#EndSARS Is So Much More Than a Viral Hashtag
October 20, 2020, is the date of what is now referred to as Black Tuesday, or the Lekki Massacre. It's a date that will forever be a day of mourning for Nigerians around the world.
On that day, protesters were shot by armed forces and police as they marched peacefully against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, Nigeria. An estimated 48 people were killed. Over 150,000 people witnessed the tragedy via an Instagram live stream from DJ Switch, a popular Nigerian DJ who attended the protests that day.
The devastating incident occurred following weeks of #EndSARS protests across the country. The protests alone have resulted in the deaths of an estimated 100 Nigerians, including those lost at the Lekki Massacre. But for many, the #EndSARS protests are more than just a reaction to police brutality — they're a movement for a better Nigeria.
The Motivation Behind The Movement
On Oct. 3, a video of a SARS police officer shooting a young man in front of the Wetland Hotel in Ughelli, Delta State, went viral. It was alleged that the SARS officer then drove away with the young man's vehicle following the incident. The video caused public outcry on social media and the #EndSARS hashtag that originally surfaced in 2017, after a young boy was shot by a SARS officer, began trending in a renewed push against police brutality. “It is ironic that the shooting happened the weekend of Nigeria's celebration of 60 years of independence,” says Osai Ojigho, Country Director for Nigeria, Amnesty International. “I think for many people, they could not comprehend why 60 years after colonial rule, they are still battling with abuses from state forces. It seemed the situation was hopeless and became apparent that to have a better future, one step was to stop police from killing and abusing people.”
Five days after the shooting, two popular celebrities, Runtown and Falz, decided to hold a march in protest against SARS and police brutality. Thousands of young people joined the artists and took to the streets of the nation’s capital, Lagos. This march led to protests in cities across the country, supported by individuals from Nigeria’s large diaspora. “The youth decided to speak up and demand an end to this long-standing suppression by the people who are supposed to protect them,” says Aderinsola Adio-Adepoju, a teacher at the University of Lagos and founder of I-Train Africa.
Continued Unrest Across the Nation
People around the world have heard the cries from Nigerians to help stop police brutality. This comes just months after individuals here in the U.S. protested against police mistreatment with the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
In recent weeks, the #EndSARS hashtag has been shared globally, amplifying the voices of the young Nigerians who make up nearly 40% of the country’s population. Hillary Clinton, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj and Cardi B are just a few famous figures who have shared messages of solidarity with the protestors.
The Nigerian government responded to the initial pressure and disbanded SARS, but only replaced them with a similar police unit named SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). But the deployment of another militaristic police force is just one of many social justice issues that the youth are dissatisfied with, explains Prince Agwu, a Social Policy Lecturer at the University of Nigeria. “The #EndSARS campaign is a moment Nigerian youths have waited for to voice their concerns against ongoing bad governance in the country," he says. "The consequences are vivid in widespread poverty, sporadic inflation of food prices, rapid increases in utility prices, and unemployment.”
Below, six Nigerians who feel a strong connection to the #EndSARS movement share their views on recent events and the changes they want to see in their country.
DJ Switch, Artist, DJ, Songwriter
DJ Switch is a Nigerian DJ, songwriter and musician who emerged as the winner of the first edition of The Glo X Factor, West Africa. She has always been a socially conscious artist, speaking up against injustices and corruption either through her music, or on social media. On Oct. 20, Switch attended the protests at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, Nigeria, and live-streamed what has now become known as the Lekki Massacre. Over 150,000 people viewed the horrific, viral, live stream of young protestors being shot by law enforcement.
Why do you feel a personal connection to the #EndSARS movement? How did it feel to be protesting with other young Nigerians who were advocating for change?
DJ Switch: I feel a deep personal connection to the #EndSARS movement because for me, the instant young Nigerians came together with one voice and goal, I knew it was bigger than #EndSARS. SARS has been a cancer on the streets of Nigeria, targeting the youth, the poor, and hardworking Nigerians trying to earn a living.
I felt inspired each day I protested with young Nigerians from every class. I understood what being a "brother's keeper" really meant. It showed me that there is truly hope. I desperately want and need change for my country.
What change would you like to see in Nigeria, in response to the protests?
