By Osai Ojigho
And, the World Stood Still
The world literally stood still for the Nigerian #ENDSARS movement in the first weeks of October 202, getting its own twitter emoji and gaining popular support from world leaders and influencers including Actress, Gabrielle Union and US movie producer, Tyler Perry. A viral video of a man shot by officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force on 3 October 2020 in Ughelli, Delta State, elicited much anger that revived debates about the brazen acts of SARS against the people, and sparked the protests that revived the #ENDSARS campaign for justice online and powered it offline.
On 7 October, 2020, some people started gathering on the streets of Lagos calling for end to police brutality. By 8 October, 2020, at least 31 locations in 17 States and the FCT in Nigeria, had #ENDSARS protestors. The protestors were largely young people, who were expressing their frustrations with a security agency set up to protect them. But, the involvement of Nigerian artistes Falz, Runtown, etc gave it a different vibe, and reflected how these social actors saw the need to align their support to their fan base comprising of mostly the youth. The #ENDSARS protests spread in Nigeria, with about 30 States having had at least 1 protest. Lagos State had the most locations of protests, with Lekki tollgate drawing a diverse mix of people from all works of life. Nigerians in the diaspora, mainly in Ghana, Kenya, South Africa, UK, USA, Canada, Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, and France, held similar protests in front of Nigerian High Commissions and Embassies and notable landmarks. These protests showed strong community, solidarity, and unity of purpose. It was an organic and non-hierarchical movement yet both young men and women worked side by side harmoniously to press their collective demands for a police force that protects them and is accountable to them.
While there were incidents of Police crackdown on protestors at the beginning of the #ENDSARS protests in some areas like in Abuja on 10 and 11 October when the police shot at protesters and fired teargas and used water cannons to disperse the crowd, the protests went on with protestors seeking alternative venues. The IGP had, in his various directives, ordered all State Commands to halt the use of force against protestors, and unconditional release of those arrested. The violence suffered by protestors thereafter by unidentified groups, and the shooting of peaceful protestors by soldiers at the Lekki tollgate on the evening of 20 October, 2020 was therefore, a flagrant disregard for the rule of law, sanctity of life and the right to protest.
Call for Police Accountability
The call for Police accountability and security reform in Nigeria, is not new. Several NGOs, including CLEEN Foundation, Human Rights Watch, Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) and Amnesty International, have released several reports documenting human rights violations committed by law enforcement agents. The Presidential Committees on Police Reform in Nigeria 2006 and 2008, produced wide ranging recommendations meant to improve policing in the country. Yet, problems still abound with many complaints of extrajudicial executions, unlawful arrests, torture, extortion, threats, unlawful killings made against the Nigeria Police Force. The situation is so bad, that the World Internal Security and Police Index 2016, ranked the Police in Nigeria the lowest compared to 127 countries. The infamous SARS unit had also been reviewed, since its establishment in 1992. The most significant, was the setting up of the Presidential Panel on the Reform of the SARS in 2018. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) coordinated the investigation, and submitted the report with its findings and recommendations to the President of Nigeria on 3 June, 2019. It took the #ENDSARS protests of October 2020, for the implementation committee for this report to be activated.
Reports Against SARS
Amnesty International’s report, ‘Time to End Impunity – Torture and other Violations by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad’, records at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.
The study showed that young people, especially young men between the age of 17 and 30, were targeted by SARS. This explains why the protests were led by the Youth. SB Morgen also released 11 Major F-SARS incidents in the last 18 months, between March 2019 – June 2020. In a survey conducted by HumAngle and Dataphyte, and released in August 2020, young people expressed frustration with security agents, citing extortion, assault and harassment as main abuses against them. There is overwhelming evidence against SARS officers, and the fact that no person had been successfully prosecuted for overreach of their powers and human rights violations committed, fuelled the protests and the continued demand for justice.
The unfortunate carnage that followed the violent crackdown on protestors across the country and led to several States declaring 24-hour curfew, is unprecedented in Nigeria. For once, the warnings that growing dissatisfaction has taken a turn for the worse. Law enforcement agents and the government have a responsibility to ensure that everyone can enjoy their human rights, and create an enabling environment for everyone regardless of their status, age, gender and ethnicity to thrive. Sadly, years of non-responsive governance has led to needless deaths, shocking violence and brutal assault on safety and security.
The UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, remarked after her visit to the country in September 2019, that Nigeria is a pressure cooker of internal conflicts and generalised violence that must be addressed urgently. And called on the authorities to “prioritise as a matter of urgency accountability and access to justice for all victims”.
It is important for the authorities to preach non-violence, and use non-violent means for resolving conflicts. There is a need to assess how to make the right to protest, less of a dangerous venture for both protestors and the law enforcement agents themselves. The numerous recommendations and reports on SARS and Police reform in general, must be made public and implemented. The ultimate call for justice, means that those responsible for human rights violations and abuses are brought to book. The Nigerian State must live up to its peoples’ expectations which is a safe, secure, and enabling environment for every person to thrive. An honest, open, and transparent assessment of the handling of the #ENDSARS protests, would be a good place to start.
Osai Ojigho, Lawyer and Human Righta Advocare; Director of Amnesty International Nigeria. Opinions are that of the author, and not necessarily that of the organisation she works with