On Tuesday, October 20, 2020, while #EndSARS protesters clutched the National Flag and sang the National Anthem at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos, they were shot at. Chiemelie Ezeobi writes that though the evidence at hand points at soldiers in military camouflage, they have repeatedly denied it, claiming the viral live videos and pictures were superimposed
They were supposed to be safe because clutched in their hands were the National Flag, symbolising natural wealth and unity, whilst they sang the National Anthem- two things supposedly held sacred by the military. That fateful Tuesday, October 20, nothing prepared the #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Tollgate for the magnitude of devastation that would rock their world.
As they sat down singing the National Anthem, at about 6.30pm, a platoon of soldiers kitted in military camouflage suddenly stormed the protest ground in their patrol vehicles and ordered them to leave.
According to the soldiers, they were there to enforce the curfew imposed by the Lagos State government. But something was wrong with their demands- the curfew which was earlier stipulated for 4pm had been shifted to 9pm. The protesters had at least three hours to go before they can be deemed to have flouted the curfew.
The #EndSARS movement started off as a quest to get the presidency and the police hierarchy to dissolve the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) nationwide. The protest, which started since October 8, 2020, kicked off in Lagos in trickles but gained momentum in the next two days. It soon became a nationwide and global protest.
The nationwide protests were a culmination of weeks of anger and unattended complaints by Nigerians over the pernicious actions of SARS operatives, who had either forcefully abducted, shot or even harassed youths across board.
With placards bearing inscriptions like “Am I the next to die”, “Stop Police Brutality”, “Why shoot bullets at us”, “I am not a criminal #EndSARS”, “Our lives matter”, “Stop criminalising innocent citizens”, “Stop extorting and killing us”, the protesters took to the streets of Lagos.
Reiterating their demands, the protesters charged the presidency and police hierarchy to not just #EndSARS but to also end police brutality and then institute police reforms from lower cadre policemen to the highest cadre.
They also called for transparent prosecution of all the officers involved in the menace, both past and present, as well as ensure compensation of victims of police brutality.
In their demands as articulated by Citizens Gavel Foundation against Social Justice, they lamented that despite several reforms announced by the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, cases of abuse of citizens by SARS have increased without any steps taken by the police hierarchy to address the fundamental problem of impunity of the operatives.
They further stated that SARS operatives promote extortion for self-enrichment and lawlessness, of which their non-adherence to the prescription of the law poses greater consequences for citizens.
In their demands, the protesters first called for the total disbandment of SARS as a unit (which has been granted), just as they called for a list of all officers that have been found culpable in the past and transparent prosecution of such officers.
They also demanded for justice for all victims who have suffered injustice in the past and a public enquiry on the activities of the unit in the past. In the long term, they also suggested the police hierarchy apply digital medium for tracking such cases with the police.
Concessions by Government
Some of the demands made have been fulfilled but some others have not been fully met. These include the prosecution of killer cops, the release of all protesters in detention and the total overhaul of the police. The government however charged state governments to set up a judicial panel of inquiry as a follow up to dissolving SARS, just as each state government is to set up a Victims’ Support Fund, which the federal government will support.
But the movement soon turned violent after hoodlums hijacked it. It soon snowballed into an ethnic and cult war in some parts of the country.
In several parts of the country, the hitherto peaceful protests became volatile when some armed thugs penetrated the chain of protesters and unleashed mayhem. At the end of the attack, scores of protesters sustained varying degree of injuries including some that had deep cutlass cuts on their heads, shoulders and even body. Some cars were also vandalised.
Given the volatile situation, the state Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, was forced to declare a 24-hour curfew on Tuesday afternoon, effective from 4pm. Although the curfew was extended to 9pm, the harm was already done.
With the announcement of the curfew, officials of the Lekki Concession Company (LCC) were seen removing what was initially believed to be CCTV cameras. Also, Loatsad, was said to have switched off their billboard, which was a source of light for protesters at the tollgate.
Both companies have since come out to clarify the situation. LCC said it wasn’t a CCTV that they uninstalled, rather, laser camera for vehicles for fear of vandalism. The advert company on the other hand said they switched off the billboard because of the curfew, noting that they did same during the COVID-19 lockdown.
