An overwhelming majority of those participating in the protest are young Nigerians. Notably, Nigeria has a rich history of youth protests: Nigeria’s independence movement even started as a youth protest. The bottled anger of many of the country’s youth over unfair profiling and harassment by SARS in particular has found an outlet in this protest, which started with no defined or any central leadership. The protesters’ demands at the beginning were straightforward: The federal government should abolish SARS, provide justice to victims of police brutality, and reform the police. Now, the demands have widened, premised on the pervasive failure of the government to deliver equitable economic prosperity for its citizens and these enraged youths in particular. In addition to calling for law enforcement agencies to respect the rule of law, youth are demanding more respect for human rights and a deepening of democracy. The protesters are also demanding a revival of the educational and health systems and stronger efforts toward job creation. In short, the message of the #EndSARS protest is that young Nigerians want to take back their country from the entrenched political order that they believe has not served their interests. Indeed, earlier this month, the governor of Lagos State submitted their 7-point agenda to President Buhari on behalf of the protesters.
The discontent among youth was already simmering given the economic crisis sparked by the fall in global oil demand (and compounded by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic), institutionalized corruption, and state profligacy that have drawn more Nigerians into poverty. The foregoing coincided with eight months of closure of educational institutions due to strikes held by university lecturers, leaving many young people alienated and angry. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, as of the second quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate in Nigeria stood at a staggering 27.1 percent and the underemployment rate at 28.6 percent. Of the 21.7 million unemployed, young people (aged 15 to 34) account for a whopping 34.9 percent. They also account for 28.2 percent of the 22.9 million underemployed Nigerians.
Worsening economic conditions and bleak projections for the future have only fanned the flames. The country has barely recovered from the economic recession that started in 2016, and President Buhari has now called on Nigerians to brace for another recession. Youth were already incensed by reports of high-level elites’ corruption, galloping inflation, and unprecedented levels of unemployment, and now the government has announced increases in the price of fuel and an electricity tariff.
Against this background, the #EndSARS protests have become a symbol for broader resentment and opened the path for marginalized Nigerian youths to vent bottled-up grievances against the government, starting with the excesses of SARS, which the government has failed to address after several promises of reform. Problems with SARS are not new, in fact: Protests against its brutality date back to 2010, and announcements on disbanding it were first made in 2014, then again in 2015, 2016, and 2019. The nonpartisan nature of the #EndSARS protest explains the wider support it enjoyed from the general public, and the successes it recorded.
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