Peaceful #ENDSARS Protests: How Violence Was Introduced by Reactionary Forces

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Introduction

The #ENDSARS protests were well organised in a peaceful manner, in all parts of the country. In response to the five-point demand of the Protesters, the Inspector-General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu, disbanded the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), set up the Special Weapon and Tactics Team (SWAT) and promised to carry out other reforms. Since all promises to reform the SARS were not fulfilled in the past, the Protesters remained adamant. In a desperate move to halt the campaign, Northern Governors claimed that SARS should not be abolished. Others tried to introduce religion, in order to divide the Protesters. But, the divide and rule program did not work, as the #ENDSARS protests spread across the nation like a bush fire in the harmattan.

Even though some Protesters were allegedly killed in Abuja, Benin and Ogbomoso, the campaigners refused to be intimidated or provoked. They organised night vigils in some cities, to mourn their colleagues who had been mowed down. Thousands attended the memorial programmes, which were very peaceful. The popular and well coordinated campaign of the youths, was a surprise to all and sundry. The Federal Government became confused, and was unable to respond to the leaderless revolution of the Protesters. Hence, violence was introduced by some interest groups. But, as the government lost control of the monopoly of violence, it turned round to accuse the campaigners of allowing hoodlums to hijack their peaceful protests.

Duty of the Police to Provide Adequate Security for Protesters

Apart from domesticating the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, the Nigerian Government has entrenched fundamental rights in Chapter 4 of the Constitution. Other laws which have prohibited illegal arrest and detention and torture, have become part of the corpus juris of the country. Having completely humanised the criminal justice system, Nigeria has institutionalised a human rights law regime in line with democratic ethos. Regrettably, the aforesaid human rights laws are observed in breach by the Police and other security agencies, as well as the Judiciary.

In particular, the accountability mechanisms put in place have not been to work. For instance, Section 34 of the Administration of Criminal Justice Act provides that designated Magistrates and Judges shall visit and inspect all Police stations and other detention facilities, at least once a month. But, due to non-compliance with the law the nation has continued to witness an increasing wave of illegal arrest, detention, extortion and extrajudicial killing of criminal suspects in the custody of the Nigeria Police Force and other security forces. Hence, young people decided to wage the #ENDSARS campaign against Police brutality.

The fundamental rights of the Nigerian people to freedom of expression and assembly guaranteed by Sections 39 and 40 of the Constitution, have been said to include the right to hold political meetings, rallies and marches. IGP v ANPP (2008) 12 WRN 65. The judicial recognition of the right of the Nigerian to protest for or against the Government, led to the amendment of the Electoral Act 2010. Specifically, Section 94 of the Act stipulates that: “Notwithstanding any provision in the Police Act, the Public Order Act and any regulation made thereunder or any other law to the contrary, the role of the Nigeria Police Force in political rallies, processions and meetings shall be limited to the provision of adequate security as provided in subsection (1) of this section”.

Even though President Muhammadu Buhari declared that Nigerian youths were entitled to protest peacefully, he did not direct the Inspector-General to protect the #ENDSARS Protesters. Thus, in utter breach of the law, the Nigeria Police Force did not provide any form of security for the #ENDSARS Protesters in any part of the country. As if that was not enough, the Police did not arrest the thugs who unleashed violent attacks on the Protesters. Having conceded that the cause of the #ENDSARS campaign was just, the Federal Government ought to have prevented lumpen elements from hijacking the protests..

Use of Thugs to Disrupt Peaceful Protests

A critical review of the #ENDSARS campaign, does not justify the allegation that the Protesters provided opportunity for hoodlums to hijack their protests. As a matter of fact, there are indisputable facts to prove that, the Police and other security agencies allowed many thugs to introduce violence to mar the peaceful protests of the #ENDSARS campaigners. Not a few people have concluded that the thugs who attacked the Protesters, were sponsored by the government. Some of the arrested thugs confessed that they were hired at Jabi Park in Abuja, to unleash violence on the Protesters.

