Solidarity Organizational Health Episode 9June 03, 2021

9. Nigeria: Driving Police Reform Through Mass Protest

Hosted by Akwe Amosu
Produced by Peter Coccoma

In this first episode of Season 2, host Akwe Amosu looks back to late 2020 and Nigeria’s massive #EndSARS protests against police brutality and impunity and asks youth organizer Samson Itodo to assess their impact. What is the role of leadership and organizing in a spontaneous upswell of citizen fury and who has to deliver it? And in the Coda, veteran human rights defender Suliman Baldo recalls the way poetry powered the revolution in his country, Sudan. 

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The Interview

Young people realized they could alter the balance of power

In October 2020, tens of thousands of Nigerians poured into the streets, enraged by the impunity of the Special Anti Robbery Squad or SARS which, far from upholding law and order, routinely engaged in violent theft, torture and killing of citizens. The protests did win concessions from the government, including the disbanding of SARS, but much remains unaddressed. And the young people paid a heavy price. According to Amnesty International, some 56 died in clashes with security forces during the weeks of protest. Samson Itodo, director of the youth-focused organization, Yiaga Africa, reflects on the task of converting mass protest into practical, meaningful change.

The Coda

Poetry – the secret weapon that helped topple a regime

Suliman Baldo has been an advocate for human rights in Sudan for decades, working outside the country with organisations and citizen groups to support those standing up against the oppressive regime of Omar El Beshir. Engaging young activists and organisers of the uprising in 2018-19, he saw how musicians, artists and poets were playing a key role in expressing popular hope and seeding the language of protest. He shares a poem by the late Yousif El Badawi, and then quotes verses by Azhari Mohammed Ali that were chanted in the streets. 

Transcript

Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength & Solidarity. 

Strength & Solidarity is a podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights movements around the world.   

In this episode…  

  • Did Nigeria’s mass protest against police brutality achieve its goals?  
  • And in The Coda, they say that poetry makes nothing happen – but that’s not how it looked to Sudan’s revolutionaries    

But first, welcome to Season Two – It’s good to be back!  Making this podcast has been a great project, teaching our team a lot about critical struggles and the courageous people who stand up for rights. If you’re new to Strength & Solidarity, thanks for joining, and please do check out the episodes in our first season. If you’re already following us, we have a favor to ask: We’d love to reach more listeners. If you enjoy this episode, please consider forwarding it to someone you think would be interested. And now – on with the show! 

Seven months ago in October 2020, Nigerian cities saw massive demonstrations that were reported around the world. Tens of thousands of young people poured onto the streets enraged by the impunity of the so-called Special Anti Robbery Squad or SARS – actually a byword for violent theft, car-jacking, and wanton abuse of ordinary citizens. A seemingly hapless government response veered between admitting the justice of the accusations and abolishing the unit, and punishment – culminating in the shocking shooting dead of non-violent citizens at Lekki toll gate in Lagos. Now, seven months later, as activists work to keep these issues in the public eye, it seems a good moment to take stock. So I called Samson Itodo, founder and director of the organization Yiaga Africa. It started out in 2007 as a student movement and has evolved into a youth organization that promotes human rights and democratic participation with branches in a number of West African countries. Samson himself began as a young activist and has been an advocate for young people’s political participation ever since. He was out in the streets last October.  

 

Welcome Samson.  

Thank you, so delighted to be here.  

 

The reputation of the Special Anti robbery squad, SARS was already terrible: the impunity, use of torture, extrajudicial killings for no apparent reason – these things were known, but something happened late last year that triggered a very different mobilization. I wondered if you’d just tell me what you think happened. 

A lot happened. So I think that young people got to a point where they were tired and they discovered that their liberation from the shackles of oppression is contingent on how they are able to organize and push back on some of the dictatorial tendencies of the state, and in particular the brutality of the police. They were fed up and they just wanted justice. Questions needed to be answered and the government was not answering those questions.  

 

The way you’re describing it, it sounds like it was really just a spontaneous mobilization because people were angry. Or was there something already underway organizing such a response? 

Yes, there were some foundational actions that took place. So if you date back to 2016, 2017, you had different forms of organizing around this issue. You had organizations like Amnesty International who had issued reports. You had people exposing and reporting these violations of human rights. But I’m sure what triggered that action was that video of a young man somewhere in Delta state who was alleged to have been brutalized by the police. They seized his Lexus car and he was killed. But what was interesting, Akwe: it turned out that the video, you know, was fake. But people didn’t care about the credibility of the video. These reports were real. People had these experiences, and so whether the video was credible or it wasn’t credible was of no effect whatsoever. People just wanted justice. 

