Protests Test Nigeria’s Democracy and its Leadership in Africa
How the government responds will frame the struggle against extremism across the region.
Nigeria’s protests against police brutality already were the largest in the country’s history before security forces opened fire on a crowd in Lagos on October 20. The protest and bloodshed have only heightened the need for the government in Africa’s most populous country to end the pattern of violence by security forces against civilians. Leaders must finally acknowledge that this brutality has fueled violent extremism. How the Nigerian government will respond to citizens’ insistent demand for accountable governance will influence similar struggles—for democracy, accountability, nonviolence and stability—across much of Africa.
Hundreds of thousands of protesters have been demonstrating across Nigeria under the slogan #EndSARS—a demand for the disbanding of a police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Nigerians and international human rights organizations have presented evidence for years that the unit’s officers have repeatedly committed heinous violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture, and rape. Amnesty International documented 82 cases of abuse by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.
Such abuses have been committed with impunity. Nigerians mounted #EndSARS protests in 2017 that prompted the first of many still-unfulfilled promises by officials for reforms. The latest protests began after a video went viral last month that showed the aftermath of a killing, allegedly by SARS officers, of a young man. It is no coincidence that the protesters and the victims of police brutality are from Nigeria’s large population of youth. Most victims have been aged between 18 and 35, Amnesty International reports.
But the Nigerian government response to these legitimate expressions of outrage has been dispiriting. A few days after the protests started, authorities announced they would disband SARS, reassign its officers to other police units and create a new unit with properly vetted and trained officers. But the government’s credibility is undermined by its failure to fulfill earlier promises—of investigations, prosecutions and reforms. So protests have continued.
The power of Nigeria’s example
Nigeria is facing a fundamental crisis of governance that reflects a rising set of demands among its young generation—demands shared by youth elsewhere in Africa. And the government’s response is certain to resonate across the continent. With 200 million people, a growing population expected to exceed that of the United States by 2050, Nigeria is the undisputed regional hegemon and has been the decisive force behind the regional bloc, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). That group last year adopted an action plan to counter terrorism and extremism—an effort that will depend on the region’s governments’ effectiveness, notably Nigeria’s, at tackling their domestic security and governance challenges.
Nigeria’s strengths—demographic, economic and military—confer upon it the chance, and a responsibility, to lead in West Africa. And its influence is often positive, for example in its early, relatively transparent response to the COVID pandemic. Yet the persistence of police brutality and the government’s inadequate, even violent, response shows that Nigeria continues to struggle with the moral consistency needed to inspire others.
An effective response to this crisis should start with political leaders and security officials acknowledging that an important cause for the surge of violent extremism in Nigeria, including Boko Haram, is the very brutality by police and the military that authorities have failed to stamp out. Ordinary Nigerians understand what their leaders refuse to admit: that extortion, torture and extrajudicial killings by those who are supposed to protect citizens continues to drive a cycle of violence. The first leader of Boko Haram, Mohammed Yusuf, was executed without trial by security forces. The brutal military crackdown that followed only escalated the violence and helped fuel more than a decade of insurgency.
Nigeria’s leaders should now see the popular demands for accountable and responsible governance—and a real, rather than superficial, overhaul of the security sector—as an opportunity to make meaningful reforms.
An Approach to Reform
Vital steps for an effective response to this crisis include these:
Get serious about police reform. In 2016, the nonprofit International Police Science Association published a global index that rated policing in Nigeria as the worst in the world. The government must stop offering the equivalent of window dressing, such as the unfulfilled promises to overhaul the SARS unit and the failure of at least three police reform committees under different administrations (in 2006, 2009, and 2012) to produce results. The government last month announced a new initiative, to hire constables to improve police relations with local communities. The likelihood of tangible results is unclear, but it would be a positive step if it can lead toward the building of an inclusive policing structure that considers perspectives of Nigeria’s different ethnic and religious groups, and that begins to restore citizens’ trust.
While officials discuss steps for “reform,” what will be required will be a thorough overhaul. It may require returning to an old debate in Nigeria on the relative policing powers of the federal and state authorities. It would include investigating and prosecuting abusive members of the police and military, and uprooting ingrained patterns of corruption. A fundamental step will be for authorities to redirect the large numbers of police who currently provide personal security services to wealthy elites, assigning those officers to instead address serious crimes.
Tackle broader, systemic challenges of corruption and dysfunction. The violence of Nigerian policing does not exist in a vacuum, but rather is an integral part of wider failings of governance. The determined protests in the streets are testimony to ordinary Nigerians’ outrage over their long experience with a system of corrupt governance that undermines them at every turn with authorities’ self-dealing, graft and dysfunction. Even the security forces are victimized by this pattern of political, economic and social abuse, and fall easily into the wider culture of corruption. The biggest reason is that Nigeria’s political elite has not shown the collective will to take concrete steps that would cost its members their impunity and subject them to accountability.
Stated in another way, these protests are a critical, generational test for Nigeria’s democracy. They are an expression of civic engagement by citizens—a warning to the state about the risks of continuing to use the forms and the promise of democracy while withholding the accountability that true democracy requires. Nigerian writer Chukwudi Ukonne may have captured the significance of the turmoil in writing this week, “These protests might prove to be the political epiphany for a generation of young Nigerians who have never been seen nor heard but have now made it clear that the government will no longer ignore them.”
Turn local reforms into regional leadership. Nigeria understandably expects to lead regional coordination efforts in West Africa. It has sought to do so in the fight against transnational extremist groups such as Boko Haram. Yet regional security initiatives, such as the five-nation Multinational Joint Task Force, have thus far failed to reverse extremism’s spread. A reform program at home that accepts public accountability in governance, including policing, will strengthen Nigeria’s ability to perform—and also its moral authority in offering leadership to its neighbors. Given its size, regional prominence and diversity, Nigeria is a prize target for terrorism in Africa. Those same characteristics can make it a powerful leader in building peace and security on the continent.
The protests broke out just days after Nigeria’s Independence Day on October 1. Sixty years ago, Nigerians frustrated with colonialism demanded change, fought and won their freedom from the British. Today, Nigerians of the young generation are equally frustrated and demanding change, this time from their own government. Given its decision-making power within ECOWAS, Nigeria’s leadership—or the lack of it—in responding to the protests, and tackling its governance and security challenges at home, will set the pace not only for the future of the country, but for other countries of the region.