The #EndSARS movement is at a turning point. In the baseline forecast, institutional inertia militates against substantive reform despite nominal changes; however, decision makers should consider at least three alternative scenarios.
On 20 October, Nigeria’s police and army shot unarmed #EndSARS protesters at Lekki and Alausa in Lagos. Amnesty International says at least 12 protesters were killed in that crackdown. Since then, there has been widespread public disorder in the country.
Groups have plundered businesses in many cities including Lagos and Abuja. Government officials and facilities have also been targeted. People have looted warehouses where there is common belief that government agents were hoarding pandemic relief. The homes of at least two senators in Cross River have been ransacked and a TV station linked to Lagos ex-governor Bola Tinubu has also been set on fire.
President Muhammadu Buhari belatedly addressed the country two days after the deadly crackdown in Lagos. He did not acknowledge the shootings, but he warned #EndSARS campaigners to stop protesting and ‘undermining national security’.
Almost all the 17 states in the south have proclaimed a curfew in the past week as police struggled to restore order. Meanwhile, a similar number of states in that part of the country have set up a judicial panel to probe police brutality. These developments take place against a backdrop of longstanding institutional and interest group structures.
Nigeria transitioned to democracy 21 years ago. However, before this for the most part it was the military that had governed the country and its institutions were therefore configured for regime security. That dynamic exists till today. Indeed, the current President Muhammadu Buhari was a military dictator between 1983 and 1985.
In the current case, the government grew more aggressive toward the #EndSARS movement once it sensed that sentiments had evolved from being anti-police to anti-government, and President Buhari’s ‘national security’ reference shows how the government now views the movement.
The current unrest has mostly occurred in the south. And the popular view in the north is that #EndSARS is a southern problem and a threat to the government of Buhari, who is from the northern state Katsina. Down south, there is grudging acceptance of the government crackdown and #EndSARS activists even now sit on the new judicial panels. The most influential fundraising group, Feminist Coalition, has stopped taking donations. Street protests have been suspended.
From our vantage point in Abuja, we’ve captured below our four potential scenarios for Nigeria over the near to medium term, described in descending order of probability:
Baseline scenario: The #EndSARS movement lacks national spread, is effectively over and the current unrest dissipates in a short time. With the army involved, leading #EndSARS figures permanently recoil and protesters are unable to regroup in a significant manner. Activists are inexperienced in negotiating with government and both sides tolerate each other until new national events overtake the subject of the current movement. In this context, makeshift panels being set up around the country produce little policing reform because legal, political and fiscal constraints impair outcomes. Please read our previous note on this unrest for background.
Alternative scenario (1): The #EndSARS movement evolves into more puissant forms. Emerging leaders learn from recent events and use the new experience to regroup and consolidate systems that were built during the movement. The government remains under pressure as the world watches, so it relents on its crackdown and reluctantly takes more steps to reform the police and pursue other social changes.
Alternative scenario (2): This youth movement develops into a political force that has some bearing on the 2023 general elections – and even beyond. The need for social change resonates among young people (especially in the south) and there is an effective campaign to get more young people to vote and join partisan politics. A new demographic of voters emerges capable of influencing poll outcomes, even if at subnational levels. The political establishment adapts to the changing times.
Alternative scenario (3): A resurgence in the #EndSARS movement is (a) followed by an escalation in the application of force by security services and (b) interpreted in sectional terms in the north and south of the country leading to ‘tit-for-tat’ targeting immigrant groups in either geography.
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