Distress, Distrust & Disease: The Relationship between COVID-19 & the #EndSars Movement in Nigeria

Protests in Nigeria have cast a shadow of doubt on the government’s intentions and ability to roll out an equitable, effective COVID-19 response. Leadership’s response to the End SARS protests has served as a reminder to Nigerians that the needs of the majority have not been prioritized, even in times of crisis. This report by Chioma Woko, a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication, traces the context around these protests and what the government’s ensuing actions forebode for future COVID-19 decision-making, particularly vaccination, against the backdrop of poverty and corruption in the nation.

The Context Behind Nigeria’s Response to COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the SAR-CoV-2 virus, continues to devastate the globe, infecting over 55 million worldwide and killing more than 1 million, its impact is being experienced unevenly. In Africa, Nigeria is among the countries accounting for the greatest number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Nigeria is the most populous African country, home to more than 200 million, and as of the week of December 7th, 2020 the country had recorded 70,195 cases and 1182 deaths, accounting for 4% of COVID-19 deaths on the continent. The nation unfortunately also leads in poverty. Despite Nigeria having one of the continent’s wealthiest economies, it is the country with the highest concentration of poverty in Africa. Forty percent of the population live below the national poverty line (N137,430 or $381.75 per year), and 24.4 million people are homeless. Overcrowded housing is also a persistent issue in urban areas, and in these locales multi-habited housing is common, with households sharing utilities such as kitchens, toilets and bathrooms. These factors warrant concern about the consequences of the pandemic for the most vulnerable.

Nigeria’s ailing health system also calls for attention. A struggling healthcare infrastructure and lack of resources and personnel commensurate with the needs of the population is impeding the nation’s response to the current crisis. The persistent issue of under-funded health facilities, lack of facilities themselves and inadequate surveillance systems is also affecting the nation’s ability to sufficiently manage the pandemic and care for the infected. Systemic challenges and deficiencies in federal response to these issues have kept the nation dependent on foreign aid.

Despite these challenges, there have been some triumphs in Nigeria’s healthcare delivery efforts, particularly in the area of immunization and disease control. Emergency Operation Centers set up throughout the country have enabled localized mass vaccination and also facilitated the containment of Ebola in the country in 2014, providing a backdrop relevant to COVID-19 efforts. The Nigerian private sector has contributed to both COVID-19 relief efforts and efforts to combat the virus, forming a coalition in April 2020 of various organizations and individuals called the Coalition Against COVID-19 (CACOVID). The group has donated tens of millions of dollars to increase testing capacity, set up hospital beds and provide food relief to people throughout the country.

But it is the Nigerian government that needs to take the lead in pandemic-related efforts. In many ways, it has taken steps to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the population. In attempts to provide relief to citizens whose livelihoods have been impacted by the ensuing lockdown, the federal government instituted various COVID-19 relief, or palliative, efforts. These include the Emergency Economic Stimulus Bill 2020, which was passed to support formal sector businesses, loan programs for farmers, petty traders and artisans, cash transfers for poor households and individuals, and food assistance. However, the effectiveness of these programs has been challenged by the insufficiency of infrastructure required to make them accessible to all those in need.

At the same time, government malfeasance has undermined ongoing COVID-19 efforts. In particular, the Nigerian government’s distribution of food items for relief from the pandemic became engulfed in scandal in October 2020, when it was discovered that food items had been hoarded in warehouses around the country, likely since April. Non-perishable food items had been withheld from those for who were in dire need of such aid. This information surfaced following protests in October 2020, demonstrations which were revelatory of the institutional backdrop relevant to unrolling pandemic relief.

The #EndSars Protests

The protests that occurred in October 2020 were not directly about the government’s pandemic efforts, but they have indirectly shaped assessments of its ability to respond to crisis. These protests—called the End SARS demonstrations and widely known by the hashtag #EndSARS—were a response to the government’s creation of its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992 and its growing unlawfulness over time. Designed to combat armed robbery and other violent crimes that were terrorizing parts of the country, its activities were at first limited to covert operations, with officers unarmed in public. However, after the unit expanded in 2002 from just one state, Lagos, to all 36 states in Nigeria, the unit inflated its original duties. Expansion came with increased power, enabling members of the group to engage not just in law enforcement but in illegal activities too.

