social Action of #ENDSARS Protest,” Social Sciences & Humanities (2022).

[4] Aljazeera.com. “We need to live’: Young Nigerians on why they are protesting”. aljazeera.com. Archived from the original on 14 October 2020.

[5] Abosede George, “The roots of the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria.”

[6]  Uwazuruike, Allwell Raphael “#EndSARS: The Movement Against Police Brutality in Nigeria”, Harvard Human Rights Journal, 2020.
[7] Chioma Deborah Onwubiko, Favour Ogemdi Egwim, “the Pragmatics of Political Claims and Social Responses amidst Covid19 and EndSARS Saga in Nigeria”, International Journal of Language and Literary Studies, Vol.3, No. 4, 2021.

[8] Adeyoola Mercy Ojemola & IfeKristi T. Ayo-Obiremi, Nigeria’s Memes as Anecdote of Youthful Participation in 2019-2020 Nigeria’s Critical Events, SAU Journal of Management and Social Sciences, Vol. 6, No 1 (June, 2021).

[9] Col Abbas Aminu Umar, “Social Media and the Spread of Fake News in Nigeria: EndSARS Protest in Perspective”, presented to the Brazilian Army Command and General Staff School, as a partial requirement for obtaining the title of Specialist in Military Science, with an emphasis on Strategic Studies.