Spring Magazine interviewed Baba Aye about #EndSARS, the movement against police brutality in Nigeria. He is a trade unionist and co-convener of the Coalition for Revolution (CORE) and a member of the Socialist Workers League in Nigeria.
What is SARS?
SARS stands for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. In 1992, police at the checkpoint killed an army officer and the soldiers got pretty pissed and came after the police and ran them off the road for a few days. Allegedly, there was a sharp spike in crime over those few days that the police were off, so when a compromise was reached between the army and the police they came back and consolidated those units into a special squad.
Over the last three decades of SARS it has become the most notorious of the units within the Nigerian police squad for several reasons. The main reason is, an Amnesty International report in 2016, spoke of how ruthless their torture methods are to extract their “confessions.” They moved from their remit of robbery to investigate Nigerian email scams and so when they see a man with a fancy iPhone or car, if you have tattoos or dreadlocks, they are profiled and stopped. So what happens is that young people, both those in the working class and in the more middle class sections of society, end up being profiled and feel the pains of SARS. So in the movement to #EndSars you had this pent up anger.
The movement was also a general expression of anger against police brutality. SARS has killed more people than other units of the police, but the overall rate of murder by the police is quite high. Even our organization, a member of our editorial board, was shot dead in January. Alex Ogbu was covering a peaceful protest of the Shiite Muslims protesting to have their leader released. And there is this general trend where they kill and they try to deny it. So in the case of Alex Ogbu they said that he hit his head while trying to run away. It was not until we insisted on having an independent autopsy that it was confirmed that he was shot in the head. I give that as an example because it happened to our organization, but several families have those types of stories of fatal brutality.
What does the movement look like? Who is out there protesting?
It is a cross-class thing. What you have in the bigger cities like Lagos and Abuja, you have more than one centre of protest. Lagos was not surprisingly the largest: it makes up about a tenth of the 200 million people across the 36 states of the country. In Lagos, you had protests in the centre but also in the outskirts. The ones that were most reported in the media was the protests in the more middle-class suburbs. In the others you had more working class content. So, different centres, depending on the neighbourhood, had different mixes of middle class and working class youth. Even the young entrepreneur middle class played a significant role. You had young restaurateurs that kept the protestors well-fed, supplied water and beverages. That spirit of solidarity of the movement brought musicians out to play for everyone.
How did the protests begin? Was there a single incident that made people say “enough is enough?”
At the start of October, a young man was killed outside Wetland hotel in a rustic town in the Niger Delta and they [SARS officers] went away with his Lexus Jeep. And this message started going around Whatsapp groups in the state. There were pockets of demonstrations on the 4th and 5th, localized demonstrations. And that is the day that on Twitter someone posted that “look a young man has been killed and they went away with his jeep” and that started making the rounds and people starting saying #EndSARS.
And I should point out that the movement and the hashtag #EndSARS did not start in 2020, but there were much smaller demonstrations, mostly on the discursive level as far back as 2015 saying #EndSARS after incidents in which SARS had killed people. From 2016 until last year, based on these protests, the government had always responded by saying “ok, ok, we will reform SARS. We are going to dissolve it.” So, last year they said part of the reform is that it is no longer just SARS, but now it is FSARS for Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad. And it is just like, “this is not shit, this is poo poo”. Of course it still stinks. So, this time around it was like “that is not enough,” and by the 7th and 8th of October people took to the streets.
What are the politics of the movement? Are there socialist politics and if so, how do they get there? What are the competing ideas of the movement?
You hit the nail on the head talking about competing politics. There are some things that have come to define the movement and there are things that are being changed because of the movement. One of its more defining ones is that it is supposedly leaderless. That is not exactly true, not just for this movement, but as Gramsci said there is never a total lack of leadership: even the most spontaneous movement has some level of integral leadership.
