#EndSars, More Than a Protest: A glimpse into decades of social and financial hardship
Updated: Nov 30, 2020
In the wake of increased global scrutiny on police brutality, mass protests erupted across Nigeria against the controversial police unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) whose officers have been accused of extorting, killing and harassing the youth. However, the reason behind these protests is much deeper and is directly linked to a fragile economic structure which led to Nigeria becoming the “poverty capital of the world”.
To fully understand the recent #EndSars protests, one must understand the economic and social context that has made life arduous for millions of Nigerians.
After gaining its independence from Britain in 1960, Nigeria has experienced unprecedented economic growth. Throughout the 1970s, the West-African country averaged a yearly GDP growth rate of 7% and became a leading power in the continent. Decades later, in 2020, Nigeria is regarded as an African powerhouse and arguably the largest economy on the continent with a dynamic population that has a median age of 18.
Source: Financial Times
The country decided to prioritize fast economic growth by focusing on the exploitation of its hydrocarbon resources rather than its rich arable lands, which were once the pillar of the economy. Indeed, the Nigerian economy has been powered by its Oil industry and is ranked 6th worldwide for its exportation and 15th for its production with 2 million barrels produced daily. Despite attracting billions in Foreign Direct Investment, this choice led to an oil dependence amounting to 85% of the nation’s total exports. By focusing all government intervention on this industry, Nigeria has ended up with a fragile economic structure making it prone to oil prices fluctuations.
Since the crash in oil prices in 2014, the economy has suffered deeply with no sense of recovery in sight, experiencing two recessions in the last five years.
Inflation is rising, foreign investments have all dried up, the Naira has lost half its value against the GBP in the span of five years and 55% of Nigerians are either unemployed or underemployed. This concerning job deficit is mainly hitting the youth who are forced into poverty; an increasingly troubling issue for the country. The situation is getting out of hand as Nigeria has been labelled the “Poverty Capital of the World” after recently overtaking India in extreme poverty ranking with around half of its population living on less than $1.90 a day.
From regional inequality with higher rates of poverty in the North, to an oil dependence, and not to mention the regular terrorist activities; it is fair to say that Nigeria’s economic growth has been unsustainable and has created vast economic and social inequalities.
It is therefore in the context of this economic slump, heightening poverty and marginalisation of the youth that the #EndSars protests started.
Following an outpouring on social media against police brutality, mass demonstrations erupted throughout the major cities of Nigeria. The peaceful protests were led by the youth who demanded the disbanding of the controversial police unit, Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Due to days of mass demonstrations and social pressure, President Muhammadu Buhari dissolved the SARS unit. However, the protests continued and grew increasingly critical of the current government demanding good and accountable governance. The marginalized youth are fed up of being externalities to poor governmental policies and demand change. The growing demonstrations were not welcomed by the government who decided to immediately mobilise all police forces. This eventually led to the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre on October 20th, 2020 where numerous demonstrators were shot and wounded. Some even died according to various reports. The Central Bank also took action by freezing the accounts of notable participants in the protests.
Furthermore, it is important to understand that in Nigeria, mass demonstrations against human rights violations are infrequent. What the youths were able to achieve is unparalleled.
The youth who were once marginalized and condemned to social hardship now have a voice. By staying united and persevering they were able to shake the country’s elite, show how powerful they are and change Nigeria forever. To quote the internationally renowned afrobeat artist Burna Boy, “this episode is the most important moment in modern Nigerian history”.
However, there is still a long way to go for Nigeria as the intensity of the protests reflects the need for change in a country where 1.2 million out of 3 million annual graduates are unemployed. As we have seen, social development will require structural changes in the system and a collective effort. The protests have made the elite jittery and laid foundation for future social development but have not yet achieved sustainable results in terms of equality and inclusion. Overcoming these issues will be challenging and will determine the future of the African Giant.