Nigeria never misses the opportunity to miss an opportunity. In early October last year, thousands of young Nigerian men and women thronged onto the streets of Lagos, Abuja and many other cities in protest against what they correctly termed ‘police brutality’. Their protests were aimed specifically at the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force.
SARS was established in 1992 to fight the rising incidences of armed robbery across the country at the time. However, SARS soon turned into a special unit for the systematic extortion, harassment, torture and even extra-judicial killing of mostly innocent Nigerians. A June 2020 report by Amnesty Nigeria documents “at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial executions by SARS” in five states between January 2017 and May 2020. These incidences of police brutality were often to attract information or forced confessions of crime many victims may not have committed. The victims, the report says, are mostly young Nigerians between 18-35 years old from predominantly poor and disadvantaged backgrounds. The report found that the use of torture by SARS was so frequent that many police stations across the country designated interrogation rooms as “the temple” or “the theatre”.
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So the young protesters who took to the streets in protest had a valid point. And for over two weeks they waged a collective action of the sort never seen before in Nigeria. Using social media to organise, they demanded that the federal government should immediately release all arrested protesters; offer justice to all deceased victims of police brutality by compensating their families; investigate and prosecute all reported cases of police brutality within 10 days; disband SARS and carry out psychological evaluation of its operatives before their redeployment; and finally, increase the salaries of the police.
The apolitical nature of the movement during this phase of the protests made an immediate impact. President Buhari ordered the disbandment of SARS and acknowledged the grievances of the protesters. “I will like to use this opportunity to say a word on the recent genuine concerns and agitations by Nigerians about the excessive use of force and in some cases extra-judicial killings and wrongful conduct of the men of the Nigeria Police Force. The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihoods of our people,” he said.
Shortly after this, however, the protests took an unfortunate turn. Scores of hoodlums descended on the protesters in Abuja and Lagos, while in Edo and Ondo states, the protesters broke into prisons freeing over 2000 inmates, according to media reports. More than this, the protesters began to demand the dissolution of the government and resignation of the president. Yet, the worst were yet to come. By 20th October, security officers swarmed on the protesters at Lekki Toll Gate, presumably to disband them. But this, in turn, set off a Twitterstorm about what has now come to be known as the ‘Lekki massacre’, the anniversary of which came to pass, along with similar events, last week.
Was there a ‘massacre’ of protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate on 20th October 2020? All evidence so far points to only one logical conclusion: there was none. A Lagos report at the time said that two people lost their lives that day. Since then, neither the protesters, nor their families, nor yet the media and civil society organizations who actively monitored the protests have come forth with even the slightest evidence of ‘a massacre’. Amnesty Nigeria, in particular, initially claimed that 56 people were killed. Now it claims that the death toll that day was ‘at least 12 people’. It, therefore, has a moral responsibility to provide evidence for its claims. So too should the media or any other groups that hold a contrary view to the Lagos State government report.
We are convinced then that the insistence on a false narrative of a “Lekki massacre” is the main reason why the gains of the #EndSARS movement have since been curtailed. A movement of rights cannot be founded on fictional narratives, however emotionally appealing they may be. Nor can protests upturn the will of a majority of Nigerians freely expressed in a democratic election. We urge the youths to focus on realizing their initial demands to the full and to go beyond that to form a national political movement capable of changing the game in the upcoming 2023 elections. Social change requires more than a hashtag.
But if the youths have missed an opportunity by focusing too much on a false narrative, the federal government has missed more. The whole #EndSARS protests provided the nation with an opportunity to engage actively and constructively with the pains and hopelessness of being a young person in today’s Nigeria. It also provided the government with an opportunity for wholesale structural and cultural reforms of the police and other security agencies. Sadly, one year after the #EndSARS protests, the government has missed both of these opportunities.
We call on the federal and state governments to open up more vistas of real political and economic opportunities for our teeming youths. Tokenistic programmes like N-Power cannot address the urgency of the situation. Above all, police brutality remains a daily affair in Nigeria. This must end.