Accountability. Justice must be served for those who sadly but bravely died in these protests. Who ordered the killings at the toll gate? But not just at the gate, at all levels. Our leaders need to be held accountable for corruption and the lack of pretty much everything. If there is no accountability, they keep the oppression going.
We need people to continue to petition the global governing bodies, the United Nations, International Criminal Court (ICC), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch. The corrupt can attempt to silence us, but they cannot silence the world.
Tiwa Savage, Singer/Songwriter
Award-winning Nigerian singer and songwriter Tiwa Savage is using her platform to bring global awareness to the #EndSARS movement and the fight for social justice in Nigeria. The Lagos resident protested in the #EndSARS march and encouraged youth to join the campaign. Savage actively supports several youth engagement organizations and has an Instagram page, @Wearetired_ng, dedicated to young victims of rape in Nigeria.
Why do you feel a strong connection to the #EndSARS movement and how are you using your celebrity status to advocate for this campaign?
Tiwa Savage: Nigeria is my country and I have to fight for my country. As an artist, I have a platform to keep the conversation going. I think it’s important for me to use my gift, and sometimes music can be more powerful than a social media post.
Growing up, I used to hear my parents talk about bad governance and other social justice problems in Nigeria. It feels sad and heart breaking that things haven’t changed, we are still dealing with many of those issues today, and I feel like they are getting worse. I don’t want my son to grow up and be talking about the same thing; something has to change for our children.
I felt proud of Nigerian citizens, especially the youth, for organizing peaceful protests. I am extremely proud to be part of it, to lend my voice and my platform to this movement that has become a defining moment in Nigerian history.
What change would you like to see in Nigeria, in response to the protests?
I want to see complete reform for all injustices in the country. #EndSARS has been a catalyst but I want there to be complete reform; not just in police brutality, but areas like gender-based violence, healthcare, education and electricity. It is very important for everyone in Nigeria to register for their PVC (Permanent Voters Card). We need to use our vote.
Jola Ayeye, Scriptwriter & Podcaster
Ayeye is a scriptwriter and the co-founder of Salt & Truth, a production company based in Lagos, Nigeria. Along with FK Abudu, she co-hosts the popular Nigerian podcast, “I Said What I Said”. Ayeye is passionate about women’s issues and serves as part of the recently formed Feminist Coalition. This group of feminist millennials have been instrumental in the #EndSARS movement, providing legal aid, medical support, and meals at protests.
As a media professional, what impact do you feel social media and mainstream media are having on the #EndSARS movement?
Jola Ayeye: #EndSARS has become a staple on Nigerian Twitter and thousands of people have detailed scary, brutal experiences with SARS officials all over the country. The hashtag reached its global zenith in the middle of October, as week-long protests rocked the nation. Information such as locations, safety concerns, medical help, food supplies, and cleanup activities, alongside stories of protesters and SARS victims made the rounds on social media, sustaining and garnering support for the movement. Traditional media within Nigeria was slow on the uptake, as many have to keep an eye out for heavy handed government regulators desperate to control the narrative. At the moment, government officials are discussing a possible ‘Social Media Bill,' banning or controlling social media in Nigeria. However, young Nigerians and civil society are fighting back; social media is now recognized as a powerful tool in engaging with political elites, [and] the people will not let go of this tool without a fight.
What change would you like to see in Nigeria in response to the protests?
The way Nigeria currently operates favors no one but the ruling class and their cronies. It is a deeply unfair system with no room for social mobility and prioritizes nepotism over merit and innovation. What I am hoping happens as a result of the protests is what will begin to change the system: fiercer political engagement by the electorate. The protests have shown many millennials and Gen Z-ers a glimpse of what is possible when we organize and coalesce around a common goal, without allowing the distractions of our societal hot buttons (tribe and religion) to get in the way.
Oreoluwa Shonibare, co-founder of WiiCreate
Shonibare is co-founder of WiiCreate, a print-on-demand startup in Lagos, Nigeria. He has been honored by SME 100 Africa as one of Nigeria’s 25 Under 25 Budding Entrepreneurs.
Now that protests on the streets have been paused, how else do the youth hope to use their voices to advocate for change?
