The #EndSARS protests have shown us that in Nigeria—a country where security operatives cock their guns at your face and boldly say ‘I go waste you and nothing go happen,’—anything goes.
When Damilola did not come home from work, his family thought he was spending the night at his friend’s house, close to the restaurant in Lagos Island, where he was a waiter. But Damilola was not at his friend’s house. Damilola, 20, had left work at around 8 p.m. and, shortly after, was picked up in Yaba by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
‘They said I was a cultist because I had an afro,’ Damilola said. ‘I told them I wasn’t a cultist and I was on my way back from work. They insisted on knowing where I was coming from, where I was going and what I did for a living,’ he continued, ‘They told me I had to pay if I wanted them to let me go. I told them I was working because I was saving up money to go to university and I didn’t have any money to pay.’
This statement earned Damilola a slap. He was immediately pushed into a van and driven to the station where he stayed for six months. He was never charged to court or granted access to his family or lawyer during this time. Eventually, Damilola’s father sold a piece of land he had inherited from his own father, to fund Damilola’s release.
In 2019, as part of its mandate under the Administration of Criminal Justice Act, the Administration of Criminal Justice Monitoring Committee, along with magistrates of the Federal Capital Territory, went on an inspection tour of local police detention facilities. According to a monitoring committee supervisor I spoke to, ‘the cells were packed full. There were about 300-500 persons in one single cell. The place was horrid and unfit for even animals. It was before the coronavirus, but we had to wear face masks and shields, and even that was not enough to shield us from the stench and filth of the place.’
In Nigeria, over 70 per cent of detainees await trail. This is despite Nigeria’s laws that require suspects to be arraigned within 24 hours of their arrest. Unsurprisingly, the committee’s visit revealed that authorities have been violating this right. Police detention facilities remain overcrowded with pre-trial detainees who are kept in custody for a period ranging from one week to two years.
THE BEGINNINGS OF #ENDSARS
SARS, a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, was established in 1992 with the aim to investigate and prosecute perpetrators of serious crimes like armed robbery and kidnapping. However, in the past decade, there are only very few young Nigerians who have not been on the receiving end of the brutality, oppression and blatant extortion that SARS officers are notorious for across the country.
Last year, Nigerian youths engaged in a series of peaceful protests, across more than ten cities and various social media platforms. They did not raise their voices to demand what might be termed ‘luxuries’, such as employment, free healthcare or even education, but demanding something as basic as the protection of a fundamental human right: the right to live; the right to freedom from oppression by the police officers who are entrusted with protecting them.
It took only one weekend (9–11 October 2020) for the #EndSARS hashtag to trend in Nigeria with over 28 million tweets from both Nigerians and members of the international community who were lending their voices in solidarity.
The protest sought to expose the brutality and oppression of SARS and called for a total dissolution of the unit, of which many Nigerians live in daily fear. SARS had repeatedly been accused of hiding people in cells to rot away for years without trial; for conducting ‘stop and search’ exercises on roads where they dragged their victims to ATMs and forced them to withdraw money before letting them go. People also explained that SARS officers beat and sometimes killed those they ‘suspected’ of having committed an offence right on the spot. As the protests rapidly gained traction across both social and traditional media platforms, more people emerged with their own experiences of SARS brutality, each more horrifying than the previous.
Standalone demonstrations, peaceful protests, prayer walks, roadblocks—were all ways Nigerian youths adopted to amplify the issue of police brutality, calling on the government to disband SARS.
And yet, in what can only be described as an ironic twist of events, as young people exercised their constitutional right to protest peacefully, many of them were harassed, brutalized, and illegally detained by men of the Nigerian Police Force.
Matters worsened when Jimoh Isiaq, a bystander, was killed by a stray bullet shot from a police officer in Ogbomoso, Oyo State. This happened just after President Buhari had tweeted appealing for calm and stating that he had been in touch with the inspector general of police to address concerns about police brutality.
On the fourth day of the #EndSARS protests, the inspector general announced that SARS had been disbanded. The police force also released the infographic ‘Five Things To Know About the Dissolution of SARS’. This infographic, however, failed to show a definite timeline for the government’s proposed reforms. Even worse, it stated that ‘all officers and men serving in the unit will be redeployed to other police commands, formations and units’, suggesting the government planned to reintegrate the officers of SARS into other police units. The latter fuelled the belief that disbandment on paper would not translate into a complete dissolution of the SARS in real life.
