“I will kill you, I will waste your life and nothing will happen”.
Navigating public space is globally complex and complicated. In nations of the Global South, where democracies are gradually becoming problematic, it is becoming obvious that these democracies are blurry with porous boundaries. Various mechanisms such as “no trespassing” signs, high fences and strategic CCTV cameras all point to contestations over what public space means and who has a right to access it. In Africa, the situation is progressively getting worse, as the recent oppression and killings of unarmed protesters in public spaces attest to. For example, the arrest and killings of unarmed protesters in the cities of Lagos and Abuja, Nigeria and Kampala, Uganda, should bring to the fore debates and questions on the reconfiguration and negotiation of public space. In this post, we seek to reflect on the ENDSARS protest in Nigeria and its implications for rights to public space in the country.
“I will kill you, I will waste your life and nothing will happen”.
The above statement represents the state of human rights in Nigeria. Every Nigerian between the ages of 18 to 35 has heard these words or knows at least one person who has had these words spoken to them by the Nigerian Police. Nigeria is a country where human rights are at their lowest ebb, with lives treated like meaningless commodities taken at will without any accountability by the Nigerian Police. It almost seems like Nigeria, although a democracy, offers no freedom, and citizens can be arrested, harassed and killed without any consequences. These forms of oppression were initially enabled by an old colonial law known as `wandering without an evident means of livelihood`, introduced by the British colonial administration to police public spaces, promote segregation, and ward off revolution by the Nigerian people. Although this law was abolished a long time ago, in the year 1973, it is still being used by the Nigerian security agencies to stop and search, harass, and sometimes kill citizens at will in public spaces. This is most commonly perpetuated by the Special Anti-Report Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian police. The killings and torture of Nigerians perpetrated by SARS with impunity have gone unchecked for years. Several reports suggest that 70% of the Nigerian prison population are awaiting trial; many cases have never been heard by a judge. SARS is a special anti-robbery squad unit of the Nigerian police whose main responsibilities should be tackling the most violent armed robbery cases. Despite this, SARS operations mainly happen in public spaces where their victims are accosted. SARS contributes largely to the rapidly increasing prison population in Nigeria.
For years, many Nigerians have remained silent and / or indifferent to the atrocities committed by SARS, and many believed that SARS rarely targets upper middle class Nigerians. Such indifference has in recent times exacerbated the situation, leading to absolute impunity and enabling blatant violations of rights as well as oppressions of Nigerians, and ultimately contributing to many deaths and financial extortions of citizens. Typically, SARS officers raid bars, buses, private cars and carry out arbitrary ‘stop and search’ operations of civilians’ phones and laptops looking for any piece of material they can use to perpetuate such harassment. The evidence they cite ranges from wearing dreadlock hairstyles, to having laptops, tattoos, foreign numbers on a contact list, foreign friends on social media etc. They hold their victims hostage until they are able to pay a ridiculous amount of money as illegal fines which are randomly stipulated by the arresting SARS official.
In recent times, many social media posts suggest that SARS have kidnapped and held hostage Nigerians who have died in their custody due to extreme torture or outright execution. Some of these officers go around with Point Of Sales (POS) machines to make financial extortions seamless for them. In response, Nigerians organised and sustained a nationwide protest for 12 days that came to a halt on the 20th October 2020 when protesters were shot and killed by the Nigerian Army.
Public Space, Protest and Spatial Reconfiguration
Protesters globally are using public spaces to voice their grievances and to negotiate with their government. Usually this takes the format of marching on highways and large roads to call for justice. The power of protesting is clear. Centering protest on strategic areas that disrupt commerce and commutes aim to command the government’s attention.
Given the volatile history of human rights abuses and oppression as well as the ongoing issue of crackdowns on protesters in Nigeria, a pivotal call is emerging from this to question the public rights of way in public areas. In the instance of the EndSars protest, questions about access to — and safety within — public spaces intersect with calls to confront police brutality, demands for equal rights, and charges against injustices and community disinvestment. Protesting becomes an assertion of both citizenship and of equal rights to public space.
By protesting, the citizens of Nigeria were demonstrating what Kyle Shelton in his book ‘Power Moves’ refers to as infrastructural citizenship. Hereby, Shelton does not define nationality but the act of reframing infrastructure (public space) as a deployable aspect of political composition and civic action – as a way of mobilizing a call for greater influence over the framing of public spaces and the systems that govern them and a mode of exerting influence over the use of space by the general public who rarely have access to these spaces. The EndSars protest, carried out in public space, and the violence aimed at these protesters reveal the infrastructure that governs public areas in cities and the contestations surrounding people’s rights to them.