Also lending credence to their statement, the governor said the CCTV wasn’t tampered with, adding that the video footage of the shooting at Lekki tollgate will be submitted to the judicial panel on police brutality, which has already began sitting.
So that fateful evening, the grounds at Lekki Tollgate that served as the protest scene on a daily basis, a Muslim praying ground on Friday afternoon, a candlelight service at night; and a Christian Service on Sunday was soiled with blood of unarmed protesters.
Few hours before the curfew would kick in, the military arrived and ordered protesters to go home. The soldiers were seen on camera ordering the protesters to leave the tollgate. Minutes after, gunshots were heard as they fired into the teeming crowd.
As people ducked or scampered to safety, the bullets hit several protesters. When the buzz died down, the protesters began to attend to the injured persons while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
One of the documented pieces of that night was shot live on Instagram by Obianuju Udeh, popularly known as DJ Switch. But for her, people would have remained in the dark of what happened that fateful night.
In her live video, more than 130,000 people from all over the world watched as the injured were administered first aid to. On one occasion, the protesters used local gin and pliers to remove a bullet from the thigh of a fellow protestor, as attempts to get an ambulance proved a Herculean task.
Also on the live video, she displayed spent bullets that were recovered after the shooting.
In his first address after the shooting, the governor blamed it on forces beyond his direct control. “This is the toughest night of our lives as forces beyond our direct control have moved to make dark notes in our history, but we will face it and come out stronger”, he said after he visited victims of the incident.
It was the governor who pegged the casualty at 28. Giving a breakdown, he said there were 10 patients at the General Hospital, 11 at Reddington and four at Vedic; with mild to moderate levels of injuries while two are receiving intensive medical care.
He also disclosed that three patients have been discharged, but he made no mention of casualties that were rushed to Grandville Medical Laser or those at Danol Hospital.
Controversy over Fatality
It was also the governor that was the first person to refute claims that there were fatalities in the shooting. He would later tweet that one of the survivors died in the hospital from gunshot wounds.
This was contrary to initial figures from protesters that put fatality to over 10. Also, Human rights group, Amnesty International said it had obtained credible reports of deaths.
Following the controversy over fatalities, DJ Switch posted a video addressing some of the unanswered questions people posed. Relieving that night she said: “The only thing we fought with was our flags. We sat on the floor waving our flags and singing the national anthem, that was all we had. They turned off the street lights.”
On the claims she made that the soldiers took away the dead bodies she said: “Something I think about in hindsight that I wished we hadn’t done was that we carried dead bodies and dropped them at the feet of the soldiers, when I asked their unit commander why they are killing us. I wished we didn’t do that because they ended up throwing the bodies into their vans.”
Maintaining that she never said 78 died, she noted that when “I was doing the live seven had died, after my phone died, we had 15, I don’t know if they were more than that but we had a lot of people with stray bullet wounds”.
But reacting days after the shooting, the Defence Headquarters (DHQ) maintained that the reports that its operatives shot some unarmed #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll gate plaza on Tuesday remained mere allegations.
Coordinator, Defence Media Operations, Major General John Enenche, reiterated that the alleged role of the military in the incident was nothing, but pure speculations. He urged all
to wait for the outcome of investigations.
While mentioning that the Operation MESA (a joint operation between the army, navy, air force, civil defence and police) is strictly under the policy directive of the various states, he said they are used by state governments in internal security.
Using the operative word ‘if’ in addressing the allegations of shooting, he said they called in analysts who analysed videos and declared they were photoshopped and put together.
To retaliate claims by the military, government and some influencers that the pictures and videos were photoshopped, most Nigerians took to social media to also argue that all the lootings were photoshopped too.
Who is the Chief Security Officer of a State?
The governor said on life broadcast that he was not privy to the dealings of the military. What are the dangers its poses if chief security officers of a state are merely on paper?
The governor who was on the morning show at Arise News Channel, the broadcast arm of THISDAY Newspaper, on Thursday said: “ I don’t know how the officers got it all wrong because the instruction was that police won’t be out until 10-10:30pm when all citizens should have gotten to their various homes. This is totally against what we stand for.”
Reiterating that the army does not report to him he said he has taken the incident up with the military authorities and a judicial panel will be set up to investigate it.