Another group of armed thugs in a convoy of buses and cars led by unmarked official vehicles, were captured on camera as they shot at Protesters in Abuja. Twice, the cars of some of the Protesters which were parked, were set on fire by the well guided thugs. None of the arsonists was arrested by the Police. The State Security Service denied involvement in the criminal activities of the thugs. A retired security officer corroborated the official denial, by disclosing that it was a Senator that hired the thugs who unleashed violent attack on the Protesters in Abuja.

At about the same time, the Lagos State Government promptly denied involvement in the savage attack of the peaceful Protesters by thugs in the premises of the Lagos State House of Assembly Complex. But, since the Government has a legal obligation to investigate and bring the thugs and their sponsors to book, the security agency cannot be allowed to wash off its hands like Pontius Pilate.

However, having allowed a free rein of thuggery, other criminal elements joined the fray. It was at that stage, that the Lagos State Government declared a curfew. Instead of allowing the Police to enforce the curfew, the Nigerian Army deployed troops to the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos at about 7pm on Tuesday, October 20. Without any basis whatsoever, the soldiers rained live bullets on the unarmed Protesters. In order to hide the identity of the soldiers who took part in the premeditated murderous attack, the light at the venue was illegally disconnected. A few hours later, the Nigerian Army Headquarters issued a statement, wherein it denied the involvement of soldiers in the attack.

Regrettably, the official denial of involvement of the Army in the attack, and the report credited to the Lagos State Governor to the effect that no Protester was killed by the soldiers, sparked off violent attacks in and outside the country. While taking advantage of the peaceful protests against the violent attack of the soldiers, hoodlums engaged in looting and burning of properties. Since the Lagos State Police Command does not have canisters of teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon with which to disperse the tumultuous crowd, scores of people were killed while others were arrested. In reaction to such killing, there was a total breakdown of law and order as street gangs attacked some Police officers and burnt a number of Police stations.

The palliatives stored in a warehouse in Lagos State, was broken into and carted away by the poor. Having confirmed that the security forces had been overwhelmed in Lagos State, the revolt of the youths spread to other States. Apart from looting and destruction of public and private properties, the correctional centres in Edo, Delta and Ondo States were flung open for prison inmates to escape. Other warehouses where palliatives were stored in many States were attacked by thousands of people, who took away bags of rice and other food items.

But, having been sufficiently exposed, the Army has since admitted that soldiers were at the Lekki Tollgate, but that they did not fire at the Protesters. The Army also claimed that the soldiers were involved in enforcing the curfew, on the invitation of Governor Jide Sanwoolu. The belated justification for the presence of soldiers at the Lekki Tollgate, is an admission of the illegality of the operation. The afterthought of the Nigerian Army should be questioned, as only the President has the constitutional power to invite the armed forces in aid of civil authorities, in the event of an insurrection. The protest which had been acknowledged to be peaceful by the Government could not be equated to an insurrection, to have warranted the involvement of soldiers.

Assuming without conceding that the soldiers were deployed to enforce, the law why did they not attack the hoodlums? Why did they launch a violent the attack on the Protesters, two hours before the commencement of the curfew? Apart from the misleading claim that the troops were deployed on the orders of Governor Sanwoolu, the President could not have deployed the troops in view of the case of Femi Falana SAN v Chief of Army Staff (FHC/L/CS/1939/19), wherein the Federal High Court had declared Operation Positive Identification exercise illegal and unconstitutional.

In granting an order of perpetual injunction restraining the Respondents and their agents from conducting any nationwide military operations without compliance with the extant provisions of Sections 217 (2) (A), (B), (c), 218 (1), (3) & (4) of the 1999 Constitution as amended, Justice Aikawa held that “it would be outside the powers of the 3rd Respondent (the Nigerian Army) for it to parade the streets in the rest of the country, and demand citizens to show their identity cards and the like. If there is any security need for that, my view is that it should be left in the hands of Police which is the security agency vested with these functions, as spelt out by Section 4 of the Police Act”.

It is unfortunate that those who were hired to attack Protesters without restraint turned against the Government, by burning public properties including Police stations. They also destroyed the properties of private citizens, and corporate organisations. The hoodlums also engaged in looting and killing Police officers. These criminal activities were committed, in spite of the curfew imposed by a number of State Governments. In condemning the orgy of violence that engulfed the nation, the Alliance on Surviving Covid-19 and Beyond (ASCAB), appealed to the aggrieved youths not to substitute perceived State terrorism for individual terrorism.

