For many youths who witnessed or participated in the #EndSARS protest, a nationwide protest in Nigeria against police brutality, the memories of that event continue to inspire their engagement in social and political matters in the country.
Thomas Ojieh, a Lagos-based youth in his late 20’s, who spoke with the Record said the protest was a movement that changed his thought-process around politics in the country.
Like many other youths, Thomas once encountered the defunct Police sect (SARS), where they checked his bank accounts, chat, and emails. He described it as a scary moment.
But, the spark that set this historic protest in motion was a disturbing video that circulated throughout social media on October 4, showing a SARS operative killing a young man in Delta state. Starting on October 8, 2020, and lasting for nearly two weeks, the EndSARS movement united young Nigerians who stood up against the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and its history of alleged harassment, extortion, and extrajudicial killings.
Soon, the #EndSARS hashtag became a rallying point, magnified by Nigerian celebrities and influential figures with massive followings. A report shows that 48 million mentions and Tweets came from 5 million different people on Twitter (now X) during the online protest from October 5 to October 14, 2020. A significant highlight was when Twitter’s former CEO, Jack Dorsey, used the #EndSARS hashtag to share a donation link associated with a prominent support group for the protesters.
At its core, it was a cry for the end of SARS, but in the end, these protests became a resounding call for governance reform, marred with costly errors.
On October 20, soldiers reportedly shot at protesters at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos. Amnesty International says at least 12 people died, and many were injured in the incident. However, a judicial panel of inquiry set up by the government to investigate these claims reported that nine fatalities were recorded at the Lekki tollgate on October 20, 2020. The Lagos state government has since rejected the report for lack of evidence.
Impact on voting decision during 2023 general elections
“Many youth, before time, treated voting with levity. But the EndSARS protest was one of the main reasons why I and many youth came out en masse to register for voting and vote eventually,” Ojieh said.
Nearly 80% of the newly registered voters for the 2023 elections were aged between 18-35, according to INEC, the youth has the highest number of eligible voters— 48m out of 93.5m. This was clear evidence that the post-EndSARS energy translated into a strong and vocal youth voice in politics.
Thomas, a digital entrepreneur, remembered feeling unusually motivated during the last election cycle. “I can’t place a finger on the particular number of people I galvanized to register and vote. But I know I did a lot that was unusual for me,” he told The Record. This mostly stems from, he revealed, a renewed hope that young people have the power to change governments and conditions that no longer serve them.
The presidential candidate of the Labour Party, Peter Obi, successfully harnessed the newfound energy and activism of the youth but it failed to propel him to victory. All through their support, he achieved the remarkable feat of introducing the first third dominant party into the Nigerian political scene in decades.
Youth-Led advocacy: the highs and lows
“There’s a problem when there’s no one to talk to the government and find solutions, ” Hashim Yussuf, a political commentator, told the Record while commenting on the leaderless nature of the protest.
Movements without a public face can be challenging to manage in terms of coordinating actions of protesters and maintaining a cohesive message. It is also more susceptible to infiltration by people or groups with different agendas, including government agencies, counter-protesters, or people with conflicting agendas.
An example is the Arab Spring uprisings from 2010 to 2012 and protests in Tahrir Square which saw infiltrations by government agents and counter-revolutionary forces. These later caused divisions within the movements.
The EndSARS protest saw a similar fate when it was seized by troublemakers who damaged public properties and invaded prison facilities to facilitate inmate breakouts. This happened amidst the insistence by protesters that they had no designated leader for negotiations. In response to the turmoil, the government imposed curfew measures and allegedly shot unarmed protesters on October 20.
However, supporters of the leaderless nature of the EndSARS protest say that this approach helped strengthen the voices of participants and minimized the possibility of compromise.
A profound lesson from the EndSARS movement is the loss of confidence in the political establishment. This disillusionment, particularly expressed by the youth, was recognized by the winner of the election, President Bola Tinubu, in one of his earliest speeches. He directly addressed the Nigerian youth, stating, “I heard you loud and clear,” and promised to “feature youth prominently” in his government. While some of his appointments may affirm this promise, the broader issue of youth confidence in the ruling class remains an ongoing challenge.