Oreoluwa Shonibare: I have waited all my life to fight for a better Nigeria, and protesting in Alausa, Lagos was a dream come true. Nigerians have hoped and prayed for a better country for a long time and I am glad it is closer now than before. It was powerful to see thousands of youths unite and protest against police brutality and incompetence from the government. Unfortunately, the response from the government was more disregard for our lives; from the Lekki Massacre, to several attacks on protesters. It is honestly unbelievable.
With physical protests paused because of the curfews in various states, we have now turned our attention to raising awareness online via social media with different hashtags including #EndSARS, #EndPoliceBrutalityinNigeria and #BetterGovernanceinNigeria, to get the attention of international media and human rights organizations. We want them to call our leaders to order. This is where people in other countries can help us, whether it is by protesting or sharing our posts.
What changes would you like to see, in response to the protests?
The biggest change I hope for is an increased level of political awareness amongst Nigerians (especially youths), and it has begun. Another change I am hoping for is accountability. We need to hold our leaders accountable for their actions and inactions; whether it is the extra judicial killings of Nigerian youth protestors or for hoarding charitable donations. We have started with addressing police brutality and have progressed onto other social problems. A better Nigeria will be birthed in our lifetime.
Agbai Eke Agbai Jr., Founder of Wequip and MBA Student at Duke University
North Carolina, United States
Agbai was raised in Abia State, Nigeria, and spent the first 16 years of his life there before moving to the U.S. to continue his education. He is the founder of Wequip, a social enterprise that helps businesses in Nigeria.
As someone who was raised in Nigeria but has spent most of your life in the US, why do you feel a personal connection to the #EndSARS protests and the need to advocate in the U.S.?
Agbai Eke Agbai Jr.: I see Nigeria as my business. The mere fact of being Nigerian makes me a signatory to the social contract between the Nigerian government and the Nigerian people. But one doesn’t even need to be Nigerian to feel a connection with the #EndSARS movement. On its surface, the movement is about condemning police brutality and calling on the Nigerian government to take action against it. Comprehensively, it is more than just police brutality — it is an expression of frustration about the state of affairs in Nigeria, a cocktail of grievances that have been bottled up for many years.
In Nigeria, there is a concept known as ‘gingering’, which loosely translates to moral support. Adding our voices from the US is one way to ginger our brothers and sisters back home. It signals to them that their grievances are legitimate. The Nigerian government is reminded by our involvement that while we may not be geographically present, we remain stakeholders in the Nigerian project, and, as such, a harm done to our brothers and sisters back home is a harm done to us too.
What change would you like to see in Nigeria, in response to the protest?
I would love to see this awakening of the political consciousness of Nigerian youths spread like a wildfire and culminate into an increased youth involvement in the overall affairs of Nigeria. I believe that a politically enlightened and active youth population will themselves decide what governance should look like in Nigeria.
May Olatoye, Data Scientist and founder of Mathmagicians
New York, United States
Olatoye spent the first 10 years of her life in Nigeria. She currently resides in the U.S., where she works in data science and runs the data science podcast Mathamagicians and its digital publication.
As a frequent returnee to Nigeria, why do you feel a personal connection to the movement?
May Olatoye: Growing up in Nigeria as a child was a rich and diverse experience. I remember fondly stories of Nigeria told by my grandparents and in particular my father. A time when the naira was stronger than the pound, a time when their generation was so proud to be Nigerian that my grandfather dropped his English surname “Smith” and replaced it with something authentically Nigerian — Ladipo. They spoke of the factories in the north of the country that exported textiles, canned corn beef, and described a country that was rich in every sense of the word — even before discovering oil. These stories were remarkable and almost surreal. As Nigerians, we have an incredible resilience, creativity, but most of all, a hope that cannot be easily crushed. As a frequent returnee, it is that innate hope that connects me to the #EndSARS movement; that picture of what was, but more so, envisioning what could be with the talent we have in our generation.
What change would you like to see in Nigeria, in response to the protests?
I think it’s important for our generation to begin to see public office and governmental positions as areas we need to occupy and completely infiltrate. What is different about our generation, which I love, is unlike the previous generations that used coups and shed blood to change leadership and power, we are using new tools empowered by technology. We are also being more strategic about our approach; we understand that you have to initiate change at a grassroots level to really affect change all the way to the top. It will take time, but when our voice becomes the majority, there will be no stopping us.
*Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.