Nigeria’s #EndSARS Movement and Media Suppression

In October, which marked the sixtieth anniversary of Nigerian independence, tens of thousands gathered in protest against the country’s corruption and police brutality. With young people at the helm, they called for the abolition of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as sars, which they accused of making unlawful arrests and engaging in harassment, theft, extortion, rape, torture, and murder. What began as peaceful demonstrations turned fatal on October 20, when the Nigerian military opened fire at the Lekki tollgate plaza, in Lagos. According to Amnesty International, officers killed thirty-eight protesters, in what was soon called “the Lekki Massacre.”

The same day, the National Broadcasting Commission (NBC), Nigeria’s media regulator, released a set of guidelines, stipulating that outlets—which “have a duty to promote the corporate existence of Nigeria”—should not “embarrass individuals, organizations, government, or cause disaffection, incite to panic or rift in the society at large.” All the while, the government was suppressing vital information and obscuring tragic details about attacks on citizens. The death toll rose. After days of silence, Muhammadu Buhari, Nigeria’s president, gave a televised address to the nation, demanding a stop to #EndSARS protests and criticizing activists and their international allies for spreading “deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media.”⁠ Later, he said that, during the protests, fifty-one civilians had been killed and thirty-seven injured; he blamed the violence on “hooliganism” and said that officers were fatally targeted by “rioters.” Amnesty International counted fifty-six total deaths. Buhari’s administration imposed a curfew, which brought the demonstrations to a halt. The NBC then penalized Africa Independent Television (AIT), Arise, and Channels TV for “unethical infractions” in their #EndSARS coverage; at a press conference in Abuja, Armstrong Idachaba, the acting director-general of the NBC, said that those networks had been fined three million nairas each. Osoba Olaniyi, a spokesperson for the military, denied that troops shot at protesters.

Given the restrictions on reporting the story, traditional media didn’t suffice. Live TV broadcasts were hampered by fears of security agents and individual disruptors; Television Continental went off air after a reported intrusion at its headquarters, in Lagos. Social media became the main source of updates and information. On Twitter and Instagram, citizen journalists provided grim, graphic accounts of the demonstrations. Some of their posts came from the front lines: on Instagram Live, DJ Switch, a musician, showed protesters getting shot and wounded by Nigerian military officials, which brought global attention to the crisis; lesser-known eyewitnesses reported on officials removing CCTV cameras at tollbooths, streetlights being turned off at dusk, and the army firing shots and removing dead bodies from Lekki plaza. Others joined the effort online, sharing news as it emerged in real time.

For weeks, young people in Nigeria expressed suspicion that the government could shut down internet access. “There has never been a widespread national government-mandated internet shutdown in Nigeria,” Yomi Kazeem and Yinka Adegoke wrote recently for Quartz, but Africa “has seen a spike in internet shutdowns in response to sustained anti-government protests,” as political officials aim to control information disseminated by traditional media sources, which are more likely to air state-sanctioned messages unchallenged. #EndSARS protesters and organizers, online and off-, have used social media to counter misinformation and report what’s been missing from major news outlets, at home and abroad.

 

IN A RANKING OF COUNTRIES based on their accommodation of a free press, produced annually by Reporters Without Borders, Nigeria places 115th out of 180. (The United States ranks 45th, having moved up a couple of places since being the site of the deadliest attack against journalists in recent history.) Nigeria compares well against most other African countries, but its media has a history of being targeted by military dictatorships intent on silencing, imprisoning, torturing, and murdering journalists. President Buhari was elected to office democratically in 2015, but he served as military head of state from 1983 to 1985. What’s occurring now has been viewed as a new iteration of his old regime—characterized by intimidation, violence, and persecution of the press. During Buhari’s rule in the eighties, the military closed down Punch, a Lagos-based newspaper, multiple times and imprisoned its editor and deputy editor. Recently, Punch declared that it would prefix Buhari’s name with his military rank, Major General, and refer to his administration as a “regime” until “they purge themselves of their insufferable contempt for the rule of law.” 