 

And just in case people listening are thinking that perhaps that means that there was just a lot of hearsay, a recent report from civil society in Nigeria made it clear that there is absolutely a solid pattern of use of torture – quite detailed descriptions of techniques – of killings, of mortuaries receiving multiple bodies over very short periods of time from the police. And so, just to be clear, there’s a real life correlation to that perception. It’s not just rumor and scaremongering. 

No, it’s not. It’s not rumor, Akwe! I told you, the young people who went to the streets to protest have been vindicated by the judicial panels of inquiry, you know, constituted in several states. Most of the panels of inquiry have concluded their job. They’ve issued their reports. They’ve also awarded compensation, and you need to hear the heartbreaking stories of people and their experiences. And you just wonder, ‘How did we get to a point where we lost our sense of humanity? Where a police officer would use a hot-pressing iron on the body of another human being? Or do you want to talk about cases where the police directly shoots innocent citizens, threatening them, just because they refuse to give them bribes. Or you want to talk about cases where the police officers themselves have become the armed robbers.’ My colleague who works in my organization was also a victim. The police actually arrested him, took him to an ATM machine, and asked him to withdraw 40,000 Naira. It’s just heartbreaking, and the quest for justice, it’s a legitimate one. 

 

So let’s go back to October. As you say, there’s a moment that just tips everybody over the edge – that it’s been building for some time. They come into the streets; they start protesting and making demands. What kind of organization is happening at that moment in those streets? 

Yeah. So there are different forms of organization that took place. For instance in Abuja, there are leaders of organizations who’ve had previous experiences with organizing, and they’d been involved in human rights advocacy and engagement, and they provided that nucleus that designed some of the strategies that were used in Abuja. In Lagos, it was a different case: you also had other young people – most of them had no experience with organizing – but they were passionate about this issue and they were the victims. I would say that as the protests continued, the leadership emerged out of those protests.  

 

Interesting to hear from you that it was possible to see leadership emerge in some of these settings, because there’s been quite a lot made of the idea that there were no leaders in those crowds. What’s your sense of that? 

So my sense of that is summarized as ‘leadership without leaders’. We saw people take responsibility, they assumed leadership position to provide some form of direction and coordination, but there was no centralized leadership that provided direction for the movement and that has its own advantages and disadvantages. With respect to disadvantage, in the early days of the protests, the issues were not articulated well. And so the government was at a loss as to what the demand was, and it took the emergence of an “invisible leadership” to help coordinate and develop the so-called five-for-five demands. Articulating those issues required some form of leadership and coordination. The issues were defined by those who were on the streets, but the structure required to articulate these issues and put them forward in negotiation with government was non-existent.  

 

Okay, we have to dig into this: What is an invisible leadership? I mean, either a leadership is there – visible to the people who are being led – or there is some group somewhere that is not seen, not accountable, making decisions. That doesn’t sound like a leadership to me. So what do you mean when you use that phrase? 

No. So, maybe I shouldn’t use leadership” in this particular context. Maybe we can call that a “center point” for either coordination or facilitators, or just a set of allies who are supporting the movement.

And why were these individuals invisible? They didn’t want to take the shine off the young people who were on the streets. They wanted the young people who were tired, who were the victims, you know, to take that leadership role in leading the protest. And they did so, I would say very, very well. So these invisible allies of the movement weren’t necessarily dictating the pace of the movement, but there was also a gap. Why leadership is important for social movements is, there are turning points in the life of a movement. When do you negotiate? When do you discuss with the government? Who makes that decision? At what point?  When will the protest end?  

 

I mean, by definition, something that’s invisible is choosing not to be seen. So – you may or may not want to answer this question, but – who were those behind-the-scenes, let’s call them coordinators, who were encapsulating the demands from the streets, making sure that everybody knew what the five demands were? How did they emerge? And what was the history that led them to take on such a role? 

So you had the celebrities who were there like Falz, Mr. Macaroni and Banky W, as well as the leaders of the feminist coalition. They were also having conversations about how to support the movement. The movement was mainly dominated by Gen Zs, and most of these invisible sort of allies – I am also one of them cause I was there as well –  are millennials and we just saw the need to help in aggregating the views. And a whole network of lawyers was providing pro bono legal services for protestors. They were all part of this coordination team. 

If there was one thing we took from the EndSARS protest, it was young people just realized that they were so powerful that if they build, you know, that cohesion amongst themselves, regardless of geographical or religious extraction, they can alter the balance of power. In two weeks, the president spoke to Nigerians on this issue. The government was forced, you know, to take decisions on that!  Things about police reforms – the national assembly also waded in by facilitating some legislative reforms around those issues. And it took these young people, you know, to do what?  To assert their power!  But how do you translate this power? 

 

Okay, that’s where I want to go now, because, as you say, they had a big impact, not just inside Nigeria, but globally. There was coverage, there were solidarity demonstrations in other parts of the world. It was a moment, but that’s seven months ago now. And I’m wondering how that rather informal, form of organizing survived the moment. What happened afterwards, and where is that movement now? Because if I understand it correctly, the situation on the ground is not any better. 