These concerns, coupled with the fact that for over three years, the government had made promises to ‘reform’ SARS but never lived up to those promises, only increased protesters’ agitation. In turn, the protesters shared ‘#5For5’ a list of demands that included immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families, setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation, as well as prosecution of all reports of police misconduct.
Finally, after five days of the protests, President Buhari addressed the nation, not through a press conference on the local media but again through his official twitter handle, reiterating the disbandment of SARS and the government’s commitment to police reform. Ironically, at about the same time as this announcement, peaceful protesters in Abuja were being tear-gassed, hosed down with hot water, and shot at by police officers. The latter chased protesters along federal highways with police vans, cornered them, seized and destroyed their properties, and beat them up. As of that day, at least ten people had been reportedly killed by policemen. Countless others across Nigeria were arrested, beaten and denied legal representation in police stations.
‘We ask them to stop killing us,’ a brutalized protester told me, ‘Yet what did they do? Kill us some more. It’s exhausting. What is the cost of our lives to the Nigerian government?’
THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE
Despite announcements of plans to disband SARS and an order from President Buhari and the inspector general of police to cease all extra-judicial operations, the police brutality continued. Police officers continued to harass and arrest peaceful protesters and SARS operatives upped their antics by stopping young people at roadblocks to extort them and demand a search through their social media for any signs that they were sharing information about the protests online.
The continued harassment made many wonder whether the government was giving orders to the police to continue to harass protesters while assuring protesters that reforms were underway. This duplicity seemed to indicate to protesters that the government was not just out to deny the people their constitutional right to peacefully protest but was also out to oppress and kill them. The alternative theory—that there is a break in the chain of command and that the government has lost control of the police force—is no less disturbing. Who did the police force answer to if directives from the inspector general and the president had not taken them off the streets?
The answer to this question proved elusive until 20th October 2020, the day armed forces reportedly shot unarmed citizens at the Lekki toll gate, one of the largest and most strategic protest locations in Lagos State. More than three months later, the government has yet to confirm who ordered the killing of unarmed protesters at the toll gate.
‘The Nigerian state, at a time when they cannot and should not be silent, have chosen staunch, unwavering silence as the best response to give to a nation desperately demanding answers,’ a protester from Lagos said.
SEEDS OF HOPE
The #EndSARS protests saw young Nigerians united toward a common goal, a singular purpose: putting a definite end to police brutality in Nigeria. However, as the protests progressed, it became clear that they could be the birth of something bigger: the quest for accountability from a government that has, so far, deprived its citizens of this fundamental pillar of good governance. In Abuja, a protester noted:
From a protest against brutality, young Nigerians appear to have stumbled on the democratic ideal—that the government derives its authority from the people and is nothing without them. Less than a week into the protests, their first demand—the dissolution of SARS—was somewhat met. But then they decided that it was not enough to get them off the streets. They demanded that the president himself address them. He did, but then they decided, after the fact, that it was still not enough. Fresh demands were made.
‘Perhaps they are giddy with the joy of rebellion,’ this protester mused. ‘Have you noticed the self-awareness of the protesters? They have organized the protests superbly, are conscious of this achievement, and applaud themselves for it. Perhaps all these are indications of a kind of political coming-of-age.’
Young Nigerians have found their power. Within 24 hours, they had raised funds running into millions of naira, set up a legal department to bail out arrested protesters, created a hospitality department to feed them, organized ambulances for injured protesters, as well as a clean-up crew to clean up after every protest. Even therapy was made available using social media to pass across information and call for help and support, where needed.
The protests, organic and decentralized, were repeatedly said to be devoid of leadership, but protesters claimed that every young Nigerian protesting was a leader by right. The logic behind this is simple: a head which does not exist cannot be cut off. Nobody can be bought over. Nobody can be negotiated with.
‘We have no leader,’ a protester in Abuja told me, ‘If the government wants to make an address, they should address all of us.’
The long-lasting effect of these protests will work in both holding public office holders accountable and ensuring that the justice system lives up to its mandate—actually providing justice. ‘Or at very least, it will send a message—Nigerians are awake now,’ another protester said. ‘The government has become too comfortable with the trope of “if you push Nigerians to the wall, they will break the wall and keep going’”. Perhaps now they’ll realize that we are tired of breaking walls. We just want to live’⎈
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