Nigeria has been rocked in October by some of the biggest protests since military rule ended in 1999, resulting in dozens of deaths and rattling what had been considered a virtually unassailable political establishment. Thousands of youths have taken to the streets to vent their anger about police brutality by marching, barricading roads and bridges and setting buildings and vehicles alight.
The authorities initially struck a conciliatory tone and agreed to policing reforms, but their response has become increasingly heavy handed. President Muhammadu Buhari has warned that he won’t allow national security to be compromised, raising the stakes for the crisis in Africa’s most populous nation.
1. What are the protests about?
They erupted in early October after a video circulated on social media that purportedly showed a civilian being killed by the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad. Protesters mobilized using social media (hashtag #EndSARS) to press for the unit’s disbandment and for the government to tackle police brutality.
The special unit, formed almost two decades ago, made headway in solving some high-profile cases but some of its members have been implicated in extortion and the harassment and killing of innocent people.
A report released by the human-rights group Amnesty International in 2016 said the unit systematically tortured detainees to extract confessions and bribes, yet the government failed to take action. An assessment that same year by the International Police science Association ranked Nigeria as the worst-performing country when it came to the ability of the security bodies to render services.
2. Are there broader issues at play?
Yes. Many young adults complain about feeling marginalized by successive governments. Their grievances include a sub-standard education system and a lack of job opportunities — a third are jobless and many more underemployed. A lockdown that was imposed in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus shut many businesses and a slump in international oil prices that reduced government revenue have compounded the economic hardship. There’s also a huge generational gap: Buhari is 77 and the average age of his cabinet is over 60, yet about 60% of Nigeria’s more than 200 million people are under 30.
3. How has the government responded?
Buhari has conceded the protesters have legitimate grievances. He agreed to dismantle the anti-robbery unit and take steps to make the police more accountable, including establishing an independent panel to probe and prosecute all misconduct cases. He also pledged to scale up youth-development programs, start a fund to support small- and medium-sized businesses and improve access to credit. At the same time, he alleges the protest campaign has been hijacked by “miscreants and criminals” intent on perpetuating “acts of hooliganism.”
4. How bad is the violence?
About 10 of the 36 states have instituted curfews and the army was deployed to help the police maintain order. The government says 51 civilians and 18 security force members have been killed in protest-related violence. Twelve people died after troops opened fire on crowds that gathered at two sites in Lagos, the commercial hub, on Oct. 20 in defiance of a state curfew, according to Amnesty International. The state governor confirmed troops used live ammunition against the protesters, but said it hadn’t been definitively established whether they’d killed anyone.
5. Could Buhari be toppled?
It’s unlikely. A former general, Buhari retains the backing of the military, which remains a key power broker in Nigeria. And while some world leaders have condemned the violence, there’s unlikely to be international backing for the ouster of a democratically elected president. The demonstrators also don’t appear to have a clearly defined leadership structure, reducing the likelihood they’ll be able to wage an orchestrated campaign for regime change.
6. How much staying power do the protesters have?
Demonstrations largely abated after the Oct. 20 shootings, although unrest has continued to flare in some towns. The protesters have indicated on social media that they aren’t done yet because they don’t trust the government, given that it has reneged on previous commitments. Disenchantment is likely to endure throughout Buhari’s second and final term, which ends in 2023, because the government lacks the money to follow through on its pledges to improve the lot of the youth.
7. How worried should investors be?
The scale and duration of the upheaval has spooked the financial markets, as evidenced by declines in the nation’s stocks and international bonds. Prior to the protests, the International Monetary Fund forecast that gross domestic product would contract 4.3% this year due to the fallout from the coronavirus. The unrest has further dimmed the outlook, with the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimating it had cost about 700 billion naira ($1.8 billion) in lost output over just 12 days. The oil industry — Africa’s biggest and the mainstay of the economy — hasn’t been affected, although insurgent groups in the crude-rich delta region have warned they may attack oil and gas facilities if the government fails to meet the protesters’ demands.