Chiemelie Ezeobi, Mary Nnah, Rebecca Ejifoma, Chiamaka Ozulumba and Oluwabunmi Fache chronicle the #EndSARS protest that snowballed into a movement not just against police brutality but also bad governance in Nigeria
Although the sobriquet #EndSARS did not start this year, it gained momentum during the recent nationwide protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and police brutality in general. Often attributed to Mr. Segun Awosanya, popularly known as Segalink since 2017, a human rights activist and advocate, the hashtag became a rallying point to kick against acts of brutality, harassment and even extra judicial killing by operatives of the now disbanded SARS.
According to Amnesty International, from its investigations, acts of extra-judicial killings by SARS claimed 82 people in three years, but many argue that the figure could be higher.
Over the years, cases of such assaults and brutality perpetrated by SARS have been tackled by successive governments without any result. This year was however different. Just this October, the movement that snowballed into a global protest was triggered by a video of alleged SARS operatives shooting an unarmed young man.
In the video, the victim was shot and brought down from his car before the operatives made away with it. The sheer brutality in public glare triggered off series of online protests against the police squad.
Soon, the hashtag, #EndSARS resurfaced. But this time around, something was different; the young people were fed up of being pushed to the wall even in their innocence. As gory stories of victims and even the dead began to pop up, so did their anger. With no other way to let out their outburst, Twitter first became a pool from where their voices rose against police brutality.
As their outburst raged, it eventually morphed into what became the #EndSARS protest. Although unplanned, it soon became a global movement, going down the annals of history as one of the most organised and unified protests by youths.
Initial Move by Police
When the clamour would not die down, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu banned SARS operatives and other Tactical Squads like the IRT, STS, anti-cultism and anti-kidnapping units from carrying out routine patrols, stop and search, checkpoints, mounting of roadblocks and traffic checks with immediate effect.
When the operatives continued unabated despite the IG’s order, the Commissioner of Police, Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, Imohimi Edgal, said firearms would henceforth only be issued to operatives on guard duty or those responding to violent crimes.
When the touted reforms didn’t reflect on the actions of the operatives, youths took to the streets of Lagos to register their grouse against the incessant acts of brutality, extortion and even extra-judicial killing.
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 on October 7, 2020, kicked off in Lagos in trickles but gained momentum in the next two days. It soon became a nationwide and global protest.
First tagged “Three Days Protest Calling for the Outright Disbandment of SARS”, the protesters visited the Lagos State Police Command and the State House of Assembly as focal points. After the three days, it snowballed into nationwide protests as a culmination of weeks of anger and unattended complaints by Nigerians over the pernicious actions of SARS operatives, who had 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.
Their demands were quite simple- they 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.
Concessions by FG
Some of the demands made have been fulfilled by the federal government but some others have not been fully met like the total overhaul of the police fulfilled and prosecution of killer cops.
Already, the Police Service Commission (PSC) has marked 37 operatives of SARS for dismissal.
Ikechukwu Ani, PSC spokesman, said a presidential panel set up on the reform of SARS received 113 complaints on alleged human rights violations from across the country.
Also, the panel indicted 16 SARS operatives for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearance in the Federal Capital Territory Abuja, Lagos, Delta, Enugu, Imo, and Kaduna while 35 others in 12 states including Akwa-Ibom, Benue, Delta, Enugu, Gombe, Imo, Kaduna, Kogi, Kwara, Ogun, and Rivers.
The federal 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.
From SARS TO SWAT
As the ranks of the protesters swelled, so did their zeal despite police harassment and brutality during the protests. Thus, on October 13, the IG disbanded SARS nationwide but in its place, they set up the new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team that will fill the gaps arising from the dissolution of the defunct SARS.
According to the police, members of this new team will also undergo psychological and medical examination to ascertain their fitness and eligibility for the new assignment. They have since commenced training at the different police tactical training institutions nationwide.
But the announcement didn’t do down well with the protesters. According to them, it was just a case of old wine in new skin. Their disillusionment stemmed from the fact that the unit has been ‘disbanded’ about six times within the last five years.
In 2015, the unit was ‘reformed’; in 2016, it was ‘restructured’; in 2017, it was ‘reorganised’; in 2018, it was ‘reformed’; in 2019, it was ‘disbanded’; and in 2020, it was dissolved with SWAT taking its place. The protest continued.
Assurance by Legislature
The National Assembly also tried to mediate. The Senate President, Ahmad Lawan had assured that the National Assembly will get justice for victims of police brutality. He said the legislature will collaborate with the executive to ensure that rights abuses by personnel of the disbanded SARS are probed.
Also, Speaker of the House of Reps, Femi Gbajabiamila said the House will draft new legislation to establish a system of accountability for the Nigerian police.
The speaker urged the protesters to suspend the protest. This was echoed by the senate president.
The speaker also vowed that he will not sign off the 2021 Appropriation Bill presently before the National Assembly if adequate provisions are not made for the compensation of the families of the victims of police brutality.
Intervention of Ministers
From the Minister of Police Affairs to Minister of Youth and Sports, they all tried to intervene. Expressing concern over the incessant report of infractions against personnel of SARS, the Minister of Police Affairs, Muhammad Maigari Dingyadi said such infractions will be thoroughly investigated.