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In the intervening years, Nigerian journalists were subject to legal persecution and state-imposed violence. In 1986, Ibrahim Babangida—who was then Nigeria’s military president—was believed to have ordered the assassination of Dele Giwa, a magazine editor, after Giwa was critical of Babangida’s administration. In 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, an activist and television producer, was executed for treason by order of the dictator Sani Abacha. In 2006, Gbenga Aruleba and Rotimi Durojaiye, of AIT, were arrested on charges of sedition under President Olusegun Obasanjo. Omoyele Sowore, a Nigerian journalist who founded Sahara Reporters, an online news agency, was arrested twice: In 1992, he was seized by police after leading more than five thousand students in protest against the Nigerian government, which resulted in police opening fire and killing protesters; while in custody, he was tortured. In 2019, when he called for good governance through his “Revolution Now” protest, Sowore was detained by the Nigerian State Security Service for alleged treason. The same year, security services stormed the offices of Daily Trust, one of the country’s largest newspapers, and detained several journalists who had reported on military setbacks in the fight against Boko Haram.

Up until the nineties, most Nigerian news organizations were government-owned. Privately owned news outlets exist now, but there is still reason for concern—namely, with those who own them. TVC, for example, is reportedly controlled by Bola Ahmed Tinubu, the former governor of Lagos State, who is widely known as the “Godfather of Lagos.” In 2007, the federal government brought Tinubu to trial on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, abuse of office, and corruption. Though Tinubu was cleared, he has since been accused of leveraging his political and economic might to influence regional and national affairs.

 

WHERE SUPPRESSION isn’t preventing coverage, the press is still liable to get the story wrong or to misconstrue the context. Those blunders tend to happen at outlets based in the US, which has its own problems with police brutality. In recent months, media coverage stateside has focused on the protests rising up across America, where in 2020 police have killed a reported 874 people. Less attention has been paid to Nigeria, which has roughly two-thirds the population, and where, over the same period, security forces have killed a reported 1,900 people

Whereas in Nigeria coverage is stifled and controlled by the government, in America, reporting on anti-Black violence is often tinged with institutionalized racism and bias. This takes the form of covert skewing of information and overt racist coverage. Even in covering Nigeria’s repression of media, some outlets leaned on language that obscured who was really at fault; Voice of America, the largest US international broadcaster, categorized people who looted never-administered covid-19 palliatives from government warehouses in Abuja as “thugs.” British outlets deployed similar terms: The Guardian Nigeria and BBC News Pidgin used the word “hoodlums” to describe those who disrupted a TVC broadcast. Among critics, these characterizations were deemed problematic; as the Nigerian musician Seun Kuti noted, they were also void of context.

“There are these subtle ways that racism works in the oldest of institutions,” Alexandra Bell, an artist and journalist focused on exposing how racism and bias in journalism are more than hiccups, has observed. In a recent tweet, she noted a trend in “American media’s more precise use of language around police brutality and human rights violations when reporting about what happens in Black nations abroad.” The American press must be clear: police brutality is a domestic humanitarian crisis; it is also a global problem anchored by white supremacy—if not limited to the binary of race, attached to residual effects of colonialism and imperialism.

The Nigerian government’s remnants of martial culture—including suppression of the press—are more than a poor reflection of the nation in the eyes of foreign friends like the United States, whose politicians have criticized Buhari’s administration. When the American government plays a direct role in the militarization of Nigeria, which in turn targets journalists and imposes other forms of state-sanctioned violence—through africom, for instance, which trains sars—connecting the global threads reveals ominous realities. For the people of Nigeria, a young democracy tainted by past dictatorships and influenced by overseas powers, the lives of the press—and everyone—are at stake.

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Ivie Ani is a Nierian-American journalist. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Village Voice, New York, Teen Vogue, VIBE Magazine, The Fader, and more. She is the former Music Editor at Okayplayer and has held positions at Facebook as a Trending News Content Curator, at BET Networks, and Associated Press.

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