He said: “The army does not report to me, I have reported the matter to the highest command in the military. It’s not something we are going to gloss over. A judicial panel will be set up to investigate it. I have escalated it to the highest level of the military.”
Meanwhile, the curfew, which was meant to restore order, seemed to have restricted everybody except hoodlums, who had a field day looting and burning different parts of the state.
In Ojodu Berger, the hoodlums vandalised the police division and made away with the weapons, after which they burnt it. At the last count, over 25 stations burnt in Lagos include Orile, Amukoko, Layeni, Ilasamaja, Ikotun, Ajah, Igando, Elemoro, Makinde, Onipanu, Ebute Ero, Pen-Cinema, Isokoko, Alade, Cele, Igbo Elerin, Shibiri, Gbagada, Onilekere, Makoko, Daleko, Asahun, Makinyo, Amuwo-Odofin, Anti-Kidnapping, Surulere. Other police stations that were vandalised but not burnt were Ojo, Ojodu, Mowo, PPL and Morogbo.
Also vandalised were different malls on Lagos Island and Mainland with some set ablaze after the looting. On the island, the hoodlums ravaged the Circle Mall, Shoprite and Spar and carted away valuables worth millions of naira. Others set target at Shoprite in Surulere and Amuwo Odofin Estate and unleashed mayhem after looting different stalls occupying the mall.
In Fagba, in Ifako-Ijaiye Local Government, there was large scale destruction that razed two empty fuel tankers, over 40 vehicles, shops and stalls at Fagba Market. Also looted and burnt down were the spare parts market, two churches, events centre, bar, and pharmacy, while an eatery, hotel, supermarket, residential buildings and shops were looted.
The coordinated looting across the state also unearthed different locations here COVID-19 palliatives were stored. The palliatives numbering in thousands were found both on the Island and Mainland with the contents of the branded COVID-19 bags still in good shape.
Meanwhile, there was a foiled attempt by inmates to jail break the Ikoyi Correctional Centre in Lagos. Also burnt and looted were banking halls of Access, GTB, and Fidelity Bank.
Affected local governments were Ajeromi Local Government Secretariat, Lagos-Island LGA, Lagos-Island East LCDA Secretariat, Lagos Mainland Local Government Secretariat, Ibeju Lekki LCDA Secretariat, and Ejigbo LCDA, as well as as many local council secretariats.
Rightfully so, the shooting drew condemnation from leaders of thought, religious figures, individuals and political figures.
Former Speaker, Bukola Saraki said: “Killing our young and defenceless children under any circumstances is wrong. Period. Killing our children is also killing our future as a nation. We must walk back from this. Mr. President this is what needs to be done. I appeal to you to do the right thing.
“I am horrified by the use of lethal force against #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. My heart bleeds for this country. It is sad and disheartening that this is happening. These are peaceful youth protesting to express legitimate concerns.”
Legal practitioner, Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa (SAN) also condemned the shooting of defenceless citizens, describing it as most barbaric and unacceptable. “Even though we identify with the government on the need to restore law and order, there are other means to do that without resorting to using live bullets on these future leaders”, he added.
Chairman, NUJ Lagos State Council, Dr Qasim Akinreti Chairman also condemned the shootings, adding that the ugly development put Nigeria again on the global map of a Nation where human rights are being abused and not respected.
Philip Jakpor of ERA/FoEN said it defies logic that security forces flee from bandits and Boko Haram and then gleefully shoot unharmed protesters.
The US International Visitor Leadership Program Alumni Assocoation (Lagos/Southern Region) also strongly condemned the killing of peaceful protesters whose action wasn’t outside the scope of their right as citizens of this country, adding that it’s a shame that those whose responsibility is to protect, have become hunters whose prey is none other than the future leaders they are meant to protect, nature, mentor and listen to.
Others who frowned at the shooting were SERAP, a non governmental organisation; former Minister, Oby Ezekwesili, footballer Idion Ighalo, who said he was “sad and heartbroken” at the developments.
Others like Femi Kuti also condemned the shooting while Antoine Mensah Ghana music business enthusiast queried, “How do you open fire on your own country men, waving your own flag and singing your own anthem. The three key things any soldier holds dear. The very essence of the service you render your country. How!?! This is serious oh! It’s not normal! We have a serious problem”.
