On October 8, 2020, when some Nigerian youths started a peaceful protest asking for the proscription of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – a tactical unit of the Nigeria Police Force – which they accused of going beyond their constitutional boundaries in the discharge of their duties, nobody expected that by the time the dust finally settled in the aftermath of the protest by October 28, 2020 the country would have been as badly affected as it was.
Apart from ending SARS, the protesters agitated for a reform of the Nigeria Police Force in general, including improvement in the welfare and working conditions of the police as a way of putting an end to alleged cases of impunity and highhandedness by law enforcement agents who had taken an oath “to serve and to protect” Nigerians.
The Federal Government quickly responded to the protesters demands by announcing the nationwide disbandment of SARS on October 11, 2020 and inviting leaders of the protest to a meeting to deliberate on other issues they raised. At the state level, a number of state governments quickly set up panels of enquiry to look into the issues raised by the protesting youths. Sadly, poor or lack of clearly defined leadership on the side of the protesting youths left the proposed meeting with the Federal Government lingering as the youths perhaps tried to put themselves together, until hoodlums hijacked the protests and it degenerated into something else. Government and private establishments were looted, destroyed and set ablaze, including over 20 police stations across the country, and the police was helpless to do anything because of the senseless blackmail the generality of the public had levied against the force by painting every police man and woman as bad. That negative public opinion which used the misdeeds of a few to rubbish the entire force, succeeded in killing the morale of the police and causing them to stay away from the streets for a period of time. This absence of the police from the streets only heightened fear, uncertainty and insecurity among Nigerians since there was no law enforcement to checkmate the excesses of the hoodlums who hijacked the peaceful protest. The result was that in addition to the wanton destruction of property, many innocent lives – on both the part of security agencies and civilians – were lost, as criminals had a field day perpetuating all manner of crimes. Thankfully, the Government acted with wisdom and maturity, thereby preventing the escalation of the situation. Military personnel, other law enforcement agents and senior ranking police officers, traditional rulers and opinion leaders spared no efforts in interacting with members of the public and urging them to maintain the peace in their communities and neighbourhoods.
The EndSARS 2020 protest was not the first protest in Nigeria’s history. Four years after Independence, in 1964, protests about the outcome of the general elections in the then Western Region degenerated into killings and lynching (the infamous wettie) that historians have traced as one of the remote causes of the Nigerian Civil War. We had the Ali-must-go student protests of the 1970s, June 12 protests of the 1990s and the fuel hike protests of January 2012. Questions arising from these protests are: What lessons, if any, have we as a nation learnt from the protests? Has the country been able to harness the experiences from past protests to avoid or manage protests in the future?
Protests, so long as they are peaceful, are good. They are like constructive criticisms which no progressive government or leadership can do without. Critics and criticisms provide necessary feedback for the improvement of leadership. Any administration that wants to succeed must learn to listen to what critics are saying. That is because the critic is only calling the attention of government and leadership to areas where they are failing or weak. When leadership acts on that exposed weakness and improves on its service to the people, that leadership will be celebrated and praised by the people by the time they leave office.
This book seeks to document the EndSARS 2020 protest as a case study of protests in Nigeria and how the country can hopefully learn from it to forestall the recurrence of future protests. It serves as an archival material that future generations can draw from in the event that they, too, need to organize peaceful protests. It is also hoped that future administrations of Government will learn a thing or two about management of protests, from the way this administration handled the EndSARS 2020 protests. Ultimately, it is hoped that this documentation will give both the Government and the people a clearer insight into tackling social upheavals in future by prompting them to ask at the onset of every protest: What are the preventive measures that past generations of Nigerians applied in tackling social upheavals and how can we improve on it? How do we protect peaceful protesters from harm and attacks as they exercise their constitutional right to protest? How can protesters and Government alike prevent hoodlums and miscreants from hijacking peaceful protests? What can we do differently so that businesses can continue to run without interruption, while peaceful protests go on; and Government does not provoke the protesters by neglecting them or ignoring their demands? What do we learn from the EndSARS Youth Protests that can help us avoid or better manage future protests so we do not have a breakdown of law and order and shutting down of the economy, like the nation witnessed in October 2020?
*EndSARS Youth Protest 2020: A Case Study of Protests and Lessons for Nigeria is written by HRH Appolus Chu, the Egbere Emere Okori Eleme, Rivers State