Also, the Minister of Youth and Sports, Mr. Sunday Dare called for stronger collaboration and mutual understanding between the police, the youth and the citizens.
Stance by NGF
The Nigerian Governors Forum (NGF) was unequivocal when they demanded that all the police officers who participated in actions that led to injury or death of Nigerians be brought to justice.
After a meeting with the IG, the Ekiti State Governor and NGF Chairman, Kayode Fayemi, also insisted that Nigerians who have been adversely affected by police brutality or other actions that were injurious to them or their loved ones, should be compensated.
Efforts by Lagos State Government
One of the states that showed commitment in acceding to the wishes of the protesters is Lagos. Apart from the initial skirmish by the state Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, where he harassed protesters at Lagos House, the state government and the House of Assembly were hands on.
According to the state Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, the government was committed to meeting the requests of the youths. One of the first demands they met was to set up N200 million fund for residents in the state who have been victims of police brutality.
The government also set about releasing all protesters that were arrested during the initial brutality unleashed by the police. Already, some persons died in that violence.
Also, the government listed 20 policemen facing prosecution for charges ranges from murder to other minor offences.
But the movement soon turned violent after hoodlums hijacked it. It snowballed into an ethnic and cult war in some parts of the country. At the end of the attack, scores of protesters sustained varying degree of injuries while some cars were also vandalised.
The protests which was hijacked by hoodlums in various states across Nigeria, witnessed uprising, looting and destruction in Lagos, Gombe, Abia, Adamawa, Bayelsa, Abuja, Rivers, Edo, Delta, Anambra, Enugu, Kaduna, Abuja, Osun, Oyo, Ondo, Imo, Akwa-Ibom, Ebonyi, Kwara, Cross River, Ado Ekiti, Enugu, Jos, and Ogun.
Given the volatile situation, some state governors decided to impose curfew.
In Lagos, the governor was forced to declare a 24-hour curfew last 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.
The defining moment of the protest was on Tuesday, October 20, when soldiers from 81 Division Headquarters of the Nigerian Army shot at unarmed protesters.
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, nothing prepared the #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Tollgate for the magnitude of devastation that would rock their world.
A platoon of soldiers kitted in military camouflage 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 soldiers were seen on camera ordering the protesters to leave the tollgate.
Minutes after, gunshots were heard as they allegedly 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.
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.
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 two 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.
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, the curfew, which was meant to restore order, seemed to have restricted everybody except hoodlums, who had a field day looting and burning in different parts states.
Some states also experienced jail break. It was reported that over 2,000 inmates escaped from the Nigerian prisons in various states.
First were the two Nigerian Correctional Service centres in Benin City, Edo State, and the other in Ondo. So far, a total of 2,051 inmates escaped after the jailbreaks in Edo and Ondo States.
In Edo State, it was reported that 1,993 inmates were freed after nearly three hours of almost unhindered operation by armed hoodlums. Also on the same day at the facility in Oko, also known as the Oko Prison, another jail break happened.
Meanwhile, Comptroller of Correction, Edo State Command, Babayo Maisanda, disclosed that 1,818 escaped inmates were still at large, while 163 have either been recaptured or secured.
In Okitipupa LGA of Ondo State, some thugs broke into the Nigerian Correctional Service and released no fewer than 58 inmates while they burnt vehicles, destroyed properties belonging to the prison and injured the staff found on the premises.
In Lagos, there was a foiled attempt by inmates to jail break the Ikoyi Correctional Centre but it came at a price, some inmates were reportedly shot.
COVID-19 Palliative Looting
The coordinated looting across the state also unearthed different locations where COVID-19 palliatives were stored. The palliatives numbering in thousands were found with the contents of the branded COVID-19 bags still in good shape.
Some of the states affected were Taraba, Osuji, Kwara, Plateau, Ekiti, Kogi, Kaduna, Adamawa, Bauchi and Lagos.
Probe of Lekki Shooting
In Lagos, the probe into the Lekki shooting has begun. Led by Justice Doris Okuwobi, the Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution was initially set up to investigate human rights violations by SARS operatives, but now has its terms of reference expanded to also investigate the circumstances that led to the shooting of protesters.
But the panel even before it started sitting lamented the supposed discovery of a camcorder by former Lagos Governor and Minister for Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola at the Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos, during an on-the-spot assessment.
Leading the FG delegation at the instance of President Muhammadu Buhari, Fashola handed over the discovered camera to the governor for forensic analysis and further investigation.
Also reacting to the Lekki incident, 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.
Army Finally Admits to Presence at Lekki Tollgate
After repeatedly denying their presence at Lekki Tollgate the 81 Division of the Nigerian Army finally responded to the allegations, stating that they were invited by the state government to enforce the curfew. They however maintained that they did not shoot any protester.
Their new stance was perhaps due to the statement attributed to Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu, when he finally admitted on CNN that the CCTV captured the military at the scene.
Presidency’s Stance on Protest
In the aftermath of the Lekki shooting, President Muhammadu addressed the nation but shockingly made no mention of the Lekki shooting in his 10 minutes address, rather 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, 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.
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.
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.
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 teaming 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.
Sustained Online Campaign
The power of social media was one of the major factors that gave the protest a boost. With the protest off the streets in Nigeria, the protesters continued their online warfare against police brutality and bad governance with different hashtags trending daily.