Peaceful protests organized by Nigeria's youth, leading celebrities, and activists demanding an end to police brutality turned bloody last night when state forces opened fire at Lekki toll gate in Lagos, killing dozens.
The Lekki massacre is the latest in a painful reckoning with a brutal regime. The protests across Nigeria are a culmination of years of harassment, kidnapping, and extortion by a police unit known as the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS). Last week, a video of a man allegedly being killed by police went viral and sparked anger and outcry online by the country's young people, inspiring the hashtag "#EndSARS."
The hashtag has blown up on social media with a lot of people sharing their traumatic experiences with SARS. What's happening in Nigeria demonstrates how the systemic abuse of power by police is not just an American phenomenon but is equally worth our attention.
What is the Lekki Massacre?
On October 20, eyewitnesses report that unarmed peaceful protesters in the Lekki area of Lagos were murdered in cold blood by the Nigerian army. According to reports, forces staged a power outage, then proceeded to shoot at thousands of protesters in the dark, injuring and killing an unconfirmed number. The Nigerian army has since gone on to call the shooting "fake news." However, countless people on the ground have taken to social media sharing horrific accounts of what really happened.
Following the massacre, ambulances were reportedly delayed and even turned back by the Nigerian army when they tried to enter the Lekki area to offer life-saving medical assistance.
Earlier that day, the Lagos State Governor enforced a 24-hour curfew, beginning at 9PM – the curfew was announced at 4PM. In a city of Lagos' size and a population of over 17 million, a five-hour notice is not enough time to enforce a curfew. This curfew was apparently the pretext for shooting at and murdering innocent civilians as they peacefully demanded an end to police brutality under the umbrella term #EndSARS.
What is SARS?
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, is a special branch of the Nigerian police created to fight violent crime. However, SARS has become associated with human rights abuses. For years, SARS has been responsible for widespread torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (other ill-treatment) of detainees in their custody, including hanging, severe beating, extra-judicial killings, and sexual harassment of women.
According to a 2016 report by Amnesty International, abuse at the hands of SARS in Nigeria is widespread and routine. And SARS officers involved in the torture and other ill-treatment of civilians are rarely held to account.
To make matters worse, the Nigerian human rights organizations Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) reports that “confessions” obtained from suspects through torture by the police are admissible and used in courts as a basis for conviction.
SARS especially targets young people and women
Many people are using this moment to share stories of brutality attributed to the police unit, notably its notoriety for unduly profiling young people and women.
Those considered "flashy" often attract officers' attention. People report being targeted for having dreadlocks, tattoos, wearing jewelry or AirPods – anything visibly secular; And very few walk away without having to hand over money, while others are abused, arrested, or jailed on trumped-up charges and some have been killed.
Below are just some accounts of harassment by SARS officers.
The shootings that inspired the protests
A video surfaced last week of officers dragging two men's limp bodies out of a hotel, before shooting one of the men on the street.
The video sparked a deluge of footage and stories posted on to social media alleging other atrocities and brutality by the notorious SARS unit.
One of the videos posted on Twitter showed officers shooting a motorist and dumping him on the roadside before speeding away from the scene with the victim’s vehicle.
Last year, the shooting of Kolade Johnson reignited a public call for the shutdown of the controversial police unit in the country.
What has the reaction been?
Protesters in Lagos and Abuja have been met with tear gas to disperse protesters, according to witness accounts. The protesters are demanding that the unit be disbanded rather than reformed.
In response to the video of the man being shot by officers in a hotel, authorities have only responded to deny the footage is real and the man who filmed the video was arrested – provoking even more anger.
In addition to calling for the disbandment of SARS, protesters and activists are also calling for compensation for victims of SARS brutality, both alive and dead, and demand an independent investigation into the present and past grievances around SARS brutality, bringing officers to justice.
As the hashtag continues to trend, celebrities and personalities in Nigeria and beyond are demanding justice and raising awareness about these horrific incidences of police brutality.
This weekend, Burna Boy shared a statement on Twitter showing solidarity with victims of SARS abuse and highlighting the need to address unjust profiling. The rapper also announced a sub-fund under the umbrella of his charitable organization The Reach.
PROJECTPROTECT is “an initiative set up to provide financial, medical, and legal resources during and after #ENDSARS protests.” Burna Boy has also reached out to his followers to find lawyers who may be willing to volunteer.
In response to mounting pressures, last week, the Nigerian government revealed it is disbanding the SARS, altogether.
However, this is a hollow victory. Following the disbandment of SARS, Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced he had set up Special Weapons and Tactics team to replace SARS. This rebranded police unit includes members of the disbanded SARS unit. Now many are using the hashtag #EndSwat on Twitter to oppose the new unit.
This isn't the first time similar empty promises have been made. Many Nigerians have lost hope at the prospect of any real change.
Two years ago, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo tweeted that he had directed that the "management and activities of SARS" should be overhauled "with immediate effect"... then nothing happened.
Then last year, a special Presidential Panel was formed to reform the unit. At the time, President Buhari gave the head of police three months to work out how to implement the recommendations, but critics say little appears to have changed. Then again, this is the same president who let his army brutally murder civilians in cold blood.
Amnesty Nigeria's program manager, Seun Bakare, told CNN that earlier bans on SARS did not change much because they "were simply done to assuage the swelling public anger at the time of the announcement and not intended to end police brutality."
Even so, Nigeria's youth are fighting to see a change in their country, and with the world watching, hopefully, this change will indeed come to pass.
How you can help
Use your voice. With social media we all have a platform, to educate, raise awareness, and who solidarity with our Nigerian brothers and sisters.
You can also do more and donate to the Nigerian Feminist Coalition, the NGO is fighting injustice on the ground in Nigeria. The donations are used in providing medical and legal bills for some Nigerians arrested in recent days, and most importantly to hire private security guards in protecting them against armed gangs.
Send a message to the Nigerian government and demand an end to police brutality via this template by Amnesty International.