For several weeks in October 2020, tens of thousands of people took to the streets of Nigeria to protest against police brutality. The protests came after news circulated that the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had killed a young man named Ochuko in Ughelli, a town in the Niger Delta region. In fact, Ochuko had been brutalised by a local police unit and not SARS, and had not been killed. However, the genie of mass anger was already out of the bottle—and the anger would extend beyond its initial #EndSARS demand and become, in the words of one journalist, “almost a revolution”.1
After several attempts to break the peaceful protests with hired thugs, the state ultimately attempted to drown them in blood in order to avert a full-blown challenge to its power. This set in motion five days of rage, driven by a combination of social forces, which have dismissively been described as “hoodlums” by the ruling class and mainstream media. More than 200 police stations were burned down and 22 police officers killed. There were four jail-breaks, as hundreds of young people tore down prison gates and prisoners rose up. Malls were looted and businesses, particularly those owned by key supporters of the regime, were looted and set ablaze. Warehouses where the government kept food items that were meant to ameliorate the burden of the pandemic for poor people were also raided by tens of thousands of people in several states.
The first act of an unfolding revolutionary drama now appears to have run its course. There have been a few efforts to reignite the embers of the movement; demonstrations were called in Lagos and Abuja at the beginning of November. However, these were brutally snuffed out by the police, who launched a crackdown on organisers. Nevertheless, worsening living conditions, political uncertainty and a renewal of mass confidence in struggle point to a deepening of revolutionary pressures in Nigeria.
Background to a rebellion
SARS is the most notorious among the 14 units forming the federal police. It was established in 1992 to combat a sharp spike in crime that developed in the wake of the imposition of an IMF-backed structural adjustment programme in the 1980s. However, SARS’ operatives were better known for brutalisation, torture and killing with impunity than for crime reduction. Amnesty International has documented some of the atrocities of the squad in a series of reports.2
With increases in online scams at the turn of the century, SARS turned its focus more to apprehending internet fraudsters than armed robbers. Young people with laptops and recent iPhone models were considered suspicious. Profiling also played a role in their arrests—having dreadlocks or tattoos made one a suspect. Their victims had to pay huge sums of money to regain their freedom, and they were the lucky ones; others would be tortured into making “confessions”. These nefarious activities were so rampant that most young people in urban areas had either had some bitter personal SARS experience or knew someone who had.
The barbarity of SARS alone does not explain October’s explosion of discontent. There is a long history of police brutality in Nigeria, stretching all the way back to the colonial era. There had also been earlier protests against police violence, though none as significant as #EndSARS. The #EndSARS hashtag rallied resistance to police brutality for the first time in 2016, leading to a series of localised demonstrations. The deepening of resistance has occurred against the backdrop of life becoming increasingly nasty and brutish for working-class people. In 2018 Nigeria overtook India as the country with the largest number of extremely poor people in the world—and the situation has since worsened. By the second quarter of 2019, 105 million of the country’s population of 214 million people were living below the poverty line, compared with 90 million in 2018.
Petroleum accounts for two-thirds of Nigeria’s revenue and so the global economic slowdown in 2020 had a severe impact; the country was pushed towards its second recession in five years, following an earlier contraction in 2016. The Covid-19 pandemic made a terrible situation for workers even worse. Tens of thousands in both the public and private sector were laid off or had their wages cut. A third of states are yet to pay the new national minimum wage of $77, over a year after it was legislated.3 The unemployment rate increased from 23.1 percent in the third quarter of 2019 to 27.1 percent by the end of the second quarter of 2020. Underemployment rose from 20.1 percent to 28.6 percent over the same period.4 Young people have borne the brunt of this sorry experience, with 13.9 million unemployed by the second quarter of 2020.5
Workers have fought back with a wave of strikes, particularly in the health and education sectors. This started with rank and file mobilisations, often against the diktats of the trade union bureaucracy.6 Some concessions were won by doctors as result of this, but the government has not acceded to the demands of university lecturers who have been protesting since March. To rub salt in an open wound, the government increased both fuel prices at the pump and electricity tariffs at the beginning of September. After much dithering, the Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress (TUC), the country’s two national trade union centres, called a general strike on 28 September, demanding a reversal of these increases. However, the strike was called off at the 11th hour. In response to the loud outcry against the betrayal, the NLC’s general secretary, Emma Ugboaja, made it clear that the unions were not a revolutionary movement and would not be used “to cause destabilisation”.7 Stressing the unions’ commitment to dialogue, he added that those who felt the need to fight should go ahead and do so without the labour movement. Musa Lawal, the TUC general secretary, echoed this view, saying that unions were “wiser” and stood in defence of “the national interest”, against those outside the trade unions who wanted to capitalise on a general strike for more radical struggle.8
While the trade unions picked their battles, the ruling All Progressive Congress (APC) party has waged an all-out war against human rights and the poor. Taking a stand against the regime’s “lawlessness” in December 2019, The Punch, a major daily newspaper, declared it would henceforth address President Muhammadu Buhari as “major-general”—his rank as head of one of the vicious military juntas that ruled the country in the 1980s.9 APC became the first opposition party to win federal elections in 2015, with Major-General Buhari (retd) as president. Buhari’s APC is a merger of five regional bourgeois parties that had come together after a general strike and mass protests shook the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) in 2012.10 In the absence of a left-wing alternative to the PDP, which had governed since the return of civilian rule in 1999, APC rode on the waves of the 2012 uprising, promising change.