Hoodlums Hijacking Protests

Section 227 of the Constitution has banned the recruitment, training and use of thugs for any political objective. Furthermore, the Electoral Act has criminalised the use of thugs by political parties and party leaders. But, in defiance of the both laws, members of the political class regularly recruit and arm thugs to harass and intimidate political opponents during elections. After the elections, the arms are not recovered, while the thugs are abandoned by their godfathers. Having been used and dumped, the thugs turn to armed robbery, kidnapping and banditry. The so-called hoodlums who purportedly hijacked the peaceful protests of the youths, are otherwise called thugs or area boys during elections. So, let the political leaders that have armed the hoodlums, stop the hypocrisy of condemning them for committing arson and looting.

It is a well known fact, that some thugs are members of the ruling party in each State of the Federation. They commit serious criminal offences, including murder, but they are usually shielded from prosecution by the political leaders. During the Covid-19 restrictions of movement, some parts of Lagos State were taken over by a number of gangs. Some landlord associations had to contribute money to buy peace in the State, at the material time. But, as soon as the restriction was lifted, the challenge of the street boys was not addressed. It is time the threat to law and order by such lumpen elements, was taken up by the Lagos State Government. We equally call on the Federal Government, to effectively ban the recruitment and arming of thugs by political parties and political leaders in the country.

Although the looting of goods by criminal groups cannot be justified in any civilised society, it is submitted that it is going to be difficult to prove the offence of stealing against poor people who removed palliatives from the warehouses and distributed them. Under the Criminal Code, the offence of stealing is committed when a person takes another person’s property without permission or legal right, and without intending to return it. In the instant case, the palliatives are not the properties of the State Governments, but bought for the poor and vulnerable people by the private sector. Since they were not bought by the Government, it is impossible to prove stealing against the poor that the palliatives were meant for.

In 2016, a poor man, Roman Ostriakov, was convicted by an Italian court for stealing cheese and sausages worth €4.07 (£3; $4.50) from a supermarket. But, in setting aside the conviction, the Supreme Court of Cassation in Italy held that stealing small quantities of food to satisfy a vital need for food, did not constitute a crime. In justifying its decision the Court said that :”The condition of the Defendant and the circumstances in which the seizure of merchandise took place, prove that he took possession of that small amount of food in the face of an immediate and essential need for nourishment, acting therefore, in a state of necessity”.

With respect to the removal and distribution of the palliatives, the poor who are charged with stealing may plead that they were in a state of necessity. But, such defence will however, not avail those who stole properties other than palliatives. In other words, those who stole the properties of the Government and private citizens, are advised to return them without any delay. Failure to do so, may lead to the successful prosecution of such suspects.

Conclusion

From the foregoing it is indubitably clear that the Federal Government is to blame for introducing violence into the peaceful protests of the #ENDSARS campaigners. By not providing adequate protection for the Protesters as stipulated by the law, the Police deliberately abdicated its statutory responsibility. By allowing thugs to attack and kill unarmed Protesters, the Police and other security agencies aided and abetted the criminal elements. By firing live bullets on unarmed Protesters, and the Army and Police set out to commit murder. The situation was compounded by the brutal killing of peaceful Protesters by soldiers, under the pretext of enforcing a curfew which is the responsibility of the Police.

The authorities of the Nigeria Police Force are not unaware that, riots and violent protests may occur from time to time. Hence, they ought to have acquired teargas, rubber bullets and water cannons. In the absence of such crowd control equipment, the Army and Police engaged in firing live bullets which led to the death of many Protesters. Police stations which were not properly secured, were overrun and set aside by unarmed youths. In the process, some Policemen were gruesomely murdered. The Federal Government is vicariously liable, for the official negligence that led to the destruction of the Police stations and killing of Policemen. The implication is that those who lost their family members and goods during the protest, are entitled to reparation because the Federal Government owes it a duty to protect the life and property of every person living in any part of Nigeria.

Femi Falana, SAN, Human Rights Crusader; Recipient of the Bernard Simmons Award of the International Bar Association