#EndSARS: How anti-police brutality protests in Nigeria have exposed the country’s generational divide

Distressed Nigerian youths demand for their voices to be heard (Photo credit Sunday Albama / AP)

In Lagos on October 20th 2020, fortnight-long protests for the disbandment of SARS came to a peak. Protestors were met with live bullets fired by police, killing twelve people and injuring numerous others. The events would come to be known as the Lekki Toll Gate massacre.

The hashtag ‘#EndSARS’ stormed social media platforms after a video of a young man from Delta State being shot and killed by SARS officers went viral. The officers were then filmed driving off in the dead man’s Lexus SUV, typifying the behaviour of the unit.

Calls to end the Special Anti-Robbery Squad have been persisting since 2017, and the government has falsely promised an end to the unit on several occasions.

President Buhari has since vowed once again to disband the unit, and actually proceeded to do so. But in the same breath created an identical unit named ‘Special Weapons and Tactics’ — ruining protestors hope for genuine reform in Nigeria.

Such examples of political stagnation and the government’s lackadaisical approach towards battling corruption build the larger reasoning behind this year’s protests. Young people in Nigeria are tired of unfair governance and the lack of opportunity that exists for their generation.

#EndSARS is thus only a catalyst for the wider discontent experienced by Nigeria’s youth, exposing the growing generational divide that exists in Africa’s most populous nation.

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was created by the Nigerian Police Force in 1992 to combat an increasing amount of crime in Nigeria, especially that of armed robberies, carjackings, and kidnappings.

Initially, the unit was effective in its purpose and reduced the country’s crime in its early years. But over time the unit has become renowned for being synonymous with brutality and acting violently against civilians without consequence.

Last year, Amnesty International reported at least 82 cases of torture, extrajudicial killings, extortion and rape by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.

According to the report, victims held in SARS custody have been subjected to “mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.” Arrests and cases are rarely investigated, and despite Nigeria criminalising torture in 2017, no SARS officer has ever been convicted.

The report also revealed that young people bear the brunt of SARS’ criminality. Young people between the ages of 17 and 30 are most at risk of arrest, torture, or extortion by SARS.

They are often accused of being internet fraudsters and/or armed robbers. Young men with dreadlocks, ripped jeans, tattoos, flashy cars or expensive gadgets are called ‘Yahoo Boys’ (slang for internet fraudster) and frequently targeted by SARS.

The unduly profiling of young people feeds into a deeper bias against youth woven into the DNA of Nigerian society.

For a long time, the facets many youths use to express themselves such as non-conventional career paths and piercings, have been associated with irresponsibility in areas of society.

Even the country’s current President, Muhammadu Buhari, has described Nigerian youths as “lazy” to an international audience, representing attitudes of the older, more conservative generation of Nigerians.

With 18-to-24-year olds making up over half of the Nigerian population, those in power can only continue ignoring young people’s voices for so long.

According to the country’s national bureau of statistics, 40.8% of young people aged 15–24 are out of work.

Compared to just 27.1% of the whole workforce being unemployed, youth are faring the worst.

These figures are no mean feat. Chatham House has even stated that “If Nigeria’s unemployed youth were its own country, it would be larger than Tunisia or Belgium.”

Unemployment is not the only adversity faced by young Nigerians. They are also dealing with poor education systems that fail to effectively fulfil their purpose. Consequently, over 60 million of its population are illiterate, with over 10 million children out of school.

In addition to this, university-level education is at an all-time low. The Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU) and the Federal government continually frustrate the higher education system.

Plagued with teaching strikes and lack of funding, university students often spend longer at university than their allocated time for their degree, slowing their progress and prospects of employment.

This is worsened by the government’s inability (or rather blatant refusal) to help the situation. Rather than investing money to strengthen a fragile education system, local politicians would rather pocket essential funding assigned by central government for themselves.

Nigerian youth are disillusioned with those in power (Photo credit Reuters)

The phrase that characterised the #EndSARS protests was ‘Soro Soke’, meaning ‘speak up’ in the country’s Yoruba language. It encapsulates the attitudes of many young Nigerians today.

Unlike their parent’s generation, they have little time for respectability politics.

They did not experience the ‘Golden Age’ of the 20th century brought about by the discovery of large oil reserves and the fall of colonial rule.

Rather, they experience erratic power supply, deteriorating infrastructure and failed democracy.

But their parent’s generation still have faith in Nigeria’s establishment, and have advocated for the continuation of SARS and will not change their stance on this.

Adenike Lanlehin from Plus TV Africa explains that this is due to “The digitalised generation understanding the importance of evolving and growing in knowledge, but the older generation does not have this outlook.”

She adds that “It’s not about the youth not saying the right things, it is about the older generations not listening to us.”

The older generations also hold power in government and perpetuate the corrupt political landscape that exists in Nigeria.

An NGO worker in Lagos who remains unnamed describes Nigeria’s status quo.

“There is a hierarchical and political system that oppresses the opinion of youth. The leadership is not at all representative of the country in terms of its age. The traditional system which is still in place muzzles the youth, so it’s very difficult for the sentiments of people below the age of forty to be heard. Youth are seen as a separate group, not an integral part of national issues or the policy process.”

Revolutionary change needs to occur in Nigeria for the deeply embedded structural and attitudinal biases against its young people to end.

The way that this can be completed is easier said than done. But it begins with establishing a fairer democratic system, “where it is not all about money” states a young Lagosian student.

Greater accountability in government and local positions of power would go a long way at starting to ‘drain the swamp’. By dismantling the power structures that enable policemen to harass, extort and kill youth, corruption will naturally see it has no place habiting institutions that are meant to keep citizens safe.

The generational divide in Nigeria is set to continue deepening if action is not taken soon. Another young Lagosian summarises the ultimatum for those in power:

“The energy of the next generation gives Nigeria’s leaders a choice. If they view young people’s enthusiasm as an asset, they will find an important ally in the struggle to take their country forward. If they regard it as something to fear, they will find themselves in a struggle against a generation that is increasingly determined to make its voices heard.”

(Photo credit Benson Ibeabuchi / AFP / Getty Image)

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Charlotte G.

Journalist & creative - interested in global politics, feminism and all things equality. Twitter: @cggjourno