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Human rights advocates in Nigeria and abroad are concerned that the Buhari administration is adopting a policy of repression following the demonstrations against abuses by the police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The October demonstrations ignited in Lagos and later spread to other cities. The centerpiece was the police killing of a dozen demonstrators at the Lekki Toll Gate on October 20. Initially, the Buhari administration promised to abolish SARS, as had some of its predecessors. Vice President Osinbajo said that the government accepted responsibility for police brutality and affirmed that dialogue was the way forward. Thus far, however, there has been no public accounting for the Lekki Toll Gate killings or, more broadly, for police human rights abuses. Nor is there a public dialogue. Whether SARS has been disbanded or merely rebranded is unclear.
The demonstrations, the largest since 2012, have fizzled out; how and why is not clear and would require studying. A strong law-and-order response, or repression, has played a role. According to Nigerian media, the bank accounts of twenty activists have been frozen for 180 days, pending "an investigation." The passport of at least one human rights lawyer was seized. A few days later, it was returned without explanation.
Support for the demonstrations could have been weaker than appeared at the time. The demonstrations were concentrated in the south, especially Lagos, and among youth who adopted the rhetoric and style of the Black Lives Matter protests in the United States. At least at first, the demonstrators appeared to be relatively privileged. (Poor people in Nigeria do not have bank accounts that can be frozen.) The Nigerian diaspora, especially in the United Kingdom and the United States, vocally supported the demonstrations. However, SARS is not as hated in other parts of the country as it is in Lagos and the south. Demonstrations in the predominantly Muslim north were not extensive. Over time, broader support for the demonstrators appears to have melted away.
The demonstrations had no designated leaders and no equivalent of a politburo. Demonstrations started spontaneously and were coordinated by social media. This decentralization at first appeared to be a source of strength: the movement had no leaders that the authorities could pick off. However, over time, it could have inhibited the sustainability of the protests much beyond a relatively narrow demographic.
The Buhari administration is already being accused of repression. Muhammadu Buhari was among the military offices that overthrew the civilian government of Shehu Shagari and he was military chief of state from 1983 to 1985, when he, in turn, was overthrown in another military coup. As military chief of state, he was known for his "war against indiscipline," which many Nigerians, especially in Lagos, found repressive. Even after he was elected civilian president a generation later in 2015, some Nigerians are suspicious that he remains authoritarian at heart.