Buhari’s APC managed to hold on to power in the February-March 2019 general elections, which were marred by violence and vote-buying. However, for the first time this century, a radical left formation was on the ballot paper—the African Action Congress. This left-reformist party was formed in mid-2018 and came tenth out of the more than 70 parties that ran, winning almost 34,000 votes (0.12 percent) for its candidate in the presidential election. It is a party that places priority on extra-parliamentary mass mobilisation, and it became further radicalised after the elections as it organised a series of community campaigns against erratic power supply and for democratic rights. The party was pivotal to forming the Coalition for Revolution (CORE) along with socialist organisations such as the Socialist Workers and Youth League and the Federation of Informal Workers Organisation. This was the first time in a long time that Nigeria has seen the creation of a left-wing formation with any significant mass base.
On 5 August 2019, CORE launched a “RevolutionNow” campaign. Five million people in the country searched for the word “revolution” online that day. Since then, the coalition has organised a series of nationwide “Days of Rage”. The most recent of these was on 1 October, the 60th anniversary of Nigerian indepedence. CORE and its affiliates formed the main section of the left that was not caught off guard when the recent protests started, taking its place in the thick of the revolt.
Thirteen days that shook Nigeria
A video of Ochuko drenched in his own blood and assumed dead went viral on 3 October. By the next day calls were issued online for a nationwide protest by notable musicians and Omoyele Sowore, national chair of the African Action Congress. The revolt started on 8 October in Abuja, the capital city, and Lagos, the major commercial city. By the following day it had spread to about a dozen of the country’s 36 states—and continued spreading until over 20 states were engulfed. In Lagos, no fewer than 2,000 people occupied the entrance to Lagos state’s House of Assembly in the Alausa district. Hundreds of them would spend their nights there until 20 October. By the following day thousands also took over the main Lekki Toll Gate Plaza. Two towns on the outskirts of Lagos also became outlying centres for the revolt. In Abuja the city centre became the point of convergence, as would be the case elsewhere.
CORE activists argued from the beginning that police brutality is inherent in the exploitative capitalist system and raised more radical demands, such as for the end of the regime. They faced attacks from the liberal wing of the movement, which blackmailed the coalition, claiming that it wanted to “hijack” the mass movement for its RevolutionNow agenda. This was one of two main reasons for an insistence on the movement being “leaderless”, along with a desire to avoid empowering leaders who could compromise as the trade union bureaucracy had. The debate on how far the movement’s demands should go led to the liberals pulling out of the centre of Alausa in Lagos state within 72 hours. CORE activists then took over coordination of the movement, as they also did in the outlying cities of Ikorodu and Badagry. Generally, CORE activists were more active in providing leadership within working-class areas. The liberal wing of the movement, which included celebrities and a feminist coalition of a dozen “exceptional women”, were much more active on Twitter, dominating the online narrative. They were also central to raising funds; the feminist coalition in particular had raised over $200,000 by the time the movement was repressed. This went into providing legal and medical aid for protesters, as well as food. Many other people, including restauranteurs in various cities, supported the movement with food and drinks.
Within days, the regime had realised it had a rebellion on its hands. The mood on the streets was electrifying, even carnival-like in many places, with popular musicians singing. Young workers, professionals, artisans and others could feel the power they wielded with collective action as they chanted “End SARS Now!” On 11 October the government announced what appeared to be a concession, declaring SARS banned and urging the protesters to go home. But once beaten, twice shy—the government had made such announcements three times in the past four years. The following day, the protests continued, and the state responded with tear gas, water cannons, batons and the arrest of demonstrators, particularly in Abuja. Nevertheless, protesters regrouped and, in defiance, presented a five-point set of demands. They dubbed these demands “5for5”, meaning all five points had to be addressed: immediate release of all protesters; justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and compensation for their families; an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct; psychological evaluation and retraining of all officers from the disbanded SARS; and an increase in the police salary.11
In an attempt to regain control of the situation, a hurriedly constituted presidential panel on police reforms summoned a “stakeholders’ forum” on 13 October. This included philanthropic capitalist bodies and international NGOs such as the MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, as well as local NGOs. They were joined by some liberal figures within the “leaderless” movement such as the popular musician Folarin “Falz” Falana. The police’s inspector general, who organised the meeting in conjunction with the National Human Rights Commission, accepted the 5for5 demands. Nonetheless, a few hours later he announced that SARS was being replaced with a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. This replacement of six with half a dozen simply increased the determination of protesters to carry on the struggle. More radical demands than #EndSARS now found popular resonance, including calls to slash, rather than increase, public officers’ remunerations and to #EndInjustice as a whole.