Several accounts of abuse, extortion and torture at the hands of SARS have been documented over the past decade. Citizens have been subject to kidnapping, indefinite detention in decrepit conditions, forced confessions and extra-judicial killings, among other atrocities. More recently, Nigerian youth have become the disproportionate targets of these violations, with certain clothing, hairstyles (i.e. dreadlocks, dyed hair), and possession of a laptop, iPhone or upscale vehicle rendering one vulnerable to being accosted by SARS officers.

The #EndSARS demonstrations, calling for an end to police brutality, began on October 8th, 2020, in part fueled by the murder of a young man in Delta State by SARS officers. The protests began in Lagos State but quickly spread across the country and continued for a few more days before the government announced the unit’s disbandment on October 11th. However, this claim was received with skepticism as government officials had made similar declarations in the past without evidence of substantive change. The protests continued for almost two weeks, sparked by members of the “soro soke” generation, a name meaning “speak up” that was appended to the protesting youths. Though at first, the demonstrations were generally peaceful as the youth demanded steps be taken to diminish the power of SARS officers, the confrontations grew increasingly violent in the wake of the government’s counter-response and resulted in several fatalities and injuries among protesters. However, the state’s response reached an apex at the end of October.

The Lekki Toll Gate Massacre

On October 20, the state’s retaliation against the protestors was both unexpected and harsh. The governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced a 24-hour curfew to begin at 4:00 pm in response to the escalating violence surrounding the protests. Lagos State is home to Lagos, Africa’s most populous city with a staggering population of 20 million. The announcement was made around noon, giving people just a few hours to make it home. With the exception of first responders and essential service providers, all residents were mandated to remain indoors and any violation was to  be met with a state-sanctioned punitive response. The curfew was later pushed to 9:00 pm, in order to allow citizens more time to make it home, but tragedy fell when this change was allegedly not communicated to the Nigerian military.

The Nigerian army made its way to the Lekki toll gate, a focal protest site, and what followed upon its arrival has since been described as a massacre. In enforcement of the curfew, members of the Nigerian army opened fire on the crowd protesting police brutality. Video evidence indicates that the army opened fire on protesters at 6:43 pm, hours before the extended curfew was to begin, and continued for approximately two hours. Footage of the incident was captured by various protesters, who documented the resulting carnage and loss of life. An estimated 12 people are known to have lost their lives, with many more reported injured. The exact number of fatalities is disputed, as various protesters have since been reported missing alongside eyewitness reports of authorities removing dead bodies.

The events of the night of October 20th, 2020 shook the nation, and the world. But the subsequent government response only added salt to the wound. A series of denials and deflections of responsibility followed the events of that night. Governor Sanwo-Olu denied responsibility for the incident, as did the Nigerian army, initially claiming it shot blanks in the air while tweeting images of the incident with the caption “fake news.” The president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, issued a statement on October 22nd calling for an end to the protests and a commitment to police reform, but he made no mention of the incidents of the deadly night at the Lekki toll gate. Not until one month later did the Nigerian army finally admit that it had been deployed with both live and blank bullets and had opened fire on the protesters.

The sequence of events following the #EndSARS protests generated unequivocal doubt over governmental action, including the handling and distribution of COVID-19 relief resources. Although the #EndSARS protests were initiated to lament the malfeasance of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the metamorphosis of the intended specialized crime-fighting unit into a violent crime syndicate is a reflection of endemic corruption in the nation’s leadership; this corruption permeates all sectors.

The persistence of this systemic corruption ultimately begets the question of whether and to what extent Nigerians have actually gotten the relief items they need to fight the pandemic. Contending with this question raises the related issue of how much the citizenry can trust the government’s future response to other COVID-19 related issues, such as COVID-19 vaccine distribution.

