Widespread protests over Nigeria’s hated Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) are a sign that the country’s massive young population is finding its voice and demanding reforms in Africa’s most populous country, which has been characterised by poor governance since its independence 60 years ago.
Despite forcing the president to disband the unit, they are not satisfied as they want total police reforms and for officers in the rogue department to face justice.
But it goes beyond this because the wave of protests has given a platform to a section of the country’s young population who are deeply dissatisfied.
On the streets, those marching are mostly comfortably-off young people, some with dyed hair, pierced noses and tattooed bodies.
It is the sort of gathering that security personnel are quick to label criminals, but in truth, these are largely hard-working young people who have mostly had to fend for themselves without support from the state.
The majority of them are between 18 and 24 years old, have never experienced steady electricity in their lifetime, did not enjoy free education in the country and had their years at university punctuated and elongated by lecturers going on strike.
The frustration with the police is a reflection of the frustration with the state in general.
“What have I benefited from this country since I was born?” asked Victoria Pang, a 22-year-old graduate, who was at one of the protests in the capital, Abuja – and one of the many women who have been at the forefront of the demonstrations.
“Our parents say there was a time when things were good, but we have never experienced it,” she said.
Why was Sars so hated?
Police officers in Nigeria generally have a reputation for corruption, brutality and little regard for human rights, but people here have especially strong feelings against Sars, which has developed a notoriety for unduly profiling young people.
A report in June by Amnesty International said it documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by Sarsbetween January 2017 and May 2020.
“The Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute a single officer despite anti-torture legislation passed in 2017 and evidence that its members continue to use torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish and extract information from suspects,” the group said.
Those considered “flashy” or well-to-do – anything from having a nice car to a laptop or those with tattoos or dreadlocks – attracted the attention of Sars officers.
The profiling of young Nigerians runs deep in society.
Young people who are well-off and whose lifestyle does not conform to the norms in this conservative country are often labelled “Yahoo-Boys” – a slang term for internet scammers.
This is especially true of those who work with laptops, while there are accounts of neighbours who have called security officials on young people who work from home.
“My estate once called police officers to come pick me up because I was always at home and turning the generator on and living well,” Bright Echefu, a 22-year-old website developer, who joined the protest in Abuja,
For a long time, tattoos, dreadlocks and piercings or choosing non-conventional career paths have been associated with irresponsibility in some families, religious organisations, communities and even schools.
“How does having a tattoo on my arm make me a criminal?” asked Joy Ulo, an undergraduate at a protest.
And some of it has come from the top.
President Muhammadu Buhari, aged 77, who in the past described Nigerian youths as “lazy” to an international audience, recently advised those whose economic livelihoods had been wiped out by the coronavirus lockdown to go into farming, as they are able bodied.
Although there is some level of organisation, the people who appear to be co-ordinating action on social media do not want to be identified as leaders.
They have been able to pull together everything from water, food and banners to arranging bail for those arrested.
Money has been raised through crowd sourcing – some of the donations have come from abroad, most from Nigerian IT firms, whose staff are easy targets of profiling by security personnel.
Ihedioha Stella reporting from ProbitasReport