At this stage the state became both more repressive and more insidious. State-hired thugs attacked demonstrators in several locations. In Abuja, dozens of protesters’ cars were burnt. Ethno-regional narratives were invented, presenting #EndSARS as a Southern project that aimed to overthrow a president from the North of the country. Particular attention was paid to stopping demonstrations from spreading to Northern states, where protesters had not gathered in the same numbers.
By the 12th day, over a dozen protesters had been killed in various parts of the country. These included two CORE activists, killed in Osun state by the thugs of the ruling party in the presence of the governor. The governor’s entourage was attacked by enraged young people as he left. In the mid-western Edo state two prisons were sacked and prisoners freed. In Lagos, a major police station notorious for torture was torched. Police officers were also hounded in several parts of the state. The “Buhari Must Go” call, initiated by RevolutionNow activists, had started to echo within demonstrations. The rebellion was shedding the “almost revolutionary” label and starting to fully stamp “revolution” on its banner.
Bloodbath and aftermath
The state drowned the budding revolution in blood on 20 October. The state of Lagos was the centre of the massacre. At about noon, the governor of Lagos state, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, declared a 24-hour curfew. It was to come into effect by 4pm, but this was later shifted back to 9pm. By 4.30pm, a combined team of soldiers and police surveyed the situation at Alausa. Reading the signs, CORE activists began coordinating an orderly retreat of protesters before the anticipated return of security forces at 7pm.
CCTV cameras beside the Lekki Toll Gate were disabled.12 The floodlights were also switched off. By 6.45pm soldiers moved in. Their clear intent was to kill in order to send a message of fear to the movement. Fires were set up at the two entrances and at exit points. Then they started shooting. This was captured on camera and streamed on social media. Calls were made by protesters for ambulances but the soldiers prevented these from coming in.
These events sparked the following days of rage in which police stations, prisons and several government buildings were set ablaze. The television station and newspaper offices of Ahmed Tinubu, a former Lagos state governor and APC leader, were also burned down. Covid-19 palliatives were expropriated from government warehouses by the crowds, which in some states now dwarfed the numbers on the streets during the earlier peaceful protests. The action extended into the North where the police had earlier been able to stop demonstrations. At least 500 people were subsequently arrested for “looting”. Most of these, arrested during house-to-house searches, were guilty only of taking the Covid-19 palliatives that those in power had kept from them. The National Broadcasting Commission, which is chaired by an APC stalwart, also fined three television stations for their reporting of the protests. Identified organisers and volunteers from the protests have not been spared. The bank accounts of 20 people were frozen and a “no-fly” list was issued to the airports, which came to light when the passport of a lawyer who had offered free legal services was seized at Lagos’s international airport as she tried to travel to the Maldives for a holiday. CORE activists were arrested at the National Assembly in Abuja for painting graffiti, and another was arrested in Lagos after being tracked through the phone number on a flyer.
Although repression is the main strategy of the regime, it also dangled the carrot of judicial panels of inquiry and restitution of abuses perpetrated by SARS. Revelations of the extent of these abuses have been pouring into these panels.
It will be impossible for the regime to force the genie of revolt back into the bottle of suppression. On the one hand, government is set to implement further anti-poor measures related to the conditions attached to a $3.4 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund that it received in March. On the other, the October revolt was a defining moment that has renewed the spirit of struggle among a pauperised populace. The trade union bureaucracy will not be able to hold back organised labour, the missing social force in the fire this time round, as revolutionary pressures intensify among the rank and file and on the streets.13 This will likely lead to a condensed version of what transpired in 2012. Back then, the trade union bureaucracy was forced to hurriedly call for a general strike when state-level union officials said they would be stoned if they went back to their states without a concrete resolve to fight.
The question is how ready the revolutionary left will be to fan the embers of revolt into the fires of revolution.
Baba Aye is a leading member of the Socialist Workers and Youth League in Nigeria. He is also co-convenor of the Coalition for Revolution.
1 Abati, 2020.
2 See Amnesty International, 2016 and 2020. See also Amnesty International, 2009, for an earlier broader treatment of police killings.
3 Indeed, the new minimum is effectively a cut in real wages. In Nigerian nairas, $77 is N30,000, but when the 2011 minimum wage of N18,000 was passed into law this amounted to $120.
4 Trading Economics, 2020.
5 Nairametrics, 2020.
6 See Ogidan, 2020.
7 Ugboaja, 2020.
8 Ozigi, 2020.
9 The Punch, 2020.
10 Aye, 2012.
11 See Vanguard, 2020.
12 Authorities later claimed it was the licensing plate verification cameras that been disabled, which makes no sense given a curfew was in place.
13 Aye, 2020 .