Four things to know about violence erupting in Nigeria

Osagie Imasogie of the Law School, who earned his early legal education in Nigeria, shares his take on the escalating unrest in the country.

Protesters kneel in the street holding signs aloft at night
Protesters decrying police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, take a knee as the national anthem plays on Oct. 8, 2020. (Image: TobiJamesCandids)

Peaceful protests by young Nigerians decrying police brutality, prompted by a social media campaign under the hashtag #ENDSARS, have taken a deadly turn in recent days, with government soldiers firing into crowds, killing an unknown number of civilians.

Osagie Imasogie, adjunct professor of law, earned his early legal education in Nigeria before launching his international career, where he’s had more than 30 years of experience in law, finance and business management, health care, and the pharmaceutical industry. He recently shared his thoughts on how governments lose their democracies in an event hosted by the Law School.

Penn Today reached out to Imasogie to get his take on the recent events in Nigeria and to share four things to know about the escalating unrest.

Crime spike led to SARS formation; Power abuse ensued

Nigeria is a large country of about 200 million people. It’s the largest country by population on the continent of Africa and has the largest economy on the continent of Africa. It’s an important country not just in Africa but strategically for the United States, both for its oil production and its political influence in the region.

Nigeria has been an ally of the U.S. for a long time and has been on the front lines of the terrorist threat from Boko Haram, which is in the northern part of the country. The U.S. is extremely concerned about the militant group.

Nigerian Americans and Nigerian immigrants are one of the highest-educated groups of immigrants in America, some of the most successful and very integrated into the American system. They are active in academia, civil society, the professions, civil service, and even in elected office. Nigerians are a very distinct group in the American tapestry, both in the role they play and level of success in the country.

Ten percent of Nigerians live in Lagos; it is the equivalent of New York City, the commercial capital of the country and considered one of the megacities in the world with its over 20 million inhabitants. Like all large cities, Lagos has had some violence, robberies and the like, mainly because of economic pressures. From time to time the state and federal governments have attempted to address the level of crime by putting out police checkpoints, to help curtail criminal activity.

A few years ago, citizens pushed back on the inconveniences of these checkpoints, mainly because they became places where the citizenry got harassed by police. This pushback resulted in the checkpoints being removed.

Not surprisingly, that led to a spike in some criminality, particularly armed robbery, and there were calls for some kind of additional policing. The way the government reacted was to set up the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Unfortunately, over time, SARS became extraordinarily violent and degenerated into a group that were exploiting the citizenry. Part of the manifestation of their actions was they had no uniforms nor ensign but were heavily armed. SARS decided that the easiest pickings were young people, particularly from the lower social-economic parts of society. They would target and detain young people and accuse them of all kinds of allegations, none of which are typically ever proven.

In the last two or three years they have become so brazen they would routinely grab phones out of these young peoples’ hands, use them to call their parents to say, ‘If you don’t pay us a certain amount of money we will mistreat your child.’ They would take these young people to ATM machines and force them to give them cash. It was pure extortion.

Peaceful demonstrations brought deadly retaliation

In the last six weeks or so, SARS’ actions got so egregious that a number of young people were killed, and it touched a nerve. The young people decided, mainly using social media, that they would no longer tolerate this sort of treatment from SARS. This social media pushback manifested in demonstrations, mainly in Lagos. It has been well documented that these demonstrations have been mainly peaceful.

Man in glasses and suit and tie smiles as he stands in front of rows of law books on library shelves.
Osagie Imasogie is an adjunct professor at Penn’s Law School.

The focal point also grew, so what started as protesting the illegal activity of SARS quickly turned to more general concerns that people had about the lack of social services, lack of constant electricity and water, poor public health and road systems, basic educational, etc.

Surprisingly these protests were very well attended, organized and peaceful. In fact, when they would end in the evening, the young people would clean up the sites of the demonstration. This has been going on for the last few weeks, with the size of the crowds growing every week.

Two days ago, the government’s armed soldiers came to the main site of the demonstration in Lagos and attacked the demonstrators, trying to forcefully end the demonstrations under the pretext that the government had made concessions by announcing it was disbanding SARS and as such the demonstrations should end. In addition, shortly before the armed attack by the government forces, the Lagos state government had declared a curfew that few in the crowed were even aware had been declared.

It is uncertain how many people were killed, with estimates being as high as 12. What is very certain is that a number were killed and hundreds injured. This attack by armed government forces has, in turn, led to significant backlash by the citizenry in the form of rioting and destruction.

Erosion of rule of law

One of the main issues underlying the Nigerian #ENDSARS situation is the reality that the rule of law has been compromised in the country. When norms are broken and it seems that there is no equality under law for all citizens, this tends to ultimately lead to violence and civil unrest.

The legal system provides an alternative to violence. Things can be discussed, resolved and the citizenry will abide by the outcome of this legal process, if they believe in its legitimacy and fundamental fairness. What we are currently seeing in Nigeria is the ramifications of the erosion of the rule of law and the lack of the citizenry’s faith in the legal process and system.

Furthermore, the SARS officers and those who attacked the young demonstrators, were not wearing uniforms or any ensign. This leads to a situation where the citizenry no longer have confidence that those who carry arms on behalf of the state can be held to account, since they cannot be identified.

Unfortunately, we saw some manifestation of the same behavior, here in the United States, in recent months, by government agents. Once the citizenry believe government officials are using their tax money to buy guns to use against them, people tend to take the law in their own hands. This is not a justification of any sort of violence, just an explanation.

The situation in Nigeria has degenerated to a point where a number of public and private buildings have been attacked and destroyed; toll gates have been burned down the palace of the Oba (King) of Lagos has been ransacked. In addition, the demonstrations continue, in some regards, with an increased intensity and anger.

The question now is does this situation remain contained, primarily in Lagos or does it become a nationwide issue. If it is contained in Lagos, these kinds of things can flame out and settle down. Social media makes the spread of concerns across the country, more likely than it would have been in the past.

Irrespective of whether these demonstrations spread, the fundamental discontent about the lack of the Rule of Law, access to water, electricity, public transport, education and the attendant economic inequality, are still very real and will not be ameliorated, unless and until the Nigerian government starts a meaningful dialog around these issues and takes concrete actions to address these concerns.

An addition complication in the Nigerian situation is that one of unfortunate artifacts of when Nigeria was a British colony and run as a unitary political/legal construct, was the fact that the police force was, by definition, national. When the country gained political independence and first created regions and then States, under a Federal political/legal structure/constitution, the structure of the police force was not changed. As such, the Nigerian police is a Federal police force reporting to the President and the governors of the 36 states have no control over the police forces that are located in their respective states.

The federal government is in Abuja, hundreds of miles away from Lagos. As such, much of the violence has been manifested against state officials and buildings because they are more accessible to the demonstrators.

It will be interesting to see how state officials address these concerns.

International community calls for peace, dialogue

In Lagos, the U.S. Consulate has advised U.S. citizens in Nigeria to “remain vigilant.” The Biden campaign has made a formal statement calling for calm in which Vice President Biden stated the U.S. must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy. It is interesting that, to date, there has been silence from the White House about the situation in Nigeria, particularly in light of earlier reported derogative statements that ostensibly the president made about Nigeria and other countries on the African continent.

Time will tell whether the Nigerian government will listen to this call for peace, as they are the ones that are armed. Unfortunately, when social unrest of this nature starts it is difficult to end because people are so angry and feel there is no other route, particularly through the medium of law, to express their anger or have concerns addressed.

Many times, simple dialogue can calm things down, if entered into in good faith. To date, this has not happened in Nigeria and this should be a cause for concern for all of us.