After a nationwide protest that led to the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in 2020, nothing seems to have changed as the police have continued to brutalise and dehumanise citizens, even threatening to stop peaceful march scheduled to mark first anniversary of the #EndSARS campaign, Gboyega Akinsanmi writes
Wednesday, October 20, marks the first anniversary of the #EndSARS campaign and Lekki shooting. Expectedly, ahead of the anniversary, activists, and youths have officially revealed a plan to stage peaceful protests in honour of the victims, whose lives were allegedly summarily truncated at the dusk of October 20, 2020.
In Nigeria, rights to hold peaceful protests are indisputably reserved under the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended). While Section 39 states that every person “shall be entitled to freedom of expression,” Section 40 stipulates that every person “shall be entitled to assemble freely and associate with other persons…”
With these provisions, the Police Act, 2020 further clarifies the roles of the Nigeria Police during every peaceful protest. Under Sections 4(a-c) and 5(3), specifically, the Act specifies that the responsibility of the Nigeria Police is largely to protect citizens who embark on civil, lawful or peaceful protests and not to threaten them.
However, the plan to hold the memorial protest has elicited stern response, first from the Lagos State Police Command. In a statement by its spokesman, Adekunle Ajisebutu, the command warned against protests by individuals, youths or youth groups to mark the first anniversary. The statement also warned that the police would deploy all means within its constitutional powers to suppress the protest.
Similarly, the Osun State Police Command threatened “to stop at nothing to ensure it averts the planned protest.” Evident in a statement by its spokesperson, Yemisi Opalola, the command warned that it would no longer tolerate “any unlawful assembly, gathering or protest that will jeopardise the peace of the state” as it did between 0ctober 8 and 20, 2020.
This threat has caught attention of a civil rights activist and a member of Lagos State Judicial Panel on Restitution for Victims of SARS and the Lekki Tollgate Incident, Mr Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa (SAN), who disagreed with the police commands purely on the points of law.
In the first instance, Adegboruwa argued, the police commands violated provisions of the 1999 Constitution and Police Act for threatening protesters from exercise their rights to peacefully assemble. He also argued that police threat was an attempt “to gag citizens from enjoying their constitutional rights.”
Obviously, police threat indeed stoked questions as to what has changed after the protest that wreaked havoc not just on lives and property, but also on domestic economy. It equally raised grave concern about the operational strategies of the Nigeria Police. The threat further revealed whether the police, as an institution, have learnt any lesson from the #EndSARS campaign one year after.
What culminated into the #EndSARS campaign, a decentralised social movement that held major cities down for 12 consecutive days, was an accumulation of outlawed practices that the Nigeria Police had condoned in the way SARS/FSARS was conducting its operation. In 1992, precisely, the squad was set up to tackle armed robbery across the federation.
At a point, however, infraction crawled into its operations. And the squad became notorious for human rights violations – torture, extrajudicial killings, and disappearances of suspects in their custody. Its operatives then indulged themselves in profiling youths with dreadlocks, ripped jeans, tattoos, flashy cars or expensive gadgets as criminals, internet fraudsters, or armed robbers.
They killed innocent suspects who could not afford to pay for their freedom without any consequences.
This practice continued unabated despite attempts to end the culture of impunity and torture. As the Country Director, Amnesty International, Osai Ojigho observed, impunity had become ingrained in the gene of the squad’s operatives. With this decadence, the enactment of Anti-Torture Act in 2017 could not end the culture. Also, the passage of Police Act in 2020 did not also bring about order in the operations of FSARS/SARS.
Rather, as Executive Director, Partners West Africa Nigeria, Kemi Okenyodo observed, profiling of youths as criminals became the modus operandi of the squad until October 8, 2020, the day thousands of youths flooded the streets of Abuja, Lagos, Ibadan, Jos, Enugu, and other major cities in a nationwide movement tagged #EndSARS protest.
Before the protest erupted, there were reports of cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS, especially between 2017 and 2020. But two incidents forced the protesters to hit the streets, demanding the dissolution of FSARS/SARS, among others. The first was the video footage of how the operatives of SARS shot a young citizen in Ughelli, Delta State on October 3, 2020.