Trust In Government, the Media and Pending COVID-19 Responses

Media coverage of the #EndSARS protests as well as surrounding events reveals some dark truths about the state of the Nigerian nation. Aside from the atrocities revealed by media outlets, independent journalists and the lay public attending the demonstrations, journalistic integrity and freedom of speech have since been threatened by the government. Journalists have been arrested in relation to their coverage of the protesters, many of whom have not been charged with any crimes. The Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) presented three media outlets who covered the Lekki incident with fines under the accusation of using unverified eye-witness footage in their reporting. The NBC even went so far as to blame the media for the violence and unrest, citing their coverage of the incidents as acts of sedition.

At the same time, an Anti-social Media Bill has been introduced to the senate to criminalize Nigerians’ sharing of “false or malicious information” on social media and to allow for the government to prohibit access to social media at will. Yet the introduction of this bill has been met with widespread dissent among citizens and is another example of the state’s attempts to strong-arm the public into silence and repress its right to free speech. A similar bill had been introduced to the house in 2015; however then-newly elected President Buhari withdrew his support, stating it went against the constitution’s declaration of the right to free speech. That support has now strategically reemerged, following coverage of the #EndSARS protests and Lekki Toll Gate Massacre, where the new bill has been introduced with unequivocal support from the president.

The government’s insufficient COVID-19 relief resource distribution, its response to protests against police brutality and the media sanctions following these protests are a few of many indicators of corruption in the nation and disregard for the wellbeing of citizens. Unfortunately, these actions are also foreboding signals of future government response related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Although in October 2020 the Nigerian president appealed to the global research community that there be equitable allocation of forthcoming COVID-19 vaccines, specifically, that all countries be able to equally access them, whether this will happen is far from certain. And arguably of more importance is the question of whether there will be equitable access among citizens when a vaccine is available in the country. Will Nigerian citizens be able to expect equitable distribution of vaccines whereby the most vulnerable and at risk are prioritized? Given the mismanagement and lack of accountability associated with the distribution of COVID-19 palliatives and response to the #EndSARS protests, there is widespread distrust in government. This is a significant issue to grapple with because a citizenry’s trust in government is crucial to the success of the state’s public responses and interventions in times of crisis.

Unfortunately, however, the actions of the Nigerian government, as they became apparent with the #EndSARS protests, have likely dampened what confidence people may have in its leadership. Multiple questions about an efficient COVID-19 response have been created by these circumstances, and they leave unaddressed various issues with which the global health community must contend. For example, what exactly will the government do with a vaccine if and when it gets its hands on it? Will it be hoarded, exclusively administered, or will access be sold to the highest bidder? Might vaccines fare the same fate as the food items purchased with COVID-relief funds?

The poorest Nigerians have been plunged deeper into poverty and starvation as a result of the apparent indifference of the government regarding their lives. Thus, the people of Nigeria need to rightfully question the integrity of its government’s pandemic relief efforts. While other countries are relying on directives from their leadership for vaccine allocation, Nigerians may not be afforded that simple luxury. Planning for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccinations will likely have to be executed in collaboration with foreign aid institutions and health service providers external to the federal system.

 However, for a nation that is so wealthy in resources yet so reliant on foreign aid, concerns that it will only be further handicapped and trapped in a cycle of dependency sustained by stark wealth disparity are prevalent. And although this disparity is not necessarily responsible for all other issues of bad governance, the events surrounding #EndSARS suggest that perhaps it is not accidental. The government has shown that it does not care to prioritize the needs and concerns of the people, but rather continues to take actions in the interests of the most privileged, further reinforcing their power. These circumstances overshadow considerations of what may come concerning the currently scarce resource of COVID-19 vaccines.

Chioma Woko is a doctoral candidate at the Annenberg School for Communication studying health communication. Focusing on Black populations, Chioma conducts research on the effects of social media messages and social relationships online on health behaviors. Chioma is also a recipient of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health Policy Research Scholars fellowship. Follow her on Twitter @woko_chioma