Chiemelie Ezeobi reports that the second wave of the #EndSARS protest was met with stiff resistance from the police in Lagos as the protesters, under the aegis of #OccupyLekkiTollgate stormed the street to register their grouse about the decision of the judicial panel to reopen the Lekki Tollgate
Last week Saturday, the second wave of the #EndSARS protest began in Lagos under the auspices of #OccupyLekkiTollGate, with more than 40 protesters arrested and dehumanised by police operatives attached to the Lagos State Police Command.
Although the sobriquet #EndSARS did not start recently, it gained momentum during last year’s nationwide protests against the now disbanded 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.
First Wave of Protest
Over the years, cases of such assaults and brutality perpetrated by SARS have been tackled by successive governments without any result. Last year October was however different as the movement that snowballed into a global protest after it was triggered by a video of alleged SARS operatives shooting an unarmed young man in Delta State. The sheer brutality 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.
In response, 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.
But when the operatives continued unabated despite the IG’s order, the then 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 either forcefully abducted, shot or even harassed youths across board.
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.
In response, the FG first fulfilled some of the demands but some others have not been fully met like the total overhaul of the police and prosecution of killer cops.
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. Although the police said members of this new team will also undergo psychological and medical examination to ascertain their fitness and eligibility for the new assignment, not much has been heard of them since their recruitment.
With the skepticism the protesters met the disbandment, the protest continued. 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 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 and properties were also vandalised.
The protests, which were 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 effective from 4pm. Although the curfew was extended to 9pm, the harm was already done.
The defining moment of the protest was that same 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.
Controversy over Casualty, Fatality Rate
In his first address after the shooting, the Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu blamed it on forces beyond his direct control. It was also 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.
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. Also on the live video, she displayed spent bullets that were recovered after the shooting.
Vandalism, Looting, Jailbreaks
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 part of the states.
Some states also experienced jailbreaks. 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. Although two separate attempts were made in Ikoyi and Kirikiri Prisons in Lagos, it was aborted, although not without some casualties. So far, a total of 2,051 inmates escaped after the jailbreaks in Edo and Ondo States.
Goof by Army
Reacting 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.
The then 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.
Days later, 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 the governor when he finally admitted on CNN that the CCTV captured the military at the scene. Afterwards, the army claimed they shot blanks but again, admitted later that they also went with live bullets, of which they insisted it was only the former they shot.
To begin the process of healing and meeting the demands of the protesters, different states set up the Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS. Their job was clearly spelt out— evaluate the evidence and draw conclusions on the validity of public complaints on police brutality and extra judicial killings with the aim to determine and recommend compensation for victims and their dependents. The tribunal also, in its terms of reference, is mandated to interrogate SARS officers responsible for the abuse of victims and recommend their prosecution.
But despite claims by the federal government that it is set to meet the demands of the protesters, they have continuously been detained, had their bank accounts frozen, and some placed on flight bans.
In Lagos, the Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS kicked off in October, 2020. 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.
Promising neutrality and justice, the panel members include Mr. Ebun Adegboruwa, SAN (representing the Civil Society); Taiwo Lakanu (a retired Deputy Inspector General of Police); Ms Patience Udoh (representing the Civil Society); Mrs. Olutoyin Odusanya (Director, Lagos Citizens Mediation Center), and the representative of the Human Rights Commission; Mr. Segun Awosanya, a Human Rights activist; Rinu Oduala and Temitope Majekodunmi, representing #EndSARS protesters and Lucas Koyejo.
One of the cases brought up at the panel was the reopening of the Lekki Tollgate where protesters were shot at. Lekki Concession Company (LCC), through its counsel, Rotimi Seriki, prayed the panel to allow it to take over the plaza for repair and insurance claims since December 2020 given that operations at the toll plaza were suspended after the shooting of protesters on October 20, 2020
When the toll company brought up the demand in November 2020, the panel turned it down but the chairperson of the panel agreed with LCC on the evaluation of the level of damage.
Stirring the Hornet’s Nest
But months down the line, five out of nine members of the panel acceded to LCC’s request to take control of the toll. Just last week, the Justice Doris Okuwobi-led panel granted LCC permission to repossess the plaza after taking arguments for and against the application made by LCC counsel for the re-opening of the facility.