The video footage went viral on the social media, stoking public outrage, especially among those within 17 – 35 age bracket. He was left in the agony of gunshot and in the pool of his blood while the armed officers drove off in a Lexus SUV car. He was however fortunate the shooting did not terminate his life.
Just after Ughelli’s shooting, another video footage surfaced on Twitter precisely on October 5, 2020. It showed how the operatives of SARS shot an upcoming musician, Daniel Chibuike (a.k.a Sleek) in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. It also showed how the armed officers dragged Chibuike in his pool of blood, which eventually culminated in his untimely death.
Amid public disapproval occasioned by these incidents, youths trooped out in thousands, protesting police brutality, which had cost many youths their lives while others suffered irreparable damage during torture. As a result, they made five specific demands five specific demands as a condition to end the #EndSARS campaign, which gained support among Nigerians in the Diaspora.
At the core of their demands, they asked the federal government to release all arrested protesters; ensure justice for all victims of police brutality; set up an independent body to oversee investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct; conduct psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers in line with the Police Act and increase police salary to enable them discharge their statutory mandate.
The demands had not been addressed when the military officers descended on the #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate at the nightfall of October 20, 2020. The shooting, though the army had first denied complicity, allegedly claimed lives with scores sustaining varying degrees of injury. But Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babajide Sanwo-Olu admitted that two protesters were lost to the Lekki incident.
Consequently, at the meeting of the National Economic Council (NEC), governments agreed to separately set up judicial commission of inquiries to address the demands of the youths and investigate the Lekki shooting. In different states of the federation, startling revelations have been coming from the #EndSARS panels. The panels too have awarded damages in favour of many victims of FSARS/SARS, which Ojigho claimed, attested to the squad’s infractions.
Rather than learning from the Lekki killings, the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari had targeted youth leaders, especially leaders of the Feminist Coalition. As shown in different reports, regulatory authorities froze their bank accounts; confiscated travel documents, and detained them in some cases. This approach, according to Okenyodo, further portrayed deceit of the federal government to reforms it had been promising.
Even after FSARS/SARS was dissolved, the trend of extra-judicial killings is still a source of national concern on monthly basis. Between October 2020 and September 2021, the records of Global Rights showed that 187 lives were lost to extra-judicial killings. In its August report, Amnesty International put cases of extra-judicial killings at 115. Most of the cases occurred in the South-east and South-south. In March 2021, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ordered the arrest of three police officers complicit in extra-judicial killings.
With these ugly trends, as Ojigho observed, nothing has really changed one year after the #EndSARS campaign and Lekki shooting. She acknowledged the dissolution of FSARS/SARS. She also admitted that judicial panels had been established and damages awarded in favour of victims of police brutality at the panels. In terms of policy shift, however, Ojigho believed nothing “had really changed between then and now.”
In terms of operations too, according to Executive Director, Global Rights, Abiodun Baiyewu, police have not learnt much lesson from what happened during the protest. Baiyewu then cited how police had been repressing the protesting public from exercising their constitutional rights. Baiyewu’s claim found justification in the way the police disrupted a rally of pro-Yoruba Nation in Lagos on July 3.
As a result, stray bullet hit a 14-year-old hawker, Jumoke Oyeleke in Ojota, leading to her untimely death. Another 18-year-old girl, Monsurat Ojuade was killed on September 10 when police operatives raided Ijesha, a neighbourhood of Lagos. At different times, police had attempted to foil processions of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria in Abuja (IMN). Such repressive actions have, serially, caused gross breach of human rights.
One year after the #EndSARS campaign, all these cases attested to the failure of governments to effect necessary reforms that would bring about accountability and transparency in police operation. On this premise, a senior academic at the Nigerian Defence Academy, Dr. Sharkdam Wapmuk recommended the holistic police reforms and focus on citizen security as antidote to end police brutality in the federation.
But beyond Wapmuk’s recommendations, Okenyodo canvassed decentralisation of the Nigeria Police in the spirit of federalism. To achieve this end, as she pointed out, reports from different presidential panels of inquiry should be reviewed and all recommendations be synthesised. She challenged the federal government to ensure full-scale implementation of all the recommendation for the purpose of crafting a functional police system.