On October 3, 2020, I watched a video of a policeman attached to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shooting a young man in front of Wetland Hotel, Ughelli, Delta State. Initial reports after the young man was shot said the shooter and other policemen in his company drove off in a car belonging to the victim, leaving him in a pool of his own blood.
Another version of the story emerged later that the young man was not dead, but was injured after he jumped out of a moving police van operated by the Delta State local security network.
Two days later, there was another incident of a deadly SARS shooting in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. A young man, Daniel Chibuike, 20, fondly called “Sleek”, and his friends, were sitting outside a hotel when policemen attached to SARS pulled up menacingly.
He panicked and fled. The policemen chased Sleek, shouting, “thief! thief!!” He ran for his life shouting his innocence. But it was too late. They shot him, dumped him on the floor of the police van and drove him around the city until he died.
For years, we have seen horrific scenes like these up and down the country - lives taken so brutally, so casually, and with impunity by those supposed to protect them. The perpetrators boasted that nothing will happen. And they have been right. The case of a SARS police officer in Anambra, CSP James Nwafor, who in spite of serious charges of brutality still got official protection, sums up the state of affairs.
The cop, who allegedly killed scores of young men in Enugu and Anambra States and dumped their dead bodies in Ezu River, has to date, defiantly refused to answer, even when he was summoned by a judicial panel.
It was hard to tell that that October morning one year ago would be the day of reckoning. It was unexpected. In the middle of a global pandemic that had laid bare the frailties of Nigeria’s healthcare and social welfare system, who could have expected that a mass protest movement would evolve so dramatically? The movement managed to transcend the online conversation form that it had been before, and transformed into direct action.
On the global stage, the storm had been gathering. From the resurgence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States, to the anti-Maduro protests in Venezuela and the Sudanese democracy protests, the expectation that a global pandemic and the accompanying lockdowns would hamper such events proved to be false.
In fact, according to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the pandemic itself was a driver for protests. Citizens, disillusioned with political and economic systems that seemed to be creating greater inequality, poured into the streets across the world.
In Nigeria, the month before the #EndSARS protest saw the country’s largest union suspend a nationwide strike against electricity tariffs proposed by the government. The decision to raise tariffs under an administration that had not only led the country into two recessions, but been unable to redeem its promises on the power sector, was as unpopular as organised labour’s indecisive response.
Social media was a rallying force. The hashtag, #EndSARS, was launched in 2016 and had been deployed at different times in the past. But it was not until last October that matters came to a head.
In Lagos, the epicentre of the movement, a group of young Nigerians (less than a dozen) protested first at the Lagos State police command, then moved on to Alausa, at one of the entrances of the complex housing both the State House of Assembly and the Governor’s office. The group sought an audience with Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu to discuss their concerns.
Less than 24 hours later, citizens in other states began to mobilise and voice their displeasure at their various elected representatives. Some groups protested at the palaces of traditional rulers. One of such protests resulted in the death of Jimoh Isiaq, the first victim of the protests felled by police bullets. His mother later got to know about her son’s killing in a viral video.
Protesters in Abuja marched on the police command, where they were treated with contempt and dispersed with tear-gas and water cannons.
If there’s a recurring theme in Nigeria’s history, it is that untreated tensions are never successfully quelled by bullets. They may be suppressed momentarily but they linger on and fester only to resurface in unexpected ways, with greater force. #EndSARS was the first in a long time an action, focused, directed and powered by young people nationally, and targeted at people in power to get a reaction. It was an action started by ordinary citizens, most of whom were disproportionately affected by the rogue police unit’s actions, seeking to bring them to account.
It was also a movement to bring elected representatives to account, and a wake up call for citizens who have become so accustomed to injustice that they make excuses for their victimisers.
A common narrative was that the protesters did not know what they wanted. That is a ludicrous claim. The group not only repeated its demands for an end to police brutality, justice for victims and for greater accountability, these demands were acknowledged by some state governors who seemed only interested in deflecting responsibility.
Some said protests are futile and unsuccessful. This claim is an indictment not only of our political elite, but also the rank-and-file that has participated in numerous strikes against fuel hikes and protests to restore the country’s democratic mandate.
Another common criticism was that the protesters should go and vote instead. To deploy this argument when these individuals were exercising their democratic right is disingenuous. In a sense, what this claim does is to lay solely at the feet of the young people the task of rescuing a broken system. F.K. Abudu, in her interview on Arise TV, provided a strong counter argument, with her response on why voting isn’t the focus when she asked who elected the Inspector General of Police responsible for the rogue unit of the police.
#EndSARS has fundamentally challenged our democracy. While we might have celebrated with much fanfare the transfer of power between two competing parties for the first time in the country’s history in 2015, we’re still a long way from honouring citizens’ democratic rights, including the right to protest.
The government has pushed back, claiming that it allowed peaceful protest, disbanded SARS and set up judicial panels of enquiry in a number of states.
But it has been a farce, quite frankly. For example, the Nigerian Army, a willing tool in the mayhem at the Lekki Toll Gate, the epicentre of the protests in Lagos, has been playing fast and loose with just how far it is prepared to come clean over its role in the shootings at the Toll Plaza.
And the Lagos State Government which declared three days of mourning at the beginning and made a song and dance of setting up a judicial panel has ended up dancing on the graves of the dead. At the same tribunal that it set up, the government not only suppressed evidence, it described the grief and traumatic experiences of victims as a “Nollywood movie!”
It is ironic that while governments at different levels sought to portray the protests as political, claiming they were funded by subversive elements, the same governments had no shame using thugs to infiltrate the protest in a number of places and stoking violence. It showed that our political elite who claim to have fought against military rule have imbibed their worst qualities and have themselves become a threat to the country's stability.
#EndSARS was not perfect. It couldn’t have been. But the fact that it happened at all means that one day, there would be recompense for the memory of those whose brutal murders at the Lekki Toll Gate and elsewhere still cry for justice.
- Ishiekwene is Editor-In-Chief of LEADERSHIP