Maverick Citizen Op-ed

#EndSARS protests: Nigeria’s president could have prevented escalation of violence but poured oil on the fire through his silence

#EndSARS protests: Nigeria’s president could have prevented escalation of violence but poured oil on the fire through his silence
A protester holds a stained Nigerian flag along a road during a protest against the Nigeria rogue police, otherwise know as Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), in Lagos, Nigeria, 21 October 2020. It has been two weeks since a protest against SARS began and Protesters say agitation against police brutality continues as an entry point to addressing other social and political issues such as corruption, official ineptitude to public accountability, and government inefficiency in Nigeria. Protesters defiled a 24-hour curfew earlier imposed on the Lagos metropolitan city by the governor to continue the protest after a military attack on the protesters at a toll gate in Lagos on 20 October 2020. EPA-EFE/AKINTUNDE AKINLEYE

Located in the central regions of Nigeria’s Delta State, Ughelli is a sleepy city in the Western Niger Delta and the unlikely birthplace of a protest with global ramifications, which is what Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests have become.

It all started without much fanfare.

Around 3 October 2020, a video went viral, alleging that officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) had shot a man at the Wetland Hotel in Ughelli and made away with his Lexus Sports Utility Vehicle (SUV). Ordinarily, this kind of allegation about a police unit would beggar belief but such is the reputation of the SARS for atrocity-policing that few disputed it. By the following day, a Sunday, unrest had begun in the community against the killing.

It was later claimed that the man did not die as initially alleged but that did little to assuage the community’s anger. On 8 October, a police officer was killed, with another seriously wounded. The community’s reaction was  aggravated by several extrajudicial killings across the country by the same unit this year, for which was no accountability. They did not think this occasion would be any different.

That same day, the movement articulated a set of demands, top of which was the scrapping of the #SARS. In response, the NPF launched what they called an investigation into the attack on the police officers in Ughelli but which appeared to take the form of reprisals. What began as a local unrest over familiar allegations of atrocity-policing was about to take on a life of its own.

By this time, the epicentre of the protest moved about 566km to Lagos, driven by young, active netizens who adopted and amplified it under the banner of a re-born #EndSARS campaign. The #EndSARS movement was not new. The hashtag first debuted in 2017, and had several moments on Twitter, growing with each new SARS atrocity – until the Ughelli watershed.

The movement benefited from digital organising tools. On a dedicated website, people freely curated and shared their experiences at the hands of SARS personnel. Supporters used crowdfunding tools to raise funding for the movement. Young people deployed drones to monitor intruders and secure protest venues. Professional security providers were used to handle provocateurs.

In days, the protest had moved from the backwaters of Ughelli to hold the attention of the world and attract the support of global celebrities. With this attention, the demands of the movement became more articulate and more insistent. The movement looked organised but was deliberately without leadership. In a country where the icons of popular movements had a history of being co-opted or targeted by the government, this appeared sensible. Anyone could layer onto it their grievances but no one could claim it as their plaything.

A frontline of the movement was encamped and rallied at the toll-gate in upmarket Lekki, a suburb of Lagos, Nigeria’s commercial capital. As days passed, the encampment grew in size.

Government response

The response of the government was taken from the book of attrition.

On 9 October, after being briefed by the Inspector-General of Police and the Vice-President, President Muhammadu Buhari appeared to offer his endorsement to the SARS, declaring that “the vast majority of men and women in the Nigeria Police Force are patriotic and committed to protecting the lives and livelihoods of Nigerians”.

It was a Friday. If anything, this gave the protest a boost. In the 48 hours that followed, the protest expanded to many other locations in the country beyond Lagos and the encampment at Lekki Tollgate grew. On Sunday, 11 October, the government sent Police Inspector-General Mohammed Abubakar Adamuto to announce, in what looked like a hasty press conference, that it had conceded to the demands of the protests and scrapped the SARS. In nearly the same breath, he said SARS would be replaced by a new unit to be known as the Special Weapon Tactical Team (SWAT). The protesters were not persuaded: the government has announced the scrapping of SARS on at least four occasions in the past three years, without accomplishing it. The optics of a name change, in the context of an all-time low trust index of government, did not cut it for them.

An Open-Source Movement

Founded as an open-source, digital movement in the second half of 2017, the #EndSARS movement was a response to well documented patterns of atrocity-policing epitomised by the SARS. Within six months, in December 2017, the movement forced the then inspector-general of police (as the head of Nigeria’s 350,000-strong police force is known), Idris Kpotun Ibrahim, to announce the scrapping and re-branding of the SARS, changing the name to Federal Anti-Robbery Squad (F-SARS).

The re-branded F-SARS was, however, not different in any way from its predecessor nor did this effort address the underlying pathology of atrocity-policing.

Eight months later, on 4 August 2018, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered the Inspector-General of Police to urgently reorganise F-SARS, accusing them of gross “human rights violations”. He also ordered the National Human Rights Commission to investigate the pattern of atrocity-policing by the unit.