While five members of the panel sat over the application of LCC to repossess the Lekki toll plaza and listened to submissions from the LCC, Lagos State government and EndSARS protesters’ counsel, the other four members of the panel abstained from sitting, only to emerge from the inner chamber to read a dissenting ruling.
The dissenters were led by Mr Ebun Olu-Adegboruwa (SAN), representing the civil society; Ms. Patience Udoh representing the civil society; Rinu Oduala and Temitope Majekodunmi, representing #EndSARS protesters, while those with the majority judgment were Justice Doris Okuwobi (rtd), chairman of the panel; Taiwo Lakanu DIG (rtd.), Lucas Koyejo, Segun Awosanya and Oluwatoyin Odusanya
Giving her ruling, Okuwobi said it was foolhardy for any reasonable petitioner to say the toll plaza be closed for the lifetime of the assignment of the panel as the hearing of petitions of victims has not been seen to be tied to the closure of the plaza indefinitely.
Following the action of the panel, one of the two youth members of the panel, Rinu Oduala, stepped down. Citing “undue intimidation of peaceful protesters” and the panel’s recent vote to re-open Lekki Toll Gate, where the Oct. 20 shootings took place, before the panel concluded its investigation. I will be stepping down from the Lagos Judicial Panel as it is now obvious that the government is only out to use us for performative actions”.
Expectedly, the decision by the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses to reopen the Lekki Tollgate was met by stiff opposition by Nigerians who participated in the hijacked #EndSARS protest.
After the judgement of the majority panel members became public, the protesters condemned the move, noting that the planned reopening of the toll made a mince meal of the over three weeks protest and the loss of lives recorded. To register their grouse, the protesters vowed to storm the toll gate and rehash the Occupy Lekki Tollgate like they did for weeks last year before the army was called in by the Lagos State government to disperse the teeming crowd.
Tagged ‘OccupyLekkiTollGate to Sorosoke (Speak Out) and demand justice for all victims of #EndSARS Protest’ they disclosed that a physical but peaceful protest would be held on Saturday, February 13. According to them, it was a slap in the face to quickly reopen the toll to generate income when justice was yet to be gotten for those that lost their lives during the last invasion by the army.
#DefendLagos Opposition Group
Their decision to protest again polarised the polity as opposition in form of #DefendLagos group vowed to ensure the protest doesn’t hold, with some threatening to unleash violence on the #EndSARS protesters.
Ban by FG, Police
Reacting to the planned protest, the federal government issued a stern warning that any protest should be shelved. Also, the Lagos State Police Command issued a ban on the #EndSARS protest. This is just as it vowed to arrest protesters who defy the ban to protest, adding that already security forces have been deployed to dislodge any violent protest, gathering and procession in any part of the state has been emplaced.
The state Commissioner of Police, Hakeem Odumosu, who had in the past few days held series of strategic meetings with principal staff officers, areas commanders and divisional police officers, last Thursday categorically told the protesters to shelve their plans.
According to him, the stance to ban the protest was necessitated by intelligence gathering about a possible hijack by same hoodlums responsible for the previous violence witnessed.
“Premised on the available intelligence and due threat analyses carried out on the planned protest, the command perceives such proposed protest as a calculated attempt to cause pandemonium, brouhaha and massive destruction of lives and properties under whatever guide and such will not be allowed in Lagos State.
“The Lagos State, its people and the Nigerian nation at large are still groaning (in pains) for the aftermath of the last EndSARS violence that left many lives and properties lost. It is therefore not reasonable to allow same to repeat itself in the state. More expedient why such gathering should not hold is the prevailing COVID- 19 virus which is rampaging in the country.
“You will all recall four days ago, the Federal Government Task Force on COVID-19 declared that the country now has 13 variants of COVID-19 virus, which makes it more deadly. With this development, all hands must be on deck to halt the spread of the virus by self-complying with its protocols major which is maintenance social distance.”
Despite the ban, the protesters drawn from the #OccupyLekkiTollagate and #DefendLagosRally, vowed to carry out their protest at the Lekki Tollgate. While the former vowed to storm the toll gate to protest the reopening, the opposing faction on the other hand, were bent on stopping the former.
