By Mark Michael
Anglican leaders across Nigeria have spoken out in response to the nationwide #EndSARS protests in recent weeks, urging government officials to curtail police brutality and protesters to remain non-violent. Archbishop Henry Ndukuba, the Primate of All Nigeria, said that the Church of Nigeria “wishes to express its solidarity with the courageous young people of this country” at an October 19 protest. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who knows the country well from his days as an oil executive, expressed his hopes that this can be a “time for heroes” in the troubled state in an October 26 op-ed in Lagos’ This Day newspaper.
The youth-led #EndSARS movement has been calling for the disbanding of the national Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) since 2017. Allegations of discriminatory profiling of young men based on fashion choices and tattoos, as well as illegal roadblocks, unwarranted searches, kidnapping, murder, theft, rape, and torture have dogged the police unit for decades. Nationwide protests began on October 8, after videos of young men being shot by SARS began trending on Twitter.
Tens of thousands of young Nigerians have taken to the streets in cities across the country, in a movement that many compare to last summer’s #BlackLivesMatter protests. About 28 million tweets bearing the movement’s hashtag have accumulated, and protests in supporting the movement have been organized by Nigerians in major cities around the world.
Anglican bishops around Nigeria have commented frequently on the protests in recent weeks, as many dioceses conduct pandemic-delayed annual synods. In synodical addresses, press conferences, and newspaper columns, bishops have expressed support and encouraged youth to make their voices heard constructively to the youthful nation, in which 70 percent of citizens are under the age of 30.
The Rt. Rev. Dr. Humphrey Olumakaiye, Bishop of Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city and a center of protest activity, wrote in an October 14 post on The Tribune Online, a Lagos news site: “With the recent uproar in our nation and in fact across the globe, on social media and on our roads about the #EndSARS agitation; the church of God is not putting her head in the sand expecting issues to redress itself. This is a genuine agitation, and it is borne out of deep concern for the future of this nation.”
“The Church cannot be silent in the midst of such credible reports of widespread abuse of power and oppression of citizens, especially by those empowered by the state to protect citizens rights, lives, and property,” Ndukuba said. “The government must first fully assimilate the demands on behalf of countless victims of police brutality and address the issues of gross abuse of power and privilege.”
President Muhammad Buhari’s government responded quickly, pledging to disband the controversial unit on October 11. Most protestors, though, remain unconvinced, as the government has made and broken such promises three times before. As gatherings continued to swell in number, Nigerian police and the army have been called in to disperse the crowds and have allegedly shot dozens of unarmed protesters.
Troops fired on a peaceful vigil for #EndSARS victims on October 20 at Lagos’ Lekki Toll Gate after participants refused to heed a city-wide curfew. Government sources acknowledge that 25 unarmed protesters were injured and 2 killed, while activists suggest actual numbers were much higher.
In a statement released a few days later, Olumakaiye described the Lekki Toll Gate attacks as “a despicable and outrageous act of terror against harmless citizens,” adding “It is highly depressing the same government, which promised to reform the police and bring an end to police brutality, ended up using the military against them.”
Welby also condemned the attacks shortly after news was released, and again on October 26, saying that “the deliberate shooting of unarmed protestors in Lagos and other parts of Nigeria last week was an outrage. I say this as a human being, as a Christian, and as the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion – which counts some 18 million Nigerians as part of our global family.”
As tensions continue to escalate, many reports of looting and attacks on police have also been attributed to the protesters, and some church leaders have criticized the violence. In Enugu State, where two protesters were shot by police, and activists allegedly blocked roads, destroyed bus stops, and smashed car windows, Archbishop Emmanuel Chukwuma issued a sharp condemnation on October 26.
“Enugu State has never witnessed this kind of destruction of lives and properties in recent time. While we commend the good intent of the protest, we condemn in its entirety the introduction of violence, killing, looting and destruction of lives and properties as elements in the protest in Enugu State.”
Chukwuma appealed to the protesters, “We don’t want loss of lives anymore, and so all youths should withdraw to their various homes.” Olumakaiye made a similar call in his statement about the Lekki Toll Gate attacks, noting, “it is said that what we feared most has now befallen us, such as, burning and destruction of government and private properties, looting of shops, offices, and houses. These should not be seen as the solution to our challenges as a nation, as these will only take us backward.”
In his op-ed, Archbishop Welby analogized the Lekki Toll Gate attacks to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre conducted by British troops, whose centenary he commemorated in Amritsar, India last fall. He warned Nigeria’s leaders as well as protesters tempted to use violence: “While I absolutely have no place to lecture or rebuke Nigeria, a country that is very dear to my heart, I can say this: learn from our mistakes. Do not go further down the path of violence and injustice. Turn around and find the path of peace, justice and reconciliation.”
“This is a time for heroes,” Welby continued. “No nation can be built without heroism. This is a time for all those who play a role in the political and civil leadership of Nigeria to be heroes for the common good. This is a time to sacrifice ambition, to set aside party, to unite to serve in order that Nigerians from richest to poorest may flourish.”