LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM – OCTOBER 24: A group of people holding banners gathers to protest against the brutality of the Nigerian Robbery Task Force (SARS) in Nigeria on October 24, 2020 outside of 10 Downing Street in central London, United Kingdom, to protest.
Photo by Hasan Esen / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
Protests that began against the Nigerian government’s largely unpopular Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have grown into a widespread, leaderless movement against police brutality, economic mismanagement, rampant corruption and arbitrary state power.
However, as the protests spread both domestically and abroad, concerns grew over the state’s response to the movement and what it could mean for the country’s economy.
The government is under increasing pressure to reform in the face of the mass unrest, but analysts fear that implementing the planned fiscal conservative policies that may have contributed to the economic recovery will become increasingly difficult.
In addition, the government’s harsh response to protests has damaged its reputation at home and abroad and increased political uncertainty as the country seeks to emerge from the crisis.
Oil and economy
According to the World Bank, Africa’s largest economy is still heavily dependent on oil, which accounts for around 80% of its exports, 50% of government revenues and 30% of bank loans.
The latest OPEC figures confirm Nigeria is sticking to supply cut agreements by keeping oil production below 1.5 million barrels a day in September. Combined with low global oil prices, this means stricter liquidity conditions for foreign exchange, with detrimental consequences for companies importing goods from abroad, according to Cobus de Hart, head of macroeconomic advisory at NKC African Economics.
“The tight foreign exchange liquidity, product shortages, higher fuel prices and floods in turn lead to a sharp rise in inflation and a burden on consumer demand,” said de Hart in a recent research note.
He suggested that some of the government’s planned actions – which were supposed to prop up the economy – could be reversed as further unrest subsides to avoid further resistance.
The Lagos Investigation Board will visit the Lekki toll booth on October 30, 2020 to inspect it and gain further information on the October 20, 2020 shootings.
Olukayode Jaiyeola / NurPhoto via Getty Images
“This now increases the likelihood that positive policy changes like the decision to deregulate fuel prices will be reversed – the government has already started tracking electricity price increases,” said de Hart.
“Unfortunately, many of these reforms should have been implemented much earlier, along with pro-business measures to encourage diversification and growth.”
The social media-powered protest movement #EndSARS is taking place against the backdrop of the country’s worst economic recession in over 30 years. Inflation rose over 13% and GDP (gross domestic product) fell 6.1% in the second quarter.
Therefore, the blow to the oil sector, coupled with the economic disruption from the pandemic and declining remittance payments from abroad, is expected to further limit the government’s ability to deliver social programs and address the protesters’ grievances, fueling tensions.
What drives protests?
SARS, charged with decades of brutality, rape and torture, was disbanded on October 11th, but protesters continue to call for broader fundamental reforms. The demonstrations have turned into violence in recent weeks and came to a head on October 20, when soldiers allegedly used live ammunition to disperse peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll booth in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city.
According to Amnesty International, at least 12 protesters were killed and Lagos Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said 25 people were injured. The army dismissed this as “false news”. The incident sparked a wave of violence and vandalism in Lagos and elsewhere, although protests in Lagos have since declined.
Activists protesting the brutality of the police by the Nigerian Sonderkommando Against Robbery (SARS) demonstrate in Parliament Square in London, England on October 21, 2020. SARS has been accused of extrajudicial killings, extortion and torture, which has sparked demonstrations across Nigeria, according to human rights group Amnesty International, at least 56 people have been killed by Nigerian security forces in the past few weeks.
David Cliff / NurPhoto via Getty Images
Meanwhile, pro-government demonstrations in other parts of Nigeria have highlighted a deep north-south divide and increased the risk of worsening violence in the oil-producing region of the Niger Delta. Supporters in the largely Muslim north, where President Muhammadu Buhari is from, have accused protesters from the largely Christian south of attempting to sow chaos in order to discredit the government.
Following global condemnation of the government’s response to the protests, Buhari urged the international community and public figures to “know all the facts” before “rushing to court”.
Buhari has also tried to highlight concessions the government has already made, pointing out that protests have been hijacked by “subversive elements” to “wreak havoc” while choosing to project an overall picture of strength and military personnel to be used in key areas.
Various groups are involved in the unrest, according to a report published last week by political risk advisory agency EXX Africa. The first group consists of young, educated, and progressive reform attorneys, many of whom have strong social media presence. This part of the # EndSARS movement was able to gain a foothold around the world and support celebrities, political figures and even Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey.
A second, larger group consists of less educated and often unemployed youth who are in economic hardship, while a third, smaller group consists of “die-hard criminals”, according to the report. In addition, government supporters have carried out sectarian and ethnic attacks.
According to EXX Africa, a significant economic risk is the potential for disrupting trading assets.
Protesters kneel down to honor the lives of those lost to the country’s police brutality at the Murtala Muhammed Airport toll booth as they stand against the unjust brutality of the Nigerian Police Unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS ), protested. on Obafemi Awolowo Weg, Ikeja, Lagos on October 19, 2020.
Benson Ibeabuchi / AFP via Getty Images
“The assets that are most vulnerable to opportunistic attacks include goods in transit, commercial businesses and stationery. Targeted attacks are largely driven by political, sectarian or ethnic motives,” the EXX Africa report said.
NKC political analyst Louw Nel suggested that while Buhari may have an understandable complaint about international control of the situation compared to similar unrest across the continent, he must moderate the government’s response.
“Whatever the case, the Buhari government – and governments elsewhere on the continent – urgently need to recognize the limits of responding to protests against state brutality with more state brutality,” Nel said in a research report.
“We expect that the protests will continue and that further repression or another tragedy of the Lekki toll booth will only ignite the flames and weaken Mr. Buhari politically.”