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Targeted with live rounds in Lagos, campaigners against police brutality step up their protests and political ambition
Pressure is mounting on President Muhammadu Buhari's government after the shooting of protestors at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on 20 October with the African Union and the United Nations condemning the violence, calling for a full investigation of the deaths and negotiations to resolve the crisis. After investigations on the ground, Amnesty International reported that at least 12 civilians had been shot dead in the attacks at Lekki Toll Gate and the Alausa protest ground in Lagos.
The intensity and national reach of the protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit have caught the Buhari government off guard. But the police and military’s use of deadly force against the protestors has redoubled popular distrust of the government, making any political solution to the crisis far harder. President Buhari's government was divided over how much it should concede to the predominantly youthful demonstrators on the streets of most major cities. It seemed to have calculated that announcing the disbanding of SARS as part of wider reforms of the police would persuade the activists to call off the demonstrations across the country.
Almost all the protests had been highly disciplined and peaceful, despite the efforts of some unidentified groups to disrupt them. The turning point for both government and protestors came on 20 October when five state governments, including Lagos, announced curfews. At the same time, the army said it would send troops to support the police enforcement effort. The curfew announcement was followed by an attack at dusk by a formation of men in camouflage uniforms walking deliberately towards the protestors who had been occupying the Lekki Toll Gate, east of Lagos, for over a week. The floodlights and the closed-circuit television were turned off just before the shooting started.
Conflicting reports surround the shooting and the death toll. Several demonstrators told Reuters and the BBC that over 10 people were shot, some killed, and insisted that the armed men were soldiers and were followed by back-up vehicles.
In statements on social media, army spokesmen denied they were at Lekki or were responsible for the shootings. Then, Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said the army had been deployed to Lekki but were observing strict rules of engagement. He has announced an investigation into the shootings that is to report within two weeks.
News of the shootings on the morning of 21 October triggered a wave of attacks on police stations and public buildings across the commercial capital, including several banks, the Lekki Toll Gates and headquarters of TVC News, owned by Continental Broadcasting Services, a company linked to former governor of Lagos Bola Tinubu. The Tinubu family has also been linked to the company which owns the Lekki Toll Gate which is said to have lost US$600,000 since the protests started. Some youths broke into the Oba of Lagos's palace and others surrounded Tinubu's compound on Bourdillon Road, in the wealthy Ikoyi district.
The army complicated the government's response when its spokesman, Colonel Sagir Musa, said it was prepared to intervene in support of the 'democratic government'. That prompted suspicions that it had very different intentions, that a faction within the military and the Department of State Security had its own agenda. Chief of Army Staff General Tukur Yusuf Buratai has said nothing since the crisis escalated and army got involved.
After announcing that it was about to begin a national training exercise known as Operation Crocodile Smile, the military high command deployed troops across Abuja, the political capital on 19 October. Although narrowly targeted on police brutality, the protests have quickly become a signifier for campaigners against corruption, inequality and arbitrary state power as they won national and international backing.
The role and organisational prowess of youths in the protests, especially those with tech and social media expertise, points to a deepening generational divide. It comes as the economic recession triggered by the pandemic has taken a heavy toll on jobs and living standards. The campaigners have enlisted backing from United States tech firms Twitter and Google, both of which are significant investors in Nigeria. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey publicly backed the protestors and their online fund-raising.
As the protests were spreading, the US tech investor Stripe was negotiating to buy Paystack, one of Nigeria's biggest fintech companies, for over US$200 million. It was another sign of the power of the tech sector in the economy. The campaigners used their networks to win support from top athletes, musicians, film stars, students and professionals in the diaspora and spread the word. The hashtag #EndSARS – the movement's demand for the abolition of the police unit – is flashing around the cybersphere.
Coordinated on social media across the country and internationally, the #EndSARS movement has no publicly identified leaders with political or civil society affiliations, nor are trade unions or religious groups directly involved.
The protestors are inspired by the Black Lives Matter campaign in the US, along with their counterparts in Algeria and Sudan whose confrontation with the state pushed out leaders long in power and kick-started political change. Faster than many had thought, the protest movement's aims are turning to more ambitious political demands.
Yet reforming the police could be a catalyst for wider political change. Decentralising the federally controlled police, making it more accountable to state governments, let alone communities, is contentious for Nigerian politicians. Many oppose the idea of state police; few want more accountability for the security services.
After two weeks of monumental activism by the #EndSARS movement, some predict it will develop into a new national movement reflecting young Nigerians' disenchantment with the country's dominant two political parties. The youth movement's inclusiveness – disregarding the common fault lines of class, ethnicity and religion – has given it a particular power, all the more so in a country where over 60% of the population of around 210 million is under 30. Youth unemployment is now running, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, at 34%, the highest for a decade. It shows the pandemic's hit to the economy and also explains the irresistible appeal of this new movement.