When the panel submitted its report in June 2019, Buhari ordered them to work with his government to implement their recommendations within three months. Nothing of the sort happened. The report was not published, its contents remained secret, there was no White Paper and there was no implementation.

This was not the first time the government would order a study on police reform without touching any of the recommendations. Indeed, at different times in 2006, 2008 and 2012, Nigeria’s federal government had established blue-ribbon presidential panels on police reform. Their reports came to naught, dismissed by the leading advocacy organisation for police reform in the country as all “motions without movement”.

Prior to the presidential directive of June 2019, the new Inspector-General of Police, Adamu announced the disbandment of SARS in January 2019, “with immediate effect.” When the government announced that it had again disbanded the same SARS that was disbanded or re-organised on four previous occasions in three years, few people believed it. Unsurprisingly, the protesters were unwilling to yield up or go home. Instead, the protests grew in intensity. 

A Resilient Atrocity

Assisted by a species of atrocity-jurisprudence, atrocity-policing in Nigeria has been resilient and has grown in both intensity and impunity.

In September 1981, in Surulere, Lagos, a police officer shot and killed Dele Udoh, a star athlete who represented Nigeria in the Moscow Olympics in 1980, reaching the semi-finals in the 400 metres event. He had gone out to buy a snack. No one was held accountable for this killing.

The following month, on 1 October, 1981, Ijeoma Udebiuwa, a third-year surveying student at the University of Nigeria, was shot and killed by Patrick Nwankwo, a police officer, while she was driving home from a party marking Nigeria’s independence. Nwankwo’s case was that he suspected Udebiuwa and her friends of being armed robbers. On appeal, the Court of Appeal in 1984 overturned his conviction for murder and substituted a verdict of manslaughter.

In 1986, another police officer, Samsom Uzoka, was involved in the shooting death of a commuter who had attempted to evade his unit without paying a bribe. Again, in 1990, the Court of Appeal overturned his conviction for murder, reducing it to manslaughter on a defence of accidental discharge.

Taking advantage of this permissive jurisprudence, the Nigeria Police Force in 1992 created the SARS into a unit to tackle a growing problem of “Robin Hood” robberies. Over the next two decades, the unit grew in its impunity. By 2010, one monitoring organisation, in an evaluation based on mostly official sources, described it as a “criminal force”.

In June 2020, Amnesty International released a report documenting 82 cases of extrajudicial killings by the SARS in the period from January 2017 to May, 2020.

As Nigeria’s #EndSARS protests gathered momentum, on 11 October 2020, Nigeria Mourns, a national coalition of civic organisations advocating for an end of deadly violence in the country, released a report documenting at least 122 extrajudicial killings in the country by security agencies, mostly by the SARS, in the first nine months of 2020. These were only the latest in a long history of atrocity-policing that failed to receive official attention.

Through all of this upheaval, Buhari kept silent, when a properly calibrated communication from him could have helped to de-escalate the situation.

Nigeria’s constitution precludes the states from legislating on policing. The presidency has exclusive operational control of the NPF, pretending to outsource police reform to the states.

By 18 October, shadow elements of government appeared to have found a way to discredit the movement by employing informal militias to attack them. Simultaneously, the rhetoric of the government’s senior figures began darkly to hint at a violent end-game. Information Minister, Lai Mohammed, denounced it as “anarchy”.

Forty-eight hours after this declaration, at dusk, uniformed soldiers opened fire on unarmed young protesters holding Nigerian flags and singing the national anthem at the protest site at the Lekki toll gate. No one knows how many were killed but at least 12 fatalities have been confirmed. The government, meanwhile, is busy orchestrating a denial of what has become known as the Lekki Massacre. In a nationwide broadcast on 22 October, Buhari blithely failed to acknowledge the massacre or atrocities against the protesters and all but cast the #EndSARS protests as a failed effort at regime change.

As opposition candidate for the presidency of Nigeria in 2015, Buhari, the former military dictator-turned-democrat, campaigned on a three-point agenda that focused on addressing insecurity, food security and anti-corruption. In many ways, these three were related. The physical insecurity in the country identified with Boko Haram and the depredations of armed herders, was a threat to food security. Corruption endangered both forms of security.

Around the country, the experience of insecurity varies. In northern Nigeria, insecurity was identified with mostly non-state violence from the Islamist Boko Haram and its factions in north-east Nigeria, armed bandits in the north-west or armed herders in much of north-central Nigeria. While insecurity in the south is identified with some non-state militias, much of it, sadly, came from official state institutions. Among these, the best known is the SARS.

After the events of this past week, Muhammadu Buhari’s lasting legacy may be the escalation of insecurity all over the country and few can trust him to do what is needed to reform the institutions of Nigeria’s security sector. For those looking to unravel what happened in the atrocities against the #EndSARS movement, an independent inquiry with a hybrid international composition may be the only credible solution. DM/MC

Chidi Anselm Odinkalu is Senior Manager for Africa with the Open Society Justice Initiative; Abiodun Baiyewu is Executive Director of Global Rights.


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