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Explainer: What is happening in Nigeria?

Several people have been killed by security forces amid ongoing protests against police brutality.

A protester pictured in Lagos, Nigeria, on Sunday.
A protester pictured in Lagos, Nigeria, on Sunday.
Image: Sunday Alamba/AP/Press Association Images

SEVERAL PROTESTERS WERE killed by Nigerian security forces in Lagos yesterday, Amnesty International said, after demonstrators defied a curfew order amid increasingly violent protests.

Witnesses said gunmen opened fire on a crowd of over 1,000 people yesterday evening to disperse them after a curfew was imposed to end spiralling protests over police brutality and deep-rooted social grievances.

Amnesty said it is seeking to determine the exact number of people who were killed.

The Lagos governor said the authorities were investigating the death of one person due to “blunt force trauma to head” and that 25 others were wounded.

The Nigerian army did not respond to AFP’s requests for comment but labelled reports of soldiers shooting on protesters as “fake news” on Twitter.

Weeks of protests

Thousands of people have been taking to the streets in recent weeks to protest police brutality in the country, where the median age is 18.

The demonstrations erupted earlier this month and were initially focused on abolishing the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), accused of unlawful detention, extortion and extra-judicial killings.

But after the government announced the unit would be dissolved, thousands of mainly young protesters have remained out on the streets pushing for genuine change in the country.

On Monday a crowd of people stormed a prison in Benin and freed about 200 inmates. Protesters have also attacked police stations and vehicles in various parts of the country.

Source: Al Jazeera English/YouTube

Why did the protests start?

In early October a video spread on social media showing a SARS officer allegedly attacking a man in Delta state.

The video was shared massively in the country of 200 million people and thousands started sharing their own stories of police abuse online.

“Nigerian youth have campaigned against SARS for years,” Bulama Bukarti wrote for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the recent video “resonated with thousands across the country and led to youth pouring out en masse onto the streets”.

#EndSARS

Within days, the hashtag #EndSARS topped the global trends on Twitter, supported by world famous Afrobeat musicians like Davido and Wizkid. Their engagement gave visibility to the movement.

Many more celebrities, such as musicians Lizzo, Cardi B and Kanye West and Manchester United player Odion Jude Ighalo, have since raised awareness about the protests and called for international intervention – bringing the issue to a wider audience.

Screenshot 2020-10-22 at 10.07.48 Source: Lizzo/Instagram

There was a violent crackdown by police on some of the first protests. At least 10 people were killed and hundreds were injured, according to Amnesty International.

The brutal response drew even more people onto the streets and emboldened protesters began to push further.

Demonstrations have also been held abroad, perhaps most notably involving the large Nigerian community in London.

“The diaspora’s participation was immensely impactful because Nigerian politicians are easily unsettled by negative news outside the country, especially in the West,” Bukarti said.

How is the government responding?

Bowing to the pressure, president Muhammadu Buhari announced on 11 October that SARS would be dissolved with immediate effect.

He said the move was “only the first step” in more extensive reforms to Nigeria’s police. A new SWAT unit was announced to replace SARS, with promises that it will be “ethical”.

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nigeria-police-protest Alister, a protester who said his brother Emeka was shot dead, speaks to Associated Press near Lekki toll gate in Lagos, Nigeria, yesterday. Source: Sunday Alamba/AP/Press Association Images

SARS officers will not be eligible for the new unit and will have to undergo psychological evaluation before being redeployed, police said.

The government said police abuses will be investigated and prosecuted. But these announcements have not appeased protesters, who are sceptical change will actually happen, and demonstrations continue.

How long will protests last?

“Nigerians are sceptical of the authorities’ pledge to end police atrocities because the past claims of reforming SARS have turned out to be empty words,” Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said.

Demonstrators have made five demands that include structural police reforms and better pay for officers.

“Senior-ranking officers are known to maintain a perverse bribery pyramid which requires that poorly paid rank-and-file officers transfer bribes extorted from citizens up the chain of command,” wrote Leena Koni Hoffmann, associate fellow at Chatham House.

Many of the demonstrators have begun calling for more wide-sweeping change as they look to seize the moment to bring real change to their country.

While Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy, more than half of the population lives in poverty and youth unemployment rates are significant.

In the streets and online, young people have been asking for better employment opportunities, an end to power cuts, more freedom of expression, and better representation in politics.

For some, like Bukarti, “this may just be the beginning, rather than the end, of massive protests in Nigeria”.

© AFP 2020 with reporting by Órla Ryan

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