1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Opinion: Nigeria's #EndSARS protesters need a leader

October 19, 2020

Just over a week into protests to dissolve Nigeria’s notorious special anti-robbery squad (SARS), Nigerian demonstrators have vowed on social media to "not back down." But it's unclear where exactly they are headed.

Cartoon showing a protester holding a banner that reads 'End police brutality'

I have been covering politics in Nigeria and in West Africa since 2018. There have been various moments during the last two years when my team and I asked ourselves why people do not take to the streets.

There are countless reasons to ask for change: Rising food or gasoline prices, systematic corruption, and ongoing violence across the country — ranging from terrorism due to Islamist militants, banditry, and kidnappings.

But Nigeria never had protests on the scale the country is witnessing right now.

Read more: Could Nigeria's #EndSARS protests grow into a movement?

'Loud but very disorganized'

There have been online protests and hashtags in the past, but the level of frustration only got to the point at which people's feelings turned into lethargy — as if the majority of them had given up on the idea that they could actually bring about any real change.

The same level of lethargy could also been seen at the polling stations: Nigeria had the lowest voter turnout in history for its 2019 presidential elections. With less than 35% of the electorate casting their ballots, the country also had the lowest voter participation on the African continent.

Fanny Facsar and cameraman Adewole Dada
Fanny Facsar and cameraman Adewole Dada have been covering West African politics since 2018Image: Fanny Facsar/DW

When you talk to protesters now, you will hear descriptions ranging from "this is our Arab Spring," to "this is not even a movement yet," depending on how much Nigerians want to see in what is unfolding.

One thing is clear: people across all social levels are calling for an end of abuse — be it perpetrated by police or politicians. "Enough is enough," they say.

They are loud, they are demanding change. But they are also very disorganized.

Challenging the dynamic

You may see protests in one part of Lagos that almost resemble a Friday evening party with people listening to music and dancing —while in another part of the city, people are running for their lives as police are violently dispersing a crowd.

And then there are criminals who mingle amongst the crowd, posing a security threat. Ironically, the police force that is meant to protect peaceful protests is the one that is most feared by the youth. At least 11 people have died so far.

Nigeria's mass #EndSARS protests, like those seen here in Lagos, attracted international attention on social media sites
Nigeria's mass #EndSARS protests, like those seen here in Lagos, attracted international attention on social media sitesImage: Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto/picture-alliance

If you examine Nigeria more closely, you will find that the unity the youth is demanding to achieve their goals is the very same problem the country is facing.

A country fragmented along ethnic and religious lines, influences the dynamic of these protests.

If you talk to people in parts of Northern Nigeria you will find disagreement over what originally caused the protests: especially in terror-torn Boko Haram region in the North East, you will find people concerned about the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

No leader at the helm

And there are very practical reasons why it will be difficult to keep up the momentum.

"They are blocking roads, also to the airport, they are causing traffic. The goodwill of the people supporting this will decrease over time," one listener told a local radio station, while the radio host added: "These are valid protests but the protesters have to be smart. The protests can be hijacked. They may not need a leader but they do need some spokesperson."

In a fragmented country like Nigeria, the longer the protests continue, the more ways the protesters have of bringing their movement forward.

"It’s time for them to mobilize, register as a political party to be ready for the elections in 2023. They must push for candidates that speak for them," said Abasili Okwudili, a political science lecturer at the University of Lagos. 

"Sooner or later the protests will need someone that people can hold on to on a national level to keep mobilizing people."

Thus far, protesters have rejected the idea of turning anyone into "a face" of these protests, fearing that once they have a head, it will be decapitated politically.

Nigeria’s elites say that they have heard the protesters, they are setting up panels, and they promise change.

But it will need people representing the protesters to keep pushing at the tables where politics happens.

Fanny Facsar holding a DW microphone
DW's Fanny Facsar in West AfricaImage: Fanny Facsar/DW
Deutsche Welle Portrait Fanny Facsar
Fanny Facsar DW's senior international correspondent covering world affairs@fannyfacsar