With Nigeria currently in the grip of a weeks-long wave of protests directed at the heavy-handed conduct of its recently disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), activists and celebrities in Nigeria, lobby groups worldwide (including in South Africa), and prominent global leaders such as former United States (US) Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, are urging the African Union (AU) under South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s Chairpersonship, to take immediate action. SARS is a facemask-wearing branch of the Nigeria Police Force whose mandate includes undercover operations against crimes associated with armed robbery, car snatching, kidnapping, cattle rustling, and crimes linked to firearms. With SARS long accused of serial human rights violations, Amnesty International (AI) in June 2020 reported at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial execution by SARS from January 2017 to 2020.
Resistance manifest in a #EndSARS movement that started in 2017, gradually mobilising peaceful protests across Nigeria with a strong uptick in activities in October 2020 after a video showing a SARS officer shooting a young Nigerian trended on social media, followed by 5 October reports that SARS killed a 20 year old rising star, musician nicknamed Sleek. This led to nationwide protests on 8 October in various cities with a strong pushback from the Nigeria Police Force. In response to public outrage, the Nigerian authorities banned the SARS and other specialised units from mounting roadblocks, and other routine and patrols, but similar bans have proved superficial and local scepticism proved warranted as further reports of SARS killing emerged. Protestors then insisted on the total scrapping of the unit with an increasingly broad anti-government thrust to demonstrations, leading to a deadly crackdown. The intensity of public anger pushed authorities to dissolve SARS on 11 October and announce a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to replace it. Protestors were unconvinced and on the same date issued five demands, including the immediate release of all arrested during the protests; justice and compensation for all who died through police brutality; the establishment of an independent body to investigate police misconduct; psychological evaluation and retraining of SARS operatives before they are redeployed; and adequate remuneration for Nigerian police.
Speaking to the growing scope of the protests, calls for broader change are also growing as extreme poverty, severe inequality, and massive youth unemployment rate drive what many young people feel is now a fight for survival to disrupt the rampant corruption that has long kept the benefits of Nigeria’s massive oil wealth in the hands of a small elite.
Tensions do not seem to be easing, with thousands bringing traffic to a halt in Lagos on 13 October, prompting the military to issue ominous warnings, while AI confirmed on 19 October that at least 15 people have died since demonstrations started, including two police officers. As things stand anti-riot police are on the ground nationwide and those defying a 24-hour curfew enforced in Lagos were fired on by soldiers on 20 October. Authorities claim 25 were wounded but AI said at least 12 protestors were killed, with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet saying reports suggested the shooting could have been premeditated and AI Country Director, Osai Ojigho, saying “Soldiers clearly had one intention ‒ to kill without consequences.”
Fears of an escalation are now mounting as #EndSARS protests spread across the world and protestors torched buildings in Lagos on 21 October, as one of Africa’s premier economic hubs ground to a halt. Calls for action are growing in parallel, with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) urging dialogue to contain unrest and maintain law and order; the International Committee for the Red Cross calling for restraint; and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab expressing deep concern. Meanwhile, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has yet to directly address the shooting, but has appealed for calm.
The protests have also reached South Africa, host to a large Nigerian community, with demonstrators picketing outside the Nigerian embassy in Pretoria and parliament in Cape Town, describing #EndSARS as emblematic of a dysfunctional system and a leadership that does not value the youth. This will up pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa, as AU Chair, to act and raise the mater at the United Nations (UN) Security Council, with local opposition parties the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) joining calls for intervention. Also on the side with the Nigerian protestors is South Africa’s powerful labour federation (and Ramaphosa backer), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which says the new police unit “will just be the same menace in new uniforms”.
However, whether Ramaphosa ‒ currently distracted by a trio of local pressures of Covid-19; looming economic meltdown; and raging factionalism within the African National Congress (ANC) over which he presides ‒ will muster the political will to act decisively and quickly is unclear. The ANC’s recent lacklustre intervention in Zimbabwe suggests otherwise, although the AU’s rare rebuke of President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s government for human rights abuses offers some cause for optimism. Similarly, the 22 October statement by African Union Commission (AUC) chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, strongly condemning the Lagos violence and urging all parties to “privilege dialogue” is a positive indicator.
Nonetheless, Ramaphosa will remain cognisant of pervasive xenophobia in South Africa where strong anti-Nigerian sentiment is being exploited by his political enemies both within and outside the ANC. At the same time, South Africa’s relationship with the Nigerian government is already a fragile one that he will not want to endanger or complicate unnecessarily. His recent calls for Africans to rally ally behind Nigeria’s candidate for the World Trade Organisation director general job, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, exemplify the dynamics at play, with Ramaphosa stressing that her leadership of the WTO would help integrate the continent in the global multilateral trading system.
Either way, continued instability in Nigeria will not support this integration and pressure will persist on ECOWAS, the AU, and Ramaphosa to prevent further devastation as Africa’s economies struggle to recover from multiple Covid-19 shocks.