The next few days will be important in determining the future of the End SARS protests, Nigerian Christians say.
On Oct. 3, a viral video allegedly showed members of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) killing a young man, according to an Al Jazeera timeline. The death triggered a nationwide series of protests demanding police reform.
“The people are in shock and are devastated. There is much greater distrust in the government now,” said Nigerian Modupe Ehirim in an email to The Christian Post.
Ehirim is the founder of Nigeria’s The Right Fit Marriage Academy and a board member of Christian publisher Oasis International. She also has become involved in the protests after learning details about injustices committed by SARS that have been covered up by the government.
“Also devastating to the people, particularly Christians, is the 'apparent accomplice role' played by the Vice President [Yemi Osinbajo] who is a Christian and who many had hoped will speak up against the injustices,” said Ehirim, who clarified that she doesn't believe the vice president is complicit, but some do.
Ehirim said she believes that the violent protesters are not actually civilians, but are government actors meant to discredit and intimidate the peaceful protesters.
“[The violence doesn’t mean] we should not back down from the protest,” she said. “It does mean that we would have to rethink how to go on from here.”
Although the End SARS movement isn’t a Christian movement, many of the protesters are Christian, she said. Some of Nigeria’s most influential Pentecostal pastors have supported the protests. Ehirim said her Christian faith compelled her to join the protest movement.
“Knowing what I knew about SARS and its destructive impact on individuals, families and our nation, I couldn't stand back from participation in and support for the protests,” she said. “Although they started well and helped deal with armed robbery incidents, the unit regrettably became controversial for its links to extrajudicial killings, torture and other illegal activities.”
The protests have grown rapidly, but they don’t have a centralized leadership structure, Ehirim said. Most of the participants are young people weary of corrupt police forces.
“An incident of extrajudicial killing recently in Port Harcourt triggered pent up frustrations in many of our citizens,” she said. “Young persons in media, business and social work who already had personal visibility and influence were assumed to lead the protest. However, they insisted that all protesters were equal.”
In response to the protests, the government disbanded SARS on Oct. 11. Protests didn’t stop, however. In the last four years, the Nigerian government has disbanded SARS on four occasions due to public outcry, only to bring it back in another form.
“Knowing that SARS had been disbanded on numerous occasions only for citizens to still find it operating, the protesters insisted that they wouldn't go off the streets until they saw in reality that SARS was truly no more,” said Ehirim.
In Nigeria, SARS had a reputation for demanding bribes, locking up citizens without cause, harassing the innocent, and violence, said Jacob, a longtime resident of the Nigerian city of Jos whose name has been changed for anonymity.
This protest against SARS started because the police force began harassing young people with strong online presences, he said. In the past, most people who suffered violence from SARS were poor and unable to share their stories. The change happened because of a new law, Jacob told CP.
“In the last several months, SARS was given the ability to investigate internet crime. They started stopping young people who were dressed nicely or had an expensive phone,” he said. “When this started affecting the more upper-class youth rather than the common person out taking public transportation, they got angry and had enough.”
Although SARS protests focus on the police, they aren’t the same as the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, Jacob said. They do draw inspiration from the American movement, however.
“There’s no race or ethnicity here,” he said. “The perception and the accusations are just old-fashioned brutality. This is not really anti-police. One of their issues is they want to pay policemen more money so they won’t be so greedy for bribes. It’s trying to bring more sanity to the whole system.”
The End SARS movement demands the release of all arrested protesters, justice and compensation for all deceased victims of police brutality, an independent police investigation body, retraining for all SARS officers, and a higher salary for police, Ehirim said. So far, the government has partially met the first and fourth demands.
Both Ehirim and Jacob said that as the protests have developed, they have shifted focus from SARS to general problems with corruption and incompetence in the Nigerian government.
“It’s quite a patriotic movement,” Jacob said. “They carry lots of Nigerian flags, they sing the national anthem. ‘End SARS’ has almost become a general word for end police violence, end corruption, all these things that have created problems for the common citizens.”
Jacob said he's also concerned that the protests will turn violent or lose sight of their goal as they face government pressure. Nigeria has a history of peaceful protests that eventually turn into violence along tribal or religious fault lines, he said.
“The next 24 hours will determine whether this movement has been squelched by the curfews, whether it will continue as a peaceful protest or whether people will become violent,” he told CP on Wednesday. “The biggest danger is exactly what is happening. People have very good and noble causes, they start doing protests and they become violent.”
Nigeria’s northern regions are largely Muslim, while the south is largely Christian. The country’s political parties have a longstanding tradition that major political offices swap between candidates from the North and South to prevent violence. Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari is a Muslim; Yemi Osinbajo, his vice president, is a Christian.
“I’m sympathetic with the issues these people are raising, but I’m afraid this thing might become something we don’t want,” Jacob said. “In places where you have tensions between Hausas and indigenous ethnic groups, Christians and Muslims, there sometimes is a polarization into individual camps. Regardless of what the initial issue was it deteriorates into old issues.”
Ehirim said Christians around the world can help by praying that leaders will act to heal the nation, sharing and amplifying true news about Nigeria online and signing petitions to place travel bans on corrupt Nigerian leaders. In difficult times, Ehirim said she finds a command for Christians in Daniel 11:32.
“‘They that know their God shall be strong and shall do exploits.’ Daniel and his three friends were men who knew God, and who in consequence felt compelled from time to time to actively stand out against the anti-God trends which they see operating around them,” she said.