To grasp some of the competing ideas it is good to look at how it evolved from debates online. It was the cause of the celebrities and Twitter played a key role in mobilizing for it, which then made a role for “influencers,” people that have hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers. You had callouts to celebrities, even to corporations like the digital satellite corporation. Most of the celebrities did not want to join it but there were a few that stuck their neck out. But when we were in the streets, socialists wanted to include things in their demands and it was a strict “No, it is only End SARS” from the liberal groups.
We tried, in a non-sectarian manner, to argue for demands beyond just End SARS. The movement in Alausa was almost as large as Lekki. And not only that, it had this strategic value and its mobilized contingent had this idea to block the expressway that links Lagos state to the rest of the country. A contingent also moved to the airport and shut down all flights. Also, it was right in front of the Lagos Assembly. In Alausa, in the first three days of the movement, the liberal persons who are running things complained seriously that the Revolution Now Movement comrades tried to take over with more radical demands. There was an occupation of Alausa, people were sleeping there. So on the third day the liberals left, thinking that without them it would collapse. The Coalition For Revolution comrades took over and ran it full force from about the 10th to the 20th, until the massacre. And we were able to recruit from Alausa part of the protests. But, you can see the way the movement has evolved to a greater extent with the evolution of the demands to a broader and more revolutionary perspective.
How does your organization orient to these protests? How do you get those bigger demands into the movement?
There is an important element of the context of the #EndSARS movement. There was a period of radicalization for the previous year and a half by the Revolution Now Movement. On the 5th of August, the Coalition for Revolution launched the Revolution Now Movement with five key demands at that point in time; 1) an economy that works for the masses and not the elites, 2) an effective and democratic end to insecurity, 3) an end to systemic corruption and for total system change, 4) the immediate implementation of the minimum wage, and 5) free and quality education for all. And on the day of the launch of the Revolution Now campaign, there were 5 billion searches for the word “revolution” on Google.
The government did everything possible to make it impossible for the rallies we had scheduled in the 26 of the 36 states to happen. In every state, they rolled out the full cavalry: the anti-riot police, SARS, the army, naval officials, secret police, the paramilitary national civil defense corps. They not only went to the venues, but they were patrolling the streets in a show of power.
CORE is also associated with the African Action Congress which is radical reformist and has become further radicalized. So the presidential candidate for the AAC (the presidential elections took place in February earlier this year) was arrested two days before the launch of Revolution Now. About 56 of the coalition were arrested in parts of the country, including a significant number of members of the Socialist Workers League. We got them out, and this marked a turning point of sorts. October 1, the Nigerian Independence Day, saw demonstrations in 15 states. This contributed to the radical atmosphere of the #EndSARS movement, which has gone above and beyond the scale of these other protests.
Part of why I went through that was because CORE rolled out the Charter for Total Liberation and circulated thousands of copies during the occupation in several states of the federation. We were planning to do sit-ins in Alausa before the massacre, but we never got around to that.
Is there an organized working class response?
Part of the problem the movement had is that there was supposed to be a general strike on September 28. This was because at the beginning of September the Petrol prices went up, electricity tariffs went up by about 100%. After a lot of pressure, the two trade union federations agreed to go on a general strike. At about 3am on the day the strike was supposed to take place, they called off the strike. And during the heat of the demonstrations of #EndSARS they were not really there. It was only the two oil unions that really issued statements of support for the movement. On the morning of the 20th before the massacre, CORE sent an open letter to the leaders of the trade unions calling on them to come out in support of the movement to End SARS. In one state, a member of the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria was a supporter of the SWL and he came out and joined with civil society organizations to organize demonstrations. So in a sense, the betrayal of the trade unions contributed to the “leaderless” form of the movement.
I feel like the last time I was talking to you about a big general strike, in maybe 2015, there was a similar betrayal by the trade union leaders.
What you have is different flavours of how they do it. Chocolate flavour and peanut flavour. Usually it is about how they call off strikes. This one was called off even before it was started. The one you were talking about a few years back was called off at its peak. While this one was called off without even firing a single shot.
