End SARS: The Crackdown on the Nigerian People’s Campaign Against Police Brutality
By Maya Garner
During the month of October, the people of Nigeria took to the streets in mass protests against police brutality, known as the “End SARS” movement. On October 20th, the peaceful demonstrations took a dire turn when police began shooting into the crowd, now known as the Lekki Toll Gate massacre. The massacre was met with immediate international outrage. Now, human rights organizations continue to call on the Nigerian government to come clean about the facts surrounding the massacre.
The controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was established in 1992 to tackle crime, soaring at the time. However, SARS quickly gained notoriety for lawlessness, becoming involved in activities such as extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearances and kidnapping, blackmail, sexual assault, arrest of children, and others. While such grave incidents have been linked to SARS for decades, other common occurrences include harassment of young men and women on the street. Such harassment include arrests or detention on dubious grounds, beatings and use of excessive force, and profiling of young people based on clothing choices, appearance or personal belongings. The SARS unit had additionally been enabled to carry out their work with a great deal of autonomy, as well as impunity.
The campaign against police brutality began initially in 2017 as an online campaign with the hashtag #EndSARS, creating the name for this year’s movement. The “second wave” of protests was sparked by a video surfacing online that documented officials shooting a young Nigerian man outside the Wetland Hotel in the town of Ughelli in Delta State on October 3rd. The following online calls to end the SARS unit materialized as nationwide mass protests beginning five days later, on October 8th. Young protesters camped out in front of the residence of the Governor of Lagos State. Much of the organizing has taken place on the internet, used as a mobilization tool. Peaceful protests, led by young Nigerians, were then met with violence by the police, including in the country’s capital, Abuja.
The Inspector General of Police Mohammad Adamu announced on October 10 that SARS would be immediately disbanded. In its place would be a new unit, the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. This announcement, however, did little to appeal to protesters, who saw the new SWAT-unit as little more than a rebranding of SARS. Without addressing core concerns, the new change to the SWAT unit would merely be a cosmetic change. Additionally, a significant number of members of the SARS unit were set to be transferred on to SWAT, reinforcing the idea of the change being a simple rebranding. As such, protesters continued their efforts and the police responded with heavy-handed violence and excessive force. Several protesters were shot dead over the next few days on individual occasions.
On October 20, the police violence escalated into a massacre. At the Lekki toll gate in Lagos state, peaceful protesters had set up encampment for two weeks prior to the incident. The Governor of Lagos State Babajide Sando-Olu had earlier imposed a curfew and deployed anti-riot police. That evening of October 20, police arrived at the scene and eventually began shooting with live ammunition at the unarmed protesters. Governor Sando-Olu initially refuted that anyone had died, stating that "whilst we pray for the swift recovery of the injured, we are comforted that we have not recorded any fatality." He later tweeted that a one person had died at the hospital from blunt force trauma to the head, calling it an “isolated case.”
The day following the massacre, the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Michelle Bachelet stated that “While the number of casualties of yesterday’s shooting at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos is still not clear, there is little doubt that this was a case of excessive use of force, resulting in unlawful killings with live ammunition, by Nigerian armed forces.” Bachelet stated that reports of CCTV cameras being “deliberately disabled” prior to the massacre was particularly disturbing, suggesting that this “deplorable attack on peaceful protestors was premeditated, planned and coordinated.” The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres issued a statement of condemnation of “the violent escalation on 20 October in Lagos which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries” and called for an end to the police brutality and abuses. He called on the Nigerian authorities to “investigate these incidents and hold the perpetrators accountable.” He urged security forces to “act at all times with maximum restraint” and called for avenues for de-escalation of the situation, reiterating the “readiness” of the UN to support a potential solution.
Amnesty International put the death toll at 12 protesters shot dead by the police in extra-judicial killings. The following week, Amnesty International published a new investigative timeline to the events on October 20th, calling on the Nigerian authorities to “stop attempts to cover up Lekki Toll Gate massacre.” The timeline combines video documentation posted in real time on social media to string together events and match evidence against a temporal-spatial timeline. The investigation, which also included on-the-ground interviews and open source research, forms a chronological picture of the evening, tracking the arrival of police vehicles and the shooting of protesters. Osai Ojigho, Country Director of Amnesty International, stated that: “One week on, the Nigerian authorities still have many questions to answer: who ordered the use of lethal force on peaceful protesters? Why were CCTV cameras on the scene dismantled in advance? And who ordered electricity being turned off minutes before the military opened fire on protesters?” He added that “many people are still missing since the day of the incident, and credible evidence shows that the military prevented ambulances from reaching the severely injured in the aftermath.”
The Nigerian police’s crackdown on the campaign to stop police brutality has received immense international scrutiny. Human rights campaigns and organizations such as Amnesty International attempt to hold the government to account by providing important evidence to refute the official narrative and attempts at obscuring the facts around the controversial police unit. The peaceful protesters similarly campaigned against such cover-up attempts when they stood against the disbanding of SARS and the creation of SWAT, calling out empty promises and a false narrative of change. A movement that began and was made possible due to the internet, the End SARS campaign was able to expose the crimes committed by the police through the online sharing of video documentation of police violence and the shooting of peaceful protesters. The government’s narrative now has to stand against the pile of evidence uploaded online, and the international community’s scrutiny.