First, the EndSars protests have created parallel lines for critical discourse about the ways in which public spaces in Nigerian cities are planned and used and who belongs in these areas. Second, they have drawn attention to the inherent inequalities in the usage of spatial infrastructure — and the impact of citizens’ rights and freedoms. It could be said that these inequalities are based on the precepts of decades of colonial and military rule — where heavy policing of public spaces were attached to fears of disruption of public peace and the eruption of uprisings.
Globally, there is an upsurge of protests on varying issues, from the ongoing and sustained protest in Hong Kong which began in June 2019 on a contentious extradition law to femicide protests against gender-based violence in South Africa, Nigeria as well as women in Central Africa Republic. These protests have seen citizens gather in huge numbers to express their grievances. In the Global North, such gatherings have been more seamless; in the Global South, they have precipitated violent attacks against the protesters. It is therefore time for new systems that strengthen civic and human rights in the Global South in order to amplify the voices of the oppressed. Protests either in public spaces or online are offering pathways to keep attention on these key issues.
Is Social Media the New Safe Public Space?
Not only have innocent protesters been killed by the Nigerian Army, which was streamed live on Instagram by a brave Nigerian woman, DJ Switch, the supporters of EndSars are now being arrested and detained illegally, and several journalists are currently being threatened by the Police and the Army. One Journalist, Pelumi, was arrested and has since been reported to have died under mysterious circumstances in police detention in Lagos. Furthermore, some Nigerian banks have reportedly frozen the bank accounts of EndSars protesters and supporters as ordered by the Central Bank of Nigeria. The crackdown on protests is shrinking access to public spaces and endangering the lives of citizens in Nigeria. For example, many journalists and some key coordinators of the EndSars movement have been forced to flee Nigeria for safety; DJ Switch has recently been granted asylum by the Canadian government.
The success of EndSars’ recent protest can be largely attributed to the power of social media. Social media was the main tool used in coordinating protesters in various locations across the country. Even during the protest, social media was used to establish a helpline, report arrests, harassment, gunshots, and deaths of the protesters. For example, on 20th October 2020, during the Lekki massacre, the shooting of protesters and the true narrative of what actually happened after the Nigerian army showed up was live-streamed on social media. The protest funds were crowdsourced through social media with Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, donating and calling on donors globally to support the movement. Once again, social media gave frustrated Nigerian youths a voice and the opportunity to express their frustration and stand up against police brutality.
The actual protest has since shifted from public spaces to online spaces after the brutal killings of innocent protesters. By drawing attention to the gaps that exist in the usage and governance of public spaces in the Global South, the protests have called on us to reflect upon these deficits and prescribe global best practices. It is a joint call for the Global North and South to critique and rethink how cities and public spaces are planned and whose voices are heard, to recognise and account for the legacies of colonial oppression, and to contemplate the obstacles to peaceful protest in public areas.
Rebecca Enobong Roberts is a development expert with a decade of field experience in urbanisation challenges and mapping and implementing the SDGs projects in 23 cities across Nigeria. Presently she is a PhD candidate at the Habitat Unit, Technical University of Berlin. Her project explores the tradeoff between internal displacement (IDP) crisis, migration, and implications for future and sustainable cities.
Comrade Deji Adeyanju is a serial entrepreneur and convener of the Concerned Nigerians group. His group is concerned with human rights and better governance advocacy in Nigeria. His advocacy strategies involve staging protests and petitioning international communities targeting visa bans for human rights abusers and corrupt government officials in Nigeria. One such protest over the insecurity and increasing killings of Nigerians in northern-Nigeria saw him arrested and detained in Kano maximum prison for 78 days in 2019.
 Matthew Carmona. 2014. Re-theorising contemporary public space: a new narrative and a new normative.
 IInternational Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 2019. The Global State of Democracy 2019; Addressing the Ills, Reviving the PromiseernationalInstitutefor Democracy and Electoral Assistance
 Amnesty International, 2020. Nigeria: Killing of #EndSARS protesters by the military must be investigated
 CNN. 2020. At least 45 people have been killed during Uganda protests
 Kyle Shelton. 2017. Power Moves: Transportation, Politics, and Development in Houston. Power Mo