What started as a grass-roots movement to end police brutality in Africa’s most populous country has become a global phenomenon embraced by the world’s biggest celebrities: #EndSARS.
In the two weeks since Nigerians began flooding the streets to rally against a police unit widely viewed as abusive, overseas megastars such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, Cardi B and Drake have thrown their fame behind the cause.
Now the protest is dominating social media feeds on practically every continent and, by Wednesday, had made its way into the U.S. presidential race.
“The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden said in a statement.
Attention to the movement skyrocketed after Tuesday night, when protesters and human rights groups say Nigerian soldiers opened fire on a peaceful demonstration in Lagos, a metropolis of approximately 20 million.
“There was no warning,” one protester told The Washington Post, like others speaking on the condition of anonymity because they feared retribution.
What is #EndSARS?
The hashtag first surfaced in 2017 as activists in Nigeria sought to abolish a federal police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
SARS, as it is commonly known, has existed for nearly three decades. But over time, its critics say, the unit has developed a reputation for abusing its power.
Amnesty International said it has recorded 82 cases of SARS abuses over the past three years, including beatings, hangings, mock executions, sexual assault and waterboarding.
Then a disturbing video that surfaced online Oct. 4 shined a fresh spotlight on the unit, reinvigorating outrage across Nigeria. The footage shows officers dragging two men from a hotel, according to the Guardian, and shooting one of them outside.
Protests erupted in the West African powerhouse’s major cities. Demonstrators posted their grievances on Twitter and Instagram. Nigerians abroad swiftly chimed in. So did influencers with millions of followers — and within days, #EndSARS went viral.
What happened next?
Under growing pressure, the Nigeria Police Force announced on Oct. 11 that it had dissolved SARS and fired at least two officers in response to “the yearnings of the Nigerian people,” prompting cheers in the streets.
The celebration didn’t last long, however, because demonstrators rejected the force’s plan to redeploy members of the unit in other jobs.
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari pledged reform and urged citizens to be patient as leaders overhauled the national law enforcement system.
In a Thursday speech, he asked protesters to clear the streets.
“Your voice has been heard loud and clear, and we are responding,” Buhari said.
The government vowed to work with human rights groups on a new model and investigate atrocities of the past, telling people to come forward if they had ever endured hostilities at the hands of a Nigerian officer.
But protesters didn’t buy it.
Leaders have promised police reform “four times in the last four years,” said Bulama Bukarti, a Nigerian lawyer in London who represents victims of police brutality. “People are tired of lip service.”
Thousands stayed in the streets this week, even after Lagos implemented a 24-hour curfew. They blocked roads and camped outside a busy toll booth plaza in the upscale suburb of Lekki.
Protesters said peace was their aim — video shows large groups dancing and waving Nigerian flags — but authorities have accused “criminal elements” of torching, looting buildings and “unleashing terror on citizens,” the Lagos state governor said on Twitter.
Another hashtag has emerged this week: #LekkiMassacre.
Just after dusk on Tuesday, protesters say streetlights suddenly went out in the Lekki toll gate plaza. The crowd was singing the national anthem when Nigerian security forces approached and opened fire, witnesses and human rights groups said.
“All I heard was bullets — left, right and center,” a 37-year-old man who recorded a live Instagram video at the demonstration told The Post.
Ten people died, according to a tally by Amnesty International, and hundreds were wounded. (Two more died that evening in another Lagos neighborhood called Alausa, researchers said.)
“CCTV cameras at the Lekki toll gate, where #EndSARS protesters had been camped for two weeks, were removed by government officials and the electricity was cut — a clear attempt to hide evidence,” the organization said in a statement, citing witness reports.
The Nigerian army — which did not respond to requests for comment — denied on Twitter that soldiers had been on the scene.
As fury soared, however, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the Lagos state governor, said he had ordered a probe into “the adopted rules of engagement employed by the men of the Nigerian army deployed to the Lekki Toll Gate.”
Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said on Twitter that he visited victims of the Lekki shootings in the hospital.
“The pain of these terrible events is palpable in our towns and cities, and some losses are irreplaceable, but we can and will get justice for all of them,” he wrote. “I stand with Lagos & all other affected states in these trying times.”
The violence sparked international uproar.
The U.N. secretary general “condemns the violent escalation on 20 October in Lagos which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries,” his spokesman said in a statement.
In his speech Thursday, Buhari blamed the turmoil in Nigeria on criminals who have “hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine and well-intended protest.”
He did not address the shootings in Lekki.
“To our neighbors in particular, and members of the international community, many of whom have expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria,” Buhari said, “we thank you and urge you all to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position.”
What's next for Nigeria?
After the violence, protesters returned to the streets in Lagos, witnesses said, and encountered riot officers with tear gas.
Six more demonstrators died of gunshot wounds at one hospital Wednesday, a doctor told The Post.
Buhari said Wednesday that the end of the SARS unit “is the first step in a set of reform policies that will deliver a police system accountable to the Nigerian people.”
The unrest swells as Nigeria confronts the economic shock of the coronavirus pandemic and an Islamist insurgency in the northeast. Both issues have seeded frustrations among its 200 million people — more than half of whom are younger than 24.
While the nation has the region’s largest economy and plentiful oil wealth, many are stuck in poverty and lack necessities, such as access to water. Corruption is partly to blame, Nigerian rights groups say.
The country marked 21 years of civilian rule in May after a decades-long history of juntas and coups. Celebrities had hailed the #EndSARS protests as a symbol of democracy.
“It was bliss indeed to be alive, to watch youths finally begin to take the future into their own hands,” Nobel Prize-winning author Wole Soyinka wrote Wednesday. “But — and haven’t we been here before? — suddenly, virtually overnight, it all changed.”