LAGOS, Nigeria — Victoria Ayebo, 38, gathered family, friends and colleagues in a hall in Nigeria’s most populous city to pay their final respects to her cousin, Joseph Oluwa, who was gunned down by police in October during the countrywide protests against police brutality and extrajudicial killings.
On this late October day, many donned black and white T-shirts, hoodies and caps emblazoned with “Youths Lives Matter” in honor of the 22-year-old college student. Some young people knelt as others raised their hands, honoring the life of Oluwa.
“Stop killing us! Stop killing us!” Ms. Ayebo chanted from the pulpit during the funeral. “We are tired — this government is against its citizens. They should stop police brutality. It is shocking that young people are losing their lives due to police violence.”
On the streets, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators carried placards calling for the abolition of the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which has long been accused of extortion and the intimidations and killings of many young Nigerians.
The confrontation, which analysts fear could bring a new level of instability to Africa’s most populous nation, shows striking parallels to the U.S. unrest this summer, when thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters took to the streets — and at times battled police and federal forces — to protest the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in the custody of Minneapolis police officers.
“I can’t breathe,” read some of the signs in Nigeria, echoing the last words of Floyd as a white policeman put his knee on Floyd’s neck for close to nine minutes.
Oluwa was among dozens who died during protests against police brutality that have rocked the country for weeks and have now broadened to include more than just unemployed youths or families of victims. At the same time, the protests have transformed into a broader movement against government mismanagement and corruption.
The nationwide demonstrations that began Oct. 8 were sparked by a viral video supposedly showing SARS officers killing a young man in the southern Delta state. Authorities denied the video was real.
The man who captured the footage was arrested, provoking even more anger. Under the hashtag #EndSARS, thousands of young people took to the streets as part of a movement that supporters are calling a “national awakening.”
“Young people of this country have no right to freedom of speech,” said Ms. Ayebo. “Therefore, we are going to fight for our rights even if the police decide to kill all of us. We cannot continue to live in a country which does not care about its people. It’s time to change this government.”
The rights group Amnesty International said at least 56 people in the country have been killed in the unrest, including a dozen protesters shot by security forces in Lagos at the Lekki tollgate. Four more protesters were detained from a demonstration Friday.
Responding to the protesters, the government of President Muhammadu Buhari dissolved the Special Anti-Robbery Squad on Oct. 11, but officials acknowledge the move has not calmed the anger.
“The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihoods of our people,” Mr. Buhari said. “We will also ensure all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice.”
But some analysts say Mr. Buhari, who was elected to a second term in early 2019, has displayed an uncertain hand in the face of the most serious challenge to his government to date.
“Buhari’s tone and delivery was reminiscent of the ghosts of military leaders of a bygone era, including himself when he served,” Muhammad Fraser-Rahim, an assistant professor at The Citadel in South Carolina, wrote recently on the website Lawfare.
“His silence on the Lekki toll gate massacre was even more glaring. For many, including the younger generation, the president seems out of touch with the present moment.”
The State Department said it has raised concerns about the political violence with top Nigerian officials, and presumptive Democratic President-elect Joseph R. Biden said during his campaign that the U.S. “must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy.”
Even so, what has angered many in Nigeria is the formation of a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to replace SARS. The protesters say the government is just putting a new face on the old unit and have pledged to stay on the streets until real reforms are implemented.
“They are just renaming the police unit, but they are the same people who are going to continue killing us,” said David Orji, who owns a restaurant in Lekki, a city in Lagos State. “We are calling for an end to police brutality. We want the government to release all arrested protesters and compensate families of the deceased, those victims of brutality.”
Analysts say the protests have become about more than just the police but also about reform. Many are now also calling for more sweeping changes such as an end to corruption and economic mismanagement in the West African nation, which has the largest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world and a massive youth unemployment rate.
According to a recent report by the World Poverty Clock, the nation of more than 200 million has overtaken India with more than 100 million Nigerians living in extreme poverty, 50% of its estimated population. Meanwhile, Nigeria’s unemployment rate climbed to 27.1% in the second quarter of 2020, the highest on record. The nation has been grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic and a plunge in oil prices.
“The high rate of unemployment and extreme poverty clearly shows that these protests are not just about SARS because the police unit has been there for decades and people have lived with it,” said Macharia Munene, a professor of history and international relations at the United States International University-Africa in Nairobi, Kenya. “The government needs to address the root causes of violent protests because people are still angry about the way they live.”
At the same time, the leaderless #EndSARS movement is considering its next steps as the country grapples with its worst economic recession in more than three decades, with the economy contracting by 6.1% in the second quarter.
Mr. Munene said the dangerously high levels of unemployment and poverty considerably increase the likelihood of more political instability, from protesting and rioting to terrorism and civil wars. He warned that such protests have not only toppled several rulers who had governed for decades but also sparked brutal civil wars.
“The government should not provoke hungry and poor protesters, because we have seen them topple several rulers,” he said, referring to the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East that came to be known as the Arab Spring and which ousted leaders who had governed for decades. “The impact of such uprisings is civil wars that have been witnessed in countries such as Yemen, Syria and Libya.”
Ms. Ayebo, who lost her cousin to police violence, also cautioned that Nigeria’s leaders should be careful in how they respond to protests.
“The majority of young people are suffering because they have no jobs and live in poor conditions,” she said. “They are very angry with this government.”