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Nigeria Protests: What’s Happening and Why Are People Demonstrating?

Violence escalated after two weeks of street protests in Nigeria, as witnesses accused soldiers of shooting and killing several demonstrators. WSJ’s Joe Parkinson explains why tensions between protesters and authorities have flared. Photo: Sunday Alamba/Associated Press

Two weeks of nationwide protests against police brutality in Nigeria turned deadly Tuesday as security forces fired live rounds on demonstrators, killing several people. The decision to use military force to quell the demonstrations shifts politics into an uncertain phase in West Africa’s most populous nation and largest oil producer.

Why have Nigerians taken to the streets?

Nigerians began demonstrating in early October, calling for the ban of a notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, that has been long accused of violent harassment. The protests erupted after a video showed a SARS officer allegedly shooting a man in Delta state before driving off. Peaceful protests, organized under the hashtag #EndSARS, spread across the country of 220 million people and to Nigerian diaspora communities in the U.S. and Europe in solidarity with a movement that has sought to bridge the country’s traditional sectarian and economic divides.

What is SARS?

Formed in 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad is a heavily armed police unit to fight violent crime including car jackings and armed robbery, and has become synonymous across much of Nigeria with allegations of police brutality and impunity. Amnesty International and other rights groups have documented the unit’s alleged abuse of civilians including extortion, rape and extrajudicial killings. Many Nigerians complained that SARS frequently extorted young people who appeared to have disposable income. The #EndSARS campaign became a messaging board for harrowing personal tales of violence, theft and intimidation. The police had repeatedly denied accusations against SARS, but conceded after the protests erupted that there were “unruly and unprofessional” officers and said these people would face disciplinary actions. Not all Nigerians have the same view of SARS: In the country’s northeast, where the government has been fighting a decadelong insurgency against jihadist group Boko Haram, SARS is seen as an effective fighting force.

Nigerians barricaded a road by burning objects during clashes in Abuja on Oct. 20.

Photo: Agence France-Presse/Getty Image

Who is leading the #EndSARS protests?

The protests are being driven by the youth in Nigeria, a country with an average age of 18 and one of the world’s fastest-growing populations, projected to overtake the U.S. to become the world’s third-largest by 2050. The wave of protests is the biggest display of people power in years in Nigeria as young people demand more sweeping changes. The demonstrations fit into an emerging global pattern of youth-led calls for change, from Hong Kong to Sudan and Chile. Protest groups have raised more than $250,000, setting up helplines for protesters in trouble, covering medical aid and providing private security.

How have Nigerian authorities responded to the protests?

President Muhammadu Buhari, a former general, agreed in a televised statement last week to disband SARS but has been silent since. A new unit called SWAT has been formed, whose officers will be trained by the international committee of the Red Cross, but protesters fear that SARS officers will simply blend into the new unit without facing accountability. Several cabinet ministers and military officials have issued hawkish statements in recent days, warning that the protests had become political and were lurching toward “anarchy.” On Tuesday night, security forces fired live rounds at protesters gathered at Lekki toll gate in Lagos, killing several people and injuring dozens. The Lagos government said that the incursion was from “forces beyond our direct control.”

Protesters blocked a road leading to the airport in Lagos on Oct. 12.

Photo: seun sanni/Reuters

Where is the protest movement going?

The deadly crackdown catapulted the protest movement into uncharted territory and could either galvanize it or herald its dissipation. Inside the movement, fractures have appeared between those who want to keep the focus on police brutality and those calling for more fundamental change. “The biggest strength of the protests has also become its biggest liability, which is total absence of centralized leadership,” said David Huneydin, a journalist critical of the government who has marched in the protests. One dynamic that seems irreversible is that the protests have politicized Nigeria’s youth, many of whom had been apathetic or disconnected from politics until now but will play an increasingly pivotal role in determining the country’s future.

Could the protests spread to other countries in the region?

Nigeria isn’t only Africa’s most populous nation but a cultural and political bellwether for a region where large youthful populations in many countries feel disenfranchised. The economic crunch resulting from the coronavirus is likely to diminish heavily indebted African states’ ability to create jobs—and opportunity—for young people.

Protesters gathered at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos on Oct. 15.

Photo: pierre favennec/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Where does the international community stand?

Some of the world’s most famous celebrities and business leaders have lent their support to the #EndSARS movement, including rapper Kanye West and Twitter Inc. Chief Executive Jack Dorsey urged people to support protesters by donating bitcoin. President Trump hasn’t commented. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called on Mr. Buhari on Tuesday to “cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths.” The #EndSARS protesters have started petitions for international sanctions against Mr. Buhari’s government.

A protest over police brutality in Lagos on Oct. 17.

Photo: temilade adelaja/Reuters

More on Nigeria

Write to Joe Parkinson at joe.parkinson@wsj.com

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