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H.4.c. Nigeria: Youth Rebel Against Regime Violence, 2017-20

The demonstrations by thousands of young Nigerians against police and regime brutality, which spread across Nigeria in October 2020, became a significant news story. The national and international interest was due partly to the initial surge of support in Lagos and across the country, but there was also shock over the brutality of the government's response. Over 60 deaths of protesters in three weeks were reported and many hundreds were also injured. The army fired directly at peaceful demonstrators and the police transported thugs (mainly from the north of the country) to attack protesters.

The protests and the official response reflected the fact that Nigeria, despite a strong economy, has had a troubled political record of internal conflicts and authoritarian military rule since independence in 1960. It has over 250 different ethnic groups, and is divided between Islam and Christianity. The main political fault line is between the Islamic north, which has become a stronghold of the military, and other areas. The attempt by the Igbo people to create an independent Biafra in the south-east led to the bitter and destructive Biafran war from 1967-70. Although since 1999 Nigeria had formally become an electoral democracy, the military still tend to control major economic resources and to dominate government. President Muhammadu Buhari, in power in 2020, has a background of military intervention in politics.           

The initial focus of the October 2020 youth protests was the routine brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which had already been strongly criticized both within Nigeria and by international human rights bodies. Amnesty, for example, published two extremely critical reports in 2016 and 2017. The protests began online in 2017 with the #EndSARS campaign, but they had little political impact on the government until early October 2020. Then thousands of young Nigerians took to the streets, initially influenced by calls for demonstrations by two Afro-Pop musicians. Lagos was the centre of the protests, but there were similar demonstrations in cities across the country and transcended ethnic and religious divides. The protesters also received active support from civil society bodies, notably the Feminist Coalition, which helped to initiate the protesters and provide food and medical aid and funds for legal costs. The demands of the demonstrators rapidly extended to misuse of government funds and lack of jobs for the young. The demonstrations were generally nonviolent, but in Lagos some people reacted angrily to the brutal suppression of protest by burning down buildings linked to the federal and regional government.

The demonstrations ended after October 2020. The government seemed initially to be taken aback by the mass protests, and the Vice President made a broadcast early on which seemed to promise that SARS would be disbanded. But after October the government turned to suppression of unrest. One tactic was to suspend the bank accounts of media organizations and civil society groups that had given publicity and support to the protests. This move was countered by the affected organizations turning to use of bitcoin, which the authorities could not directly control. One unanticipated outcome has been that by the summer of 2021 Nigeria has more trade in bitcoin than any country except the US.

Impressive as the October 2020 demonstrations were, it is not clear that they have achieved any long-term success in reducing the corrupt and arbitrary nature of Nigeria's government. The promised disbanding of SARS did not take place. Political attention has also been diverted to areas of social and political violence in different parts of Nigeria, especially in the north which is threatened by militant armed Islamic groups who have repeatedly attacked schools and kidnapped pupils - especially but not exclusively girls.

The references listed below cover various aspects of the 2020 protests, including possible weaknesses, and  some assessment of their longer term impact.