In another development, there were moves to bring in ethnic colouration into the protest. In a back and forth that has drawn out till date, some Northerners on Twitter alluded that the protest was a coordinated attack by the East and West to remove President Muhammadu Buhari from power.
Also, following the looting and vandalism that rocked different parts of Lagos, the West accused the East of teeming up with the North to destroy their region.
These counter accusations, which divided the protesters into ethnic divide was however met with stiff resistance by most youths, who urged their comrades to remember they fought against police brutality together.
The fracas started off with comments from former Presidential candidate, Adamu Garba, who released series of videos in Hausa language, urging the North to see the #EndSARS scheme as a plot by southerners to seize power from the North.
Soon afterwards, another video from the self acclaimed leader of Indigenous People of Biafra, IPOB, Nnamdi Kanu, surfaced, urging Igbo youths to protect themselves and destroy infrastructure.
Further inciting the polity, the Apapo O’odua Koya, AOKOYA, a PAN Yoruba group, alleged secret plots to destroy critical economic assets in Yorubaland by a combination of forces alien to the South-west. In a statement by the group’s spokesperson, Ahmeda Akorede, they also tried to link Igbos, in particular Nnamdi Kanu, to burning down of critical economic assets in Yorubaland.
In their reaction, President General, Ohanaeze Ndigbo, John Nnia Nwodo said “ Ohanaeze Ndigbo wishes to vehemently deny the allegation of Igbo youth involvement in Lagos #Endsars protest as part of a grand design to destroy Yoruba economy.
“Ndigbo are focused and unequivocal about what they want in a contemporary Nigeria as already articulated in the terms of engagement of this group which is to restructure Nigeria for a true federal system where justice and equity will reign.”
Also speaking, the Alaigbo Development Foundation (ADF) President, Prof. Uzodimma Nwala, strongly denounced the allegation, stating that “the #ENDSARS protest is multi-ethnic revolt by Nigerian youths and not owned or started by Igbos, IPOB or any other ethnic group”.
As expected, the incident drew global and local condemnation from the African Union (AU), Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and other world bodies.
The United States government in a statement issued by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, condemned the use of excessive force by military forces.
Calling for an immediate investigation, he said those involved should be held to account in accordance with Nigerian law, adding that the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are essential human rights and core democratic principles.
Also, US Presidential Candidate and former Vice President, Joe Biden, urged the US to stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy, just as he charged President Buhari and the military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths.
United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres condemned the escalation of violence in Lagos, Nigeria, adding that demonstrations must be peaceful, just as there was need for an end to reported police brutality and abuses. He added that authorities must investigate these incidents and hold perpetrators accountable.
Former US Presidential Candidate, Hillary Clinton also joined the world to condemn the attack on unarmed protesters and charged the president and army to stop killing young protesters.
Deputy Secretary-general of the UN Amina Mohammed stressed the importance of respect for peaceful protests and freedom of assembly and call on the security forces to exercise maximum restraint.
It also drew global condemnation from renowned figures including Pop stars Beyonce, Cardi B and Nicki Minaj, Treyz Song, Kanye West, Gabrielle Union and Noami Campbell.
The African Bar Association said it would file criminal complaints against the federal government before international bodies over the shooting of peaceful protesters in Lagos. The association said this in a statement by its President, Hannibal Uwaifo.
According to the statement: “This devilish action which has resulted in the killings and maiming of unarmed peaceful protesters in Lagos is not only a violation of international law but constitutes criminal acts for which those responsible will be held accountable in due course.
“The African Bar Association is totally disappointed in the government of Nigeria who instead of wholly addressing the germane issues raised by the protesting youths chose to adopt Gestapo tactics infiltrating the ranks of peaceful protesters with hired mercenaries and thugs who attacked the protesters in order to create a scene of chaos.
“The African Bar Association will immediately file formal Criminal complaints before appropriate international bodies to open an international inquiry into the irresponsible behaviour of the Nigerian government masquerading as a democracy.”
Also reacting, the Nigeria Bar Association (NBA) demanded that the military high command should immediately identify those involved in the shooting of defenceless protesters. NBA President Olumide Akpata also said the association would commence a legal action against the government for the act of brutality on innocent protesters, adding
that the military would be joined both in local and at international forum on the violation of the rules of engagement.
