FP Guide

Nigeria’s Years of Protest

The country has been heading for a reckoning for a while—here’s why anger is boiling over now.

Image: People walk with their hands over their heads as they pass through security checkpoints in Lagos, Nigeria, on Oct. 23.
Image: People walk with their hands over their heads as they pass through security checkpoints in Lagos, Nigeria, on Oct. 23. Sophie Bouillon/AFP/Getty Images

On Thursday night, after days of protest in Nigeria over police abuse, President Muhammadu Buhari finally addressed the nation. Tensions had been running high since a high-level military unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), shot and killed at least 12 demonstrators earlier in the week. But Buhari failed to mention those deaths in his remarks, instead warning government critics against “undermining national security.”

As observers wait to see whether anger will bubble over into a new wave of protests this weekend, Foreign Policy has gathered together its best reads on Nigeria from the past few years.

Buhari, who was a military dictator in the 1980s, was elected president in 2015. In his first term, according to Matt Mossman, a political risk analyst, he continued to rule more like a dictator than “the head of a modern democracy.” But Buhari did at least prove his ability to go after corrupt elites, recovering billions of dollars for the state. By the time of the 2019 presidential election, voters rewarded him “with a victory that looks decisive by the numbers but feels far less so. A smaller number of people than in previous rounds opted to vote, and the new mandate sounds more like ‘OK, but do better this time’ than it does ‘thanks and keep at it.’”

Since that vote, the news out of Nigeria has been a mix of good and bad. In mid-2019, the country—one of the last three in the world with endemic polio—declared itself polio-free, reported FP’s Jefcoate O’Donnell. The success came, O’Donnell reported, thanks to “the concerted efforts of an array of vaccine advocates, including northern Nigeria’s traditional and religious leaders, a network of 20,000 women who have stepped up to take the oral form of the vaccine door to door, and polio survivors themselves.”

The same year, Buhari declared the defeat of the insurgent Islamist group Boko Haram, although its attacks have continued. Nigeria would never move past the conflict, wrote Audu Bulama Bukarti, an analyst with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, until it came up with better plans for assisting the children—mostly boys—drafted into the conflict on both sides. “Regardless of whether boys have been forced to take up arms for Boko Haram or against it by vigilante groups, Nigeria needs to offer the space and resources for them, and others, to heal.”

Meanwhile, explained the journalist Patrick Egwu, “Nigeria is still deeply divided along ethnic and religious lines. … Marginalization, unequal political appointments, and ethnic and religious tensions are still brewing division.” The south, Egwu noted, has criticized Buhari for favoring the north, and a movement for an independent Biafra, the breakaway state with which Nigeria fought a civil war between 1967 and 1970, is once again gaining momentum.

“Insecurity still remains one of Nigeria’s biggest challenges,” affirmed Egwu in another article. And across the country, “millions of Christians are living in fear because of the growing attacks by armed men or cattle herders from the Fulani ethnic group.” The “herders are Muslims who make regular journeys with their cattle to pastures down south—an area mostly dominated by Christians,” he continued. The raids, Egwu warned, were increasing the chances of major conflict on yet another dimension: religion.

Especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns, rising violence against women has also reached a crisis point, leading to the declaration of a state of emergency on the issue by the Nigerian governors’ forum, which also promised to set up a sex offenders registry, according to Egwu. The move came after days of marches in which protesters “defied the lockdown restrictions to voice their anger over the recent wave of rape and murder of women and girls in the country.”

Those marches may have been a sign of what was to come this month: further protests, this time over police brutality. “During the first two weeks after lockdown began on March 30, 18 people were killed extrajudicially by the police, according to the National Human Rights Commission,” Egwu reported. “This is not a new phenomenon. Nigerian police have a notorious record of human rights abuses, brutality, and even extrajudicial killings for the slightest of offenses, such as refusing to give bribes, holding an expensive phone, or driving a fancy car.” In fact, he went on, “[r]eports of police brutality are so common across Africa that they’re not meaningfully tracked.”

Until that point, police killings were typically followed by “fancy hashtag activism for justice” that “trends for some days. A moment later, everything returns to normal, and life continues. There are no street protests demanding justice or the prosecution of the killers. The police and other security actors such as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit carry on as before. Hashtag activism is no answer.”

In late October, though, hashtags turned to marches—and how far they will go toward reforming the country remains an open question.

Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.