In Nigeria, the accepted experience with almost all officialdom is aggressive: the civilian officers in full military garb who slap women trying to enter the passport office; the ordinary policeman who pulls his gun on unarmed civilians because they dared to talk back. Violence defines the predictable. It takes an unpredictable, extraordinary level of brutality to cause a storm.
On Oct. 3, a video surfaced online that appeared to show the point-blank killing of a Nigerian citizen by officers of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, commonly known as SARS. In the days since the video’s emergence, people across the country, young and some old, have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and call for SARS’s disbandment.
SARS was founded in 1992 to deal with violent crimes like kidnappings and armed robbery, common at the time. In the years since, SARS has come to resemble the armed thugs it supposedly combats. Often in plain clothes, SARS officers became synonymous with torture, illegal detention and extortion. Violent crime might have fallen, but it was not because criminals knew that they would face the full force of the law, but rather that they would be extrajudicially murdered.
The call for police reform in Nigeria is not new, but the scale of the current protests is. Diverse, spontaneous and structureless, these protests have been helped by a digital know-how beyond the comprehension of many Nigerian politicians. Those who wish to organize a protest simply send out a tweet letting people know when and where. Within hours, chants of “soro soke,” meaning “speak up” or “speak out” are heard in the streets. In Lagos, as protesters pass through local neighborhoods, they are welcomed by market women, stallkeepers and children, who sit, watch, and listen.
These protests have been aided by Nigerians from across the country and beyond, who have donated their time and resources. When unlawfully arrested protesters need legal aid, they simply ask and networks organized online call volunteer lawyers, who drop what they are doing and proceed to the police station. When protesters need food, water or mobile phone data, they ask and food, water and money from an ever-growing fund of global donations is sent. And when they need ambulances or security guards to protect them from hired thugs, from the state itself, they ask, and private ambulance and security services are sent their way.