Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, has been rocked by nationwide protests since October 8. Demands center on disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and have gone viral under hashtags such as #EndSARS. Celebrities, including Beyoncé and Rihanna, and politicians, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, have expressed support.
We caught up with Professor Carl LeVan, the newly appointed chair of the Comparative and Regional Studies graduate program, who has followed Nigeria’s human rights movement for two decades, to get his take on the recent protests. His most recent book, Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition in a Time of Transition and Terror, argues that rule of law remains the unfinished business of Nigeria’s transition to civilian rule in 1999—when LeVan was hired to train the newly-elected National Assembly in Abuja as part of a legislative training program run by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs.
- SARS was established during the military regime of Ibrahim Babangida in 1992. Like a lot of institutions and laws put in place during a sixteen-year stretch of authoritarianism, it was never abolished, even after the restoration of electoral democracy in 1999. It was officially abolished on October 12, but activists note that it was simply renamed.
- Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, staged a popular coup on New Year’s Eve 1983 and ruled until another coup removed him from power in 1985. He was elected president in 2015 on a platform of economic reform and anti-corruption and re-elected in 2019. Some of his autocratic habits have lingered.
- At least 56 people have been killed since the protests began, according to Amnesty International. At the Lekki Toll Gate near the city of Lagos, at least 12 people were killed on October 20; some of the bodies appear to have been removed in order to prevent documentation of the atrocities. The incident galvanized the #EndSARS movement and Buhari’s government has yet to really show remorse.
- Although Nigeria is a federal system, like the United States, there are no state or local police. This is supposed to facilitate ethnic integration and avoid situations where a governor from one ethnic group could command security services against a governor from another group. But the result has been police who often don’t speak the local language and therefore struggle to engage in anything resembling community policing.
- The demands of the #EndSARS movement include the release of arrested protestors, compensation for victims of violence, and the formation of an independent panel to investigate and prosecute abuses by the security services. It has a lot in common with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, but rather than “defund the police,” a rally cry by youths has been to “increase police salary.”