What is the class composition of Nigeria?
About three quarters of the labour force is in the informal economy and the formal economy is a mish mash. You have formal workers and you also have the owners of small and micro businesses. It’s kind of chaotic. The two trade union centres cover about 6 million workers, but the statistics have been the same since like 2007. The oil workers have the strategic role because of the importance of petroleum products and you also have the large public sector workers.
But, talking about the middle class in Nigeria, that is a good question. Part of what is becoming clearer to everyone is that you have a sharper and sharper division of wealth, fewer and fewer opportunities. The three richest billionaires in Nigeria are richer than half the population, that is like 105 million people. The wealth of the five richest billionaires is enough to totally eradicate poverty in the country. The richest man in Africa is richer than anybody in any of the countries like Britain or Germany. He is a Nigerian. What he earns a day is 8000 times what someone on minimum wage earns a year. You have that one hand. And on the other hand, Nigeria is the country with the most poverty on earth. Last year it overtook India and India’s population is about five times that of Nigeria. It is now the country with the largest number of poor people in the world. And what is referred to as the middle class is truthfully just sections of the working class.
How popular is the movement? The government has ended SARS and replaced the shit with poop as you were saying. How has the government responded as the movement has continued?
The movement has won what appears to be some concessions. By the 11th, the government promised to dissolve SARS. But considering that promise was made four times earlier, people did not trust their word. They were right to not trust their word because just a few hours after the government promised to end SARS, demonstrators that were still standing their ground in Abuja were disrupted with tear gas and water cannons.
As if things weren’t bad enough, on the 13th of October the inspector general of police and the national riot commission summoned a multi-stakeholder forum. It included international NGOs representing the bourgeois establishment globally, some local NGOs and some musicians. By then the movement had come out with their 5-point demands: release all arrested protestors, justice for the dead, compensation for their families, things like that. There the police claimed they accepted all of this but announced that they are replacing SARS with a new unit, special weapons and tactics unit. People were like “what is this shit” and this led to the deepening of resistance for the next week until the massacre on the 20th. The demands also got more radialized, going from “End SARS” to “End bad governors in Nigeria.”
Where would you like to see the movement go? How could it win? What would winning be in this context?
There have been a number of significant gains for this movement. Probably the most important is the confidence in a new generation and the rededication to struggle. Just before that when we were mobilizing for the October 1st demonstration, people were saying the young people are more interested in Big Brother Nigeria. But look now, it’s the same youths that are taking to the streets.
Now on the specific aspects of End SARS, most of the state governments have set aside money to compensate the victims of SARS and police brutality in general. Several judicial panels and judicial commissions have been set up. It is very likely the way things are going that there will be some significant reform of the police system. But as we have kept pointing out, you cannot distill out policing and police brutality from the broader social and economic context. This has to be addressed. As the movement has evolved, the slogans have grown to recognize this too. Not just an end to bad governors in Nigeria but people have begun to recognize that we have to tie these demands for an end to SARS to housing for all, with education, with health, the broad gambit of it. Like right now, the trending hashtag is #EndInjustice. That is injustice in all forms. So, we need now to do more than ending SARS. We need in this case system change. But don’t forget, as we said earlier, there are contending forces that want to limit how far the movement will go.
There is a mixture of anger and fear. Anger at the system and the police, but fear because in many states there have been hoodlums armed and instigated by the state to attack protestors. So some of the meetings I have been on today are grappling with the question of how do we take this forward even if street protests can’t immediately continue? And there is no illusion that this is just about SARS. For example, the increase in fuel pump price and electricity tariffs is part of a broader package of neoliberal policies which are being enforced by the IMF subsequent to loans given to “aid the COVID response”. So, we are likely to see several sources of sparks able to help the movement tie together the connectedness of these issues, which we must do at this time.
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