In what has been deemed a presidential lapse or missed golden opportunity by those who watched the nationwide address, in his speech to the nation two days after the shootings, President Muhammadu shockingly made no mention of the Lekki shooting in his 10 minutes address. In the much awaited address after he concluded a meeting with all the Security Chiefs, he said government will not allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace of the nation.
He stressed that they listened to the genuine concerns and agitations of members of the public by evaluating and accepting the five-point agenda of the protesters by scrapping SARS, and putting measures in place to address the other demands of our youth, with plans to implement extensive police reforms.
But he added that the promptness with which they acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests.
Attacking the spread of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media in particular, he said the government has done its best in ameliorating the challenges faced by the populace.
With regard to the welfare of police personnel, he said the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission has been directed to expedite action on the finalisation of the new salary structure of members of the Nigeria Police. The emoluments of other paramilitary services are also being reviewed upwards.
While reaffirming commitment to preserve the unity of this country, he charged the protesters to resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy.
To the international community who responded swiftly to the shootings, Buhari said they must to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgment and making hasty pronouncements.
At the end of the address, Nigerians who were at least looking for some sort of closure were left hanging in the loop as they described the speech as not just lacking in empathy, but, also came across as a thinly coated-threat.
With the fake news and misinformation being peddled, it has become pertinent that some crucial questions be asked and answers provided. Was there a shooting at Lekki tollgate? If so, by who? At whose orders? Is the punishment for defaulting curfew hours gunshots or even death?
The state governor has admitted the soldiers shot at protesters and even visited the injured in the hospital, but the military insist they had no hand in the shootings. If the videos and pictures are superimposed like the military would have all believed, where are the alternative videos of their version? Where are the videos from the Lekki tollgate cameras before the lights went off? What does the CCTV videos from the Tollgate say since the governor say they are intact?
Given the controversy over casualty and fatality figures, does it make it less of a crime that the injured were more than the dead as was earlier claimed? Where there people injured during the shooting? What are the rules of engagement in the military? When will the military stop seeing civilians as the enemy?
What does it say about the chain of command if the governor of the state is merely the chief security officer on paper? If the soldiers acted without orders from the 81 Division headquarters, what does that say about the leadership and discipline that is widely touted as part of military ethos. Or are we back to the era of unknown soldiers? Have the expended bullets been analysed seeing that they all have numbers? Have the numbers on it been used to trace the owner?
Although the casualties and fatalities recorded in the melee were yet to be fully accounted for days after the shooting (some persons are still missing), the fact remains that there was a shooting. Given the controversy generated over the fatality figures, it would be stating the obvious that it does not make it less a crime that the military shot at unarmed protesters.
Given that the life video of the shooting was watched by over 130,000 persons worldwide, THISDAY inclusive, it has become a fact that there was indeed a shooting by men in military camouflage. What is in contention now is ferreting out the unit they were under and who gave them the orders to shoot.
Also, another clip from an NTA reporter, Ijeoma Uloma Igwe, who was covering the adherence to the curfew before the shootings erupted, lent credence to the story that soldiers actually shot at unarmed protesters.
But if going by claims by the military that the videos and pictures were photoshopped, a simple meeting with experts would have clarified than that you can photoshop everything except a live video done in the heat of the moment that was watched worldwide.
It is also imperative to note that shooting innocent and unarmed civilians is illegal by the Nigerian constitution and International law that binds security forces in Nigeria, as well as a violation of fundamental human rights and right to protest. Also, given that #ENDSARS protests began as a reaction to innocent civilians getting killed by security operatives, is the solution to this another battery of shootings?
Nonetheless, it does not also take away the fact that a lot of fake news and misinformation thrived as several pictures popped up of supposedly dead people. They have since come up to debunk the claims that they died in the shooting. These fake pictures did more harm than good as it helped cast a cloak of unbelievability on genuine cases.
However, what is expected is for the military and the government is to begin the process of healing by acknowledging that people were shot at and at least some persons were injured and others died at the hospital as a result of gunshot wounds. This will give some sort of closure to the bruised hearts of Nigerian youths and not the current glossing over of what happened that fateful night.