So one of the things that the #EndSARS  protest reaffirms is that change is a process. That after protests, you’ve got to get into that decision-making room and engage governments and hold government to account to some of the promises it made in the course of the protest, and also try to influence some action. And that change will not come overnight, right?  

The second point is, post-protest, there is a need for monitoring and follow-up, you know, of some of those actions because you don’t just end. Yes, SARS was banned but we know that within a couple of days, they launched SWAT, which is a unit to replace SARS. But the question around monitoring all those judicial panels of inquiry, what we saw post post-protest was it was organized institutions and NGOs that were now following up on those actions. Like Enough is Enough, like Yiaga Africa are the two organizations who deployed monitors across the entire country to monitor those judicial panels of inquiries and have been issuing reports – We’ve issued about 18 reports.  

The third lesson is that need structure in movements. You do need structure and organization. And I asked myself, if you don’t have NGOs like Yiaga Africa, like Enough is Enough and the other human rights organizations like The Gavel, what becomes of the demands that the movement was advancing in the course of the protest?  

The fourth, critical issue: This transition from being a social movement and advocating for police reform, to utilizing the power to drive political change is one that requires a lot of introspection and young people need to match their words with action.  

 

So, are protestors and young people doing that? 

In the course of the protest, yes, people started asking questions about voter registration. For the first time we had a petition that went to the Independent National electoral commission – that is the agency responsible for registering voters. 36,000 people signed that petition asking INEC to commence voter registration because young people wanted to get on the register; they wanted to vote – it was a very fascinating experience! I hope that in the registration process starting on June 28 we will have more young people getting voters to register.  

The second category of young people were those who started asking questions about political parties and they want to run for office! Because one of the, you know, discussions that #EndSARS actually triggered was, ‘We’re fed up with this political class, dominated by old men and not women, you know, um, that we need a new political class’. We’re seeing young people who are getting interested to run for office.  

And the third category are just Nigerians, who just want a better life. They just want jobs. They just want health. And it’s not too much to ask for a country like Nigeria that is blessed with so much human and natural resource, but because of corruption and bad leadership, the country is down on its knees. 

 

So if I’m understanding you correctly, that massive mobilization was itself not more than a moment of, you know, popular expression of frustration and anger and disappointment. The real work of organizing to make change is still sitting with the NGO sector, human rights organizations, the structures that were there even before that surge of bitterness and rage. I suppose it just prompts the question: Is that sector able to deliver the kind of change that’s needed?  

Well I think it’s a combination of both. If you segment, you discover they all serve different goals and different objectives. The civil society groups, yes, they’re well organized; will have bureaucratic structure; they’ve got the shock absorbers and the stamina to ensure longevity for any advocacy efforts, they will always be there. They provide that institutional framework and they’ve got the experience. Social movements have the capacity to build that mass mobilization that we need and building that critical mass, but they also need some form of organization as well.  

One of the things that I think was a downside was the fact that for a lot of the young people, most of them who were in the streets, weren’t exposed to knowledge and information about groups who had led this struggle for years – because there were groups who’ve done stuff on police reform, who’ve organized, and I think some of the missteps and mistakes that the #EndSARS movement made, I wish they had, listened to the experienced or the old civic activist. Maybe the outcomes would have been different; We could have done more. 

 

And maybe I’ll put the charge to you in that case – that there’s a perception that this professionalized NGO human rights, sector, has been a little bit too comfortable, not effective enough, not angry enough, not radical enough – too willing to collaborate and cooperate with the establishment in order to get marginal gains. And that that’s really the reason why the people in the street were not that interested in allowing them to lead because the record shows that, for whatever reasons, however, honorable their intentions, they haven’t been able to move the needle. 

So, Akwe, this is my view, right? The #EndSARS protest was building on the efforts and the struggles of the past. And we must recognize that, that there’s nothing particularly new about the protests. The actors were different. The tactics, maybe, have been different, but it’s still the same issue, right? Every generation like Frantz Fanon told us, will have to make a decision. So these young people, this is their time, they’ve taken the decision. And I think that for the professional NGOs and leaders of the movement, I’m not sure they wanted to dictate the pace, the tactics, the structure of the movement. They only wanted to just share experience to say, ‘Hey, we’ve done this before. We will just advise. You know, you can determine and take whatever decision you want to take.’ But I think that the older generation, particularly those ones who are progressive and are driven by altruistic objectives, you know, have a responsibility to transfer knowledge and experience to these new actors so they don’t make the mistakes of the past.   

