“Dear Nigerian youth, you have the government where you want them. You are doing amazing. You are doing something that you haven’t done before,” Nigerian activist, Aisha Yesufu, stated in a video she recently tweeted about the ongoing #EndSARS campaign. Yesufu is an activist, who was instrumental in bringing international attention to the “Bring Back Our Girls” campaign in 2014.
The image of Yesufu wearing a hijab, raising her clenched fist in the air in front of armed policemen as she called for an end to impunity by SARS has become one of the touchstones of the #EndSARS campaign. Yesufu added: “Please don’t get distracted. Eyes on the ball. Forget the distraction. There is nothing for you to fight over.”
Tens of thousands of young Nigerians have been protesting for over four weeks as part of the campaign, which represents the biggest nationwide protests in the history of democratic Nigeria. #EndSARS is a youth-led movement in a young country where two thirds of the 200 million strong population is below the age of 25.
The protests have been about police brutality, particularly at the hands of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force; but the anger we are seeing has deeper roots. Pent up frustration – particularly among young people – was a powder keg that only needed the right spark to explode into a wave of popular protest.
SARS has been disbanded and replaced with the Special Weapon Tactical Team (SWAT) but that has not stopped the protests or the police brutality. The country is reeling after the Nigerian Army opened fire on peaceful protesters, killing at least 12 last Tuesday evening in the Alausa and Lekki suburbs of Lagos.
But the real root of the problems is that within the Nigerian public service there is a culture of impunity and personal interest at the expense of ordinary citizens. Older Nigerians have learned to shrug their shoulders and accept routine injustice as a fact of life, but young people are taking a stand.
Nigeria ranks 104 out of the 117 countries included in the 2019 Index of Public Integrity, and holds an abysmal score of 4.73/10, indicating one of the highest levels of public sector corruption in the world. It has been dogged by years of corruption, lack of accountability in governance processes and a disconnect between the aspirations of young people and their ability to participate in governance.
President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration has made significant moves to clamp down on free speech and close civic space in recent years. It passed a bill regulating social media, another on hate speech and one that has even proposed the establishment of a regulatory commission to monitor the activities of NGOs within the country. The Nigerian Legislature has also turned down the Gender and Equal Opportunity Bill intended to eliminate discrimination based on gender in the fields of politics, education and employment. This is an assault on the ability of citizens and civil society to hold power holders to account.
The scale and length of the protests in response are unprecedented in modern Nigerian history, partly because groups like the Feminist Coalition have found new, creative ways to organize. The coalition is a collective advocating for women’s equality that started a crowd funding campaign for #EndSARS, raising almost $400,000 to date through Flutterwave, a Nigerian payments startup. This has allowed protest organisers to provide medical supplies, legal aid and food and drinks to protestors.
Young people are standing up and demanding greater state accountability because there is a clear discrepancy between the commitments of the Nigerian Constitution and the actions of the Nigerian government. Projects initiated by the National Assembly – such as boreholes, schools and primary health centres – are meant to be implemented by legitimate companies subjected to transparent procurement processes. But certain high-ranking politicians have hijacked the process to ensure their own companies win bids, violating the public procurement law, and leading to low quality and abandoned projects across the country.
There is a culture in which people join the Nigerian government only to benefit themselves rather than serving the people. This is why we try to celebrate public servants who buck the trend and consistently demonstrate integrity in their conduct. The Lab’s Integrity Icon campaign “names and fames” honest public officials who are known in their communities for serving the people and not just themselves.
Our belief is that if we have people of integrity in public service and they have the support to reform the system from within, years from now we will not have to contend with deteriorating infrastructure and lack of access to basic human rights. Building strong institutions is about filling these institutions with people of the right character and supporting them to do their best work.
The #EndSARS campaign has inspired millions of young Nigerians to assert their rights and call for the Nigerian government to deliver on the promises of our country’s Constitution. As we call for an end to police brutality, let’s not forget that the problems of impunity, injustice and discrimination are deep-seated and interconnected. If we are ever to remake the institutions governing Nigeria for the benefit of all, we need to champion the value of integrity, support those who demonstrate it and build the Nigeria we want together.
Odeh Friday is the Country Director of Accountability Lab Nigeria based in Abuja. Kibo Ngowi is a Communications Coordinator for the Lab globally based in Johannesburg.