Young people across Nigeria have been on the streets protesting for almost three weeks. The protests began after a video surfaced of officers from the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) allegedly shooting an individual on the street. SARS was a problematic unit of the Nigerian Police Force, which has been disbanded as a result of the #EndSARS protests. However, the protests have continued and the young people’s demands go beyond curtailing the SARS unit. They are on the streets protesting decades of impunity and brutality by law enforcement and security forces.
As if to prove their point, the Nigerian military indiscriminately used lethal force last week to disperse protesters in Lagos, the country’s financial capital. Videos from the carnage left the world asking how the Nigerian government could be so cruel as to fire live ammunition on peaceful protesters, killing at least 12 people in a matter of hours. Even Nigerians—many of whom have come to expect a level of callousness from their government and its leaders—were shaken by this level of terror.
In spite of this horror, these young protesters remain undeterred. Many are strategizing how to continue organizing after states across the country imposed curfews and the Inspector General of Police mobilized all police resources to “halt a further slide into lawlessness.”
The events in Nigeria are particularly horrific and exacerbated by an ineffectual president. However, they also represent an international trend of citizens mobilizing against police brutality. This summer in the United States, citizens were galvanized after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Protests also took place in Kenya this summer as human rights groups documented a rise in police killings. In Zimbabwe, protesters have been using the hashtag, #ZimbabweanLivesMatter, as they protest security officials’ excessive use of force and torture tactics sanctioned by the government.
Many citizens on the African continent are fed up with unaccountable governments and security forces that have operated with impunity for far too long. This explains why we see people risking their lives to protest—subjecting themselves to further brutality as well as potentially exposing themselves to a deadly virus. This trend isn’t going away, and there appears to be growing solidarity between movements. The Black Lives Matter Movement has amplified the voices of #EndSARS and #ZimbabweanLivesMatter protests.
In each of these cases, citizens’ requests are not unreasonable. For example, the Nigerian protesters are demanding an independent investigation into police misconduct, increased salaries for police officers, and long-term solutions to the high unemployment and inequality in one of the world’s largest oil producers. In other countries, the specific demands may be different but the themes are similar: police accountability and policies that yield meaningful progress in the lives of citizens.
As the United States inches closer to the presidential election, the fact that the protests in these countries mirror those here at home is an opportunity. Days after the military incursion in Lagos, the Trump administration eventually issued a statement via a tweet from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, condemning the military’s actions and demanding accountability. In contrast, the Biden campaign issued a statement on the day the attack happened, also condemning the attack and calling on the Nigerian military to cease its violent crackdowns.
In its four years in office, the Trump administration has failed to engage African countries substantively on topics most pertinent to the continent—famously referring to them in a derisive manner in 2018. Perhaps it also lacks the moral authority to specifically engage on police reform, given how it has responded to the Black Lives Matter protests at home. (The same double-standard has undercut U.S. policy toward China as well, as Professor Martin Flaherty wrote in an earlier Just Security article.)
Should Biden win the presidential election, his administration can begin by acknowledging that the United States has its own problem with police brutality and systemic racism. Hopefully, a Biden-Harris administration will then actively seek to address these ills at home even while it supports civil society abroad. In this moment of solidarity across movements, the United States must engage the African continent with humility. We can admit we have work to do to live our own values while simultaneously return to using our platform to amplify the voices of the brave women and men who are staring down the barrel of guns wielded by their own governments abroad.