 

Well I take what you say very seriously because you too were one of those very young activists that came onto the scene and brought your own more radical, more aggressive vision to the work. So you know what you’re talking about. I just wonder what it feels like to you to be sort of sitting here watching a whole new generation come along with the same anger that you had, and still a very high mountain to climb. 

One of the things that, you know, I’ve learned is that we need to come to this prepared to play the long game. It’s just that mindset that keeps me going! And to see these young people on the streets, to be honest, gives me hope. I was excited. They made mistakes. I was still excited because there’s no perfect movement anywhere across the world. So you make mistakes. You learn from those mistakes. If you look at the depth of organizing and the resilience that these young people, you know, demonstrated, it just goes to show that we have a generation that’s coming after us that is passionate about our country. The struggle against police brutality is a struggle for Nigeria; is a struggle on how do we fix our society? And the fact that some of them spent nights in front of government houses, in front of a parliament. Oh no – What else can you wish for than this kind of active citizenship? Honestly, I’m so happy and excited that there’s a generation that is coming after us that will say “no” to corruption; that will say “no” to human rights violations; that will say “no” to bad leadership; that it wants something new. And that is   what these young people want, something new.   

 

Thank you, Samson.  

 

AA: Time for our “Coda”, in which someone active in the human rights field shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do.  

AA: Suliman Baldo is a senior advisor with The Sentry, a project dedicated to preventing African war criminals getting access to the international financial system. But he has been an advocate for human rights in Sudan for decades with organizations like Human Rights Watch, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the Sudan Democracy First Group, where he worked to support young activists and organizers of the uprising in 2018-19. The revolution in Sudan was a moment of passionate engagement for him. One of the most moving aspects, he told me, was the way that poetry, music and artistic expression played such a central role. 

SB: This poem is very important. “Freedom, Peace and Justice, Revolution is the Choice of the People.”  The poem was written in 2003 by late poet Yousif Al Badawi. He dreamed of the revolution and his words inspired generations.  

We see you, you who we have been waiting for
Dressed in many moons
Paralyzed by a constitutional text
Written by tanks

People who are really waiting for you
People who are mad for revolution 

Those who waited for years and years
The deprived ones
Who carried the candles for years
And lived in mud houses
And chanted with the pulse of the streets  

Freedom, Peace and Justice
And Unity is the Choice of the People 

Freedom, Peace and Justice
and Revolution is the Choice of the People 

Freedom, Peace and Justice
Civilian rule is the Choice of the People

The good people are waiting 
With a slaughtered soul and heart
Lost, looking for themselves
In the agenda of a totalitarian rule
That doesn’t give factories to the poor
No schools, no food
One that only knows the Doshka1 
The Doshkaand tying the shoelaces of their boots 

The poem addresses the yearning of the youth and the women’s movement yearning for liberty and for human dignity because over three decades of the rule of Omar Al Bashir they have been subjected to daily humiliations. They have been the victims of unemployment; of an educational system that has been gutted. The poem explains the motivations for the revolution. 

SB: Despite an effort of social engineering over thirty years by a radical Islamist regime who proceeded to wean the Sudanese off what used to be their love of literature of poetry, of music, of socialization and so on and so forth… It was quite uplifting to see that youth found ways of having, you know, cultural salons underground, for example. Inviting each other in campuses or  neighborhoods to listen to a famous poet; to read a book and discuss ideas in it.

SB: The poet Azhari Mohammed Ali is really a hero in the eyes of Sudanese youth movement: the one spearheading the change in Sudan. Azhari had not been on national TV or national radio, but he has been invited around by groups of young people. And, of course, the regime couldn’t even recognize that this is something threatening because these were people reading poetry! One reason I am moved by the integration of culture and poetry and music into the movement of the youth is that its involvement in building capacity of this leadership, you know, informed me about their thinking; about their priorities; about how they go about doing things. 

SB: Azhari Mohammed Ali – his words have inspired the youth, most particularly this particular couple of couplets that became a slogan during the revolution. So it goes: 

  • What is the cost of a Martyr’s blood, or is asking prohibited?  
  • A bullet doesn’t hurt, it is the silence of some that hurts 
  • A bullet doesn’t kill, what kills is the silence of some  

Poet Azhari Mohamed Ali there, in call and response with young Sudanese activists.

AA: Our thanks to Suliman Baldo for his reflections and for translating the Yousif El Badawi poem we heard at the start of the Coda. Multiple recordings of that poem in Arabic can be found online. The one we shared was embedded in a track by Sudanese artist Adam D.Y.B. entitled in English – ‘We can change this’.

And that brings us to the end of this first episode of Strength & Solidarity Season Two. Again, if you like what you’ve heard, please do subscribe and consider telling others about us. And we welcome your feedback. Send us an email – the address is pod@strengthandsolidarity.org. Thanks, as always to our producer Peter Coccoma. I’m Akwe Amosu – Join us again next time.