30 years of protests against Nigeria's police
1984: The military government led by General Muhammadu Buhari and Brigadier Tunde Idiagbon sets up a special section of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) to combat armed robbery. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) can be traced to this unit.
1992: The military regime under General Ibrahim Babangida sets up the first SARS unit with that name under the Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department in the NPF. It is tasked with stopping armed robbery, kidnapping and cattle-rustling.
2010: SARS expands to take on internet fraudsters and violent cults in universities. Its agents infiltrate colleges and universities prompting protests from students and youth groups. Amnesty International sues the NPF for the torture of three men in Port Harcourt. Calls mount for the disbanding of SARS.
August 2015: Inspector General of Police (IGP) Solomon Arase splits SARS into an operational and an investigations unit.
September 2016: Amnesty International releases a report documenting SARS's extensive use of torture and detention without trial.
December 2017: Human rights activist Segun Awosanya leads the online campaign #EndSARS. At the National Assembly, the Senate calls for the disbanding of SARS.
August 2018: Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo, during President Muhammadu Buhari's medical leave in London, orders the 'immediate overhaul' of SARS after a succession of well documented reports of abuses. IGP Ibrahim Idris announces that the unit will be renamed the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad and that a new head will be appointed along with officers trained to monitor human rights abuses (AC Vol 59 No 3, Rumblings in the regions & Vol 59 No 16, Barbarians at the gate).
January 2019: New IGP Mohammed Adamu restructures and decentralises SARS, stating that the Commissioners of Police in each state will be responsible for SARS operations.
June 2020: An Amnesty International report states that no SARS officer has been prosecuted despite a succession of reports detailing rights violations and killings.
3 October: Video is posted on Twitter purportedly showing SARS operatives dragging two men out of a hotel in Ughelli, in Delta State, then shooting one of them dead. The footage goes viral, sparking mass protests across the country to #EndSARS.
8 October: Protests start in at least ten states, mostly in the South and Middle Belt. Protestors led by film stars and celebrities demonstrate outside the state government headquarters in Lagos as Nigeria's top musicians endorse the campaign, getting support from sports stars and musicians in Europe and the United States.
10 October: Protests in Abuja are dispersed. Police are accused of shooting dead protestor Jimoh Isiaka in Ogbomosho, Osun State.
11 October: Adamu announces the immediate dissolution of SARS.
12 October: President Buhari, launching the Youth Empowerment Scheme, says the dissolution of SARS is part of wider reforms of the police. Police in the capital again use force to disperse protests. Amnesty says at least ten people died during the protests.
13 October: Rivers State governor Nyesom Wike rescinds an earlier order to disperse protest in the state. Demonstrations shut down many cities in the South-East including Enugu, Owerri and Aba. Lagos State governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu meets President Buhari over the protests. IGP Adamu announces a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit to replace SARS.
14 October: More demonstrations in Lagos, Abuja and Warri, Delta State. Sanwo-Olu calls on campaigners to wind down the protests because they are harming business. The army says it is ready to support civil authorities to restore order.
15 October: Demonstrators mass outside the gates of the National Assembly in Abuja where parliamentarians are due to meet on the crisis. Ekiti State governor Kayode Fayemi chairs a meeting of the 36 State Governors which agrees on local investigations into police brutality and to set up compensation funds. Protestors block the roads to the international airports in Abuja and Lagos. Twitter creates a special emoji backing the #EndSARS campaign in green and white, Nigeria's national colours.
16 October: Osinbajo chairs a meeting of the Council of State, and says federal government is committed to judicial panels at state level, investigations, and compensation for victims. He apologises for the government's slow response to the protests. Armed thugs attack protestors in Lagos. International hacking group Anonymous attacks the Central Bank of Nigeria website.
17 October: Two people die in Osun after local thugs join the protests amid reports of attempts to kill the state governor. The Nigerian Army announces it is launching a national exercise Crocodile Smile VI on 20 October, to include cyber warfare operations, but insists it is not targeting protestors.
18 October: Protests force the rescheduling of national school examinations. Tanker drivers block the Yola-Taraba highway in the North-East in protest against police brutality. Protests in Ilorin are disrupted by thugs. IGP says training of the new SWAT unit, in consultation with the International Red Cross to monitor human rights, is starting.
19 October: There are two mass break-outs from the Federal Prison in Benin City, one of the most closely guarded facilities. The Edo State government imposes a curfew after setting up a judicial panel to investigate police brutality.
20 October: Curfews are announced in Lagos, Osun and Ekiti states. Troops patrol key government institutions in Abuja. Unidentified men remove the CCTV cameras and disable the floodlights at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos which have been occupied by protestors for a week. At dusk, armed men in camouflage fire live rounds into the demonstration at Lekki. Many are reported to have been killed or wounded but the army denies responsibility for the operation. The attacks trigger condemnation from the UN.
21 October: Thugs and 'area boys' go on a looting spree in Lagos, setting fire to state and commercial properties, and ransacking the Oba of Lagos's Palace.
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