However, although both groups are yet to indicate who their leaders are, some of the #EndSARS protesters have called for caution, earning them the umbrage of their counterparts. To those who called for caution, to avoid a repeat of arrests and even deaths recorded during the first hijacked protest, attention should be focused more on online instead of physical campaign.
Arguing that the online campaign was a viable machinery that paid off the last time, they noted that failure of government to bring to task those responsible for the Lekki tollgate shooting months after the incident, was a sign of things to come.
For the #DefendLagosNow group, their charge is solely to “protect what the destroyers left behind” after the first protest. Vowing to match the firing power of the #OccupyLekkiTollgate, they noted that there was no going back to the planned counter protest.
Show of Force
To show it meant business, the Lagos State Police Command deployed operatives drawn from the mobile police squads and Rapid Response Squad (RRS), the latter who were dubbed Police Amotekun because of the manner they dressed alongside their commander, CSP Olayinka Egbeyemi.
Contrary to expectations that they would stay away from the tollgate, the #OccupyLekkiTollgate protesters showed up on Saturday morning. Although the numbers cannot be compared to those that gathered last year, they still passed the message of resilience across. However, there were no signs of the opposition.
Immediately protesters showed up, the police began to bundle them into waiting Black Maria trucks. With help from enforcement staff of LCC, the protesters were forcibly arrested and their phones seized.
As a further proof that the reforms needed by the police were yet to be implemented, the police exerted dehumanising acts on those arrested. Viral videos those arrested stripped half naked with some beaten. They were also transported in a dehumanising manner in cramped buses with some forced to carry each other.
The command further arraigned the 40 protesters arrested at Lekki Toll Gate plaza, on grounds of conspiracy, conduct likely to cause breach of peace and violation of COVID-19 protocols.
Odumosu said the “suspects had gathered at the Lekki Toll Gate plaza creating tension and behaving in such a manner that could cause breach of public peace without due regard for COVID-19 protocols major of which are use of nose masks and social distancing.”
Arraigned at the mobile court at Panti, Yaba, they however were granted bail by the court and are expected to appear in court on the next date of adjournment, which is March 2, 2021, with the certificate of COVID-19 test.
Military’s Counter Plans
Reacting to the incident, Minister of Defence, Bashir Magashi, said the government will not allow “unpatriotic elements” to destabilise the country. Speaking on Saturday after participating in the revalidation exercise of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in Kano, the minister alleged that some of the protesters are rogues and thieves.
He said: “I am the minister of defence and the defence of this country is entirely my responsibility. We have the mandate to ensure that the lives and property of people are protected. There is a basic responsibility of the government, and that is to protect every Nigerian, whoever he is. We always believe that given the necessary intelligence, no agent of government will sit down and fold its hands without doing something.
“This #EndSARS issue, if you recall, the minister of information has briefed this nation and alerted that something like this is coming; and we know we are always prepared. This is our job, to ensure internal security. We must plan for it. We don’t want to be taken by surprise. And if you want us to be taken by surprise, then, there is no need to call us protectors. If #EndSARS is to take place today, we will ensure that we have peaceful counter plans that we will put in place to ensure that mistakes are not made in protecting the people.”
The arrests by the police have been met with condemnation from individuals, political figures, human rights activists and the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA). Also global figures like Rihanna and others have totally condemned the government and the police, describing the act of stopping peaceful protest as tyrannical.
As at press time on Sunday, the Lagos CP was forced to react given the widespread condemnation the dehumanising actions garnered. While condemning the act, he said the command would investigate.
Stating that he was piqued by this unprofessional and inhuman act, he said he has ordered the Deputy Commissioner of Police, State CID, Panti, DCP Adegoke Fayoade, to analyse the video and bring to book whoever that must have been responsible for the act.
“In as much the command is resolute in enforcing all laws in the state, it will not deviate from the Standard Operating Prosecure of the Nigeria Police Force and provisions of the law in discharging its duties; noting that the command will fish out those responsible for the molestation and ensure they are punished for their unprofessional conduct,” he noted.