• Bloomberg


For two weeks now, Mayowa Olayinka has joined thousands of demonstrators in the Nigerian commercial capital of Lagos to protest against police brutality.

"Things just can’t go on this way,” said the 18-year-old student, who noted that his cousin was killed by the police in 2015 when he refused to surrender a smartphone during a search. The policemen "boasted they would waste him and nothing would happen.”

Young Nigerians like Olayinka, many born after the end of military rule in 1999, have poured onto the streets of Lagos and other cities in some of the biggest demonstrations of the country’s democratic era. The protests have been fueled by social media, and come after the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S.

What started out in anger against police actions has turned into a catch-all for everything that ails the country, from corruption and pandemic-driven economic distress to inequality and widespread insecurity. While unlikely to loosen President Muhammadu Buhari’s grip anytime soon, the protests increase political instability in the OPEC member country and threaten to weaken an already fragile economy, Africa’s biggest.

"The protests have had some salutary effects, in terms of pushing the issue of police reform to the front burners of public discourse and government action,” said Nnamdi Obasi, a senior Nigeria adviser for the International Crisis Group. "Many protesters thought this a right moment to demand wider reforms in governance and security. The Buhari government needs to do more to show it understands the enormity of the challenge and is committed to the long haul.”

The rallies were triggered on Oct. 5 by a video of an apparent killing of a man by the country’s much-hated Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). As many as 56 people have died during the unrest, according to Amnesty International, some allegedly shot dead by security forces. Lagos, a city of more than 20 million people, is under a round-the-clock curfew.

Buhari, who came to power five years ago pledging police reform, this month promised to disband the notorious SARS unit, and his government apologized to the protesters. Neither of those actions has appeased the crowds gathering each evening in places such as Lekki, southeast of Lagos, where a toll gate and bridge lead to the islands where the country’s rich live. While the protests may continue for a while, analysts say Buhari’s government will quell them.

"The focus is going to be on trying to suppress the movement,” said Adebayo Ademuwagun, an Lagos-based analyst for Songhai Advisory, a political risk firm. "This isn’t going to significantly alter the outlook for Nigeria’s political establishment.”

For now, the crucial oil industry remains untouched. But many shops and businesses have shuttered, adding to the problems of an economy that was hard-hit even before COVID-19.

Struggling to recover from its first recession in 25 years, Nigeria devalued the national currency, the naira, twice this year. Although incomes were hit hard by the pandemic, the government was forced to remove fuel subsidies and cracked down on food imports, boosting inflation to 13.7%, almost a three-year high. The unrest may have put paid to any hopes of a swift rebound.

"This is a a setback,” said Yvonne Mhango, sub-Saharan African economist for Renaissance Capital. "The protests and the curfew imply a slowdown in economic activity.”

The yield on Nigeria’s 2032 dollar bonds has climbed 46 basis points in the past three days to 8.36%.

The economic fallout may exacerbate income gaps in what is a deeply unequal society. While half the population of about 200 million is officially classified as poor, Nigeria is home to Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, and many other billionaires.

The protests highlight "the relentless resistance of vested interests that are as ingenious at hanging on to undeserved privilege as they are poor at delivering goods and services or any kind of effective or fair system of public administration,” said Antony Goldman, founder and head of Promedia Consulting, a political risk advisory firm.

Nigerian protests have been quelled by the military in the past. In 2012 the army put down demonstrations over an earlier attempt to remove the fuel subsidy, and in the 1990s protests against military rulers Ibrahim Babangida and Sani Abacha were crushed.

And while the army has denied responsibility for the shootings this week, the claim is belied by amateur video recordings on social media.

"It’s symbolic that it’s in this quest for justice against police brutality that you now have the true brutal nature of the Nigerian state on display,” said Idayat Hassan of Abuja-based Center for Democracy and Development.

The shootings have been condemned at home and abroad. Democratic Party presidential candidate Joe Biden called for restraint, as did singer Beyonce. Others joining the chorus of voices against the government’s action were Nigerian pop star, Davido, and Nigerian British boxer, Anthony Joshua.

The protests and the government’s response to them showcase the disconnect between citizens of Africa’s most populous country — whose average age is 18 — and their ruler, who is 77. Most protesters have only lived under democratic governments.

The heavy handed response by the military is seen as a throwback to the era of military rule, undercutting Buhari’s efforts to distance himself from his past. He led a coup d’etat in 1983 and was Nigeria’s military ruler until 1985.

While he ran for president in elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011 before winning in 2015, the crackdown is seen by many as a sign their leaders haven’t changed.

"This government has just defined its legacy,” said Chioma Agwuegbo, a 34-year-old gender rights activist, who joined the protests in Abuja. "This is what he will be remembered for.”

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