The last couple of weeks in Nigeria can be described in three words: inspiring, revolutionary, crazy. From the days of peaceful protests, to the shooting, attacking and killing of protesters, and the mass looting and arson in the aftermath, it is not an exaggeration to say that we all need therapy!
I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about the circumstances that surrounded the protests, but I honestly could not bring myself to do it. If you go through my blog, you will notice that I only made one post throughout the month of October. Everything was happening so fast and it felt like I was in a movie. I needed some time to process everything. I also did not want to write a blog post filled with despair – I needed to have an action plan to offer. I think I have now reached a point where I can calmly reflect on everything that has happened, draw out lessons, and offer an action plan for the future.
Stage 1: Resentment over SARS
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian Police Force has a long record of committing atrocities like illegal detention, extortion, kidnapping, theft, torture, rape, extra-judicial killings, and other abuses of power. The widespread resentment over this rogue unit resulted in #EndSARS trending on social media as far back as 2017. Yet, it continued to exist and no changes were seen.
Stage 2: Trigger for the Protests
On 3 October 2020, a video trended on different social media plaforms. The video suggested that SARS officers had shot a young man in Ughelli, Delta State, and driven off with his car. This led others to share their own experiences of brutality by SARS officers. #EndSARS started to trend again on social media, and people were mobilised on to come out and protest, partly with the support of major celebrities and influencers. Funds were also raised and distributed by groups including the Feminist Coalition (a group of really strong and inspiring young women). The online protests would graduate to physical protests.
Stage 3: The Protests
Physical protests started on 8 October 2020 in Lagos State, which led to a series of largely decentralised protests across Nigeria, as well as in other countries such as the UK, US, Germany, and Ireland. People protested physically to lend their voices to the cause both in Nigeria and abroad. People protested online through social media platforms like Twitter to raise awareness both in Nigeria and abroad. People donated money to support the protesters. Lawyers and medics volunteered their time to support arrested and injured protesters. Others volunteered their time to distribute food to the protesters and even clean up after they were done! Everyone had a role to play, and they all contributed to making our voices heard.
What was the response of the police to the protests?
In many cases, police officers dispersed protesters with water cannons, tear gas, and live bullets. This resulted in numerous deaths, including that of Jimoh Isiaka in Ogbomosho, Oyo State. How the police can respond to protests against police brutality with even more brutality, is mind-boggling.
And what was the response of the government?
Within a few days, the government announced that SARS had been dissolved. Great, we won!
Or so we thought.
It soon became evident that the statement by the government could be purely performative. The government had made similar statements in the last three years, but nothing had changed. We were not buying it this time.
Another thing that did not sit well with protesters was that the disbanded SARS members would be redeployed to other units. Within two days of the announcement, without much deliberation or any public consultation, a new unit, the Special Weapon and Tactics Team (SWAT), was introduced to replace SARS. What a joke! The government’s response revealed a complete lack of understanding of the issues.
So, as can be expected, protesters were not impressed. #EndSARS turned into #EndSWAT. The protesters developed a list of five demands in response – the #5for5.
What were the protesters’ demands?
The five demands were:
- release all arrested protesters
- compensate victims of police brutality and their families
- set up an independent body to investigate and prosecute reports of police brutality
- psychologically evaluate and retrain disbanded SARS officers before redeploying them
- increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for their job
We knew that there were other sources of displeasure related to bad governance in Nigeria, but we also knew that one series of protests would not solve all the problems in Nigeria. The direct demands related to the protests were about ending police brutality and reforming the Nigerian police.
On 13 October 2020 the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, promised to set up a two hundred million naira fund to compensate the victims of police brutality and their families.
On the same day, the Federal Government published a press release saying that it had agreed to the five demands of the #EndSARS protesters, and that the disbandment of SARS was the first step to police reform. Panels of inquiry were also set up in various states to investigate police brutality.
But you have to put all these in context. There is a complete lack of trust among Nigerian citizens toward the government, fuelled by their constant failure to keep their promises. The continual shooting of protesters also made it hard to believe that the government was really committed to any reform plan. In simple terms, we wanted less talk, and more action.
The protests continued, and the government started making attempts to ban the protests. The FCT Security Committee announced a ban on protests on 15 October. This was reminiscent of Governor Wike’s attempt to ban protests in Rivers State on 12 October. These so-called bans only made the protests larger the next day. Nigerians would not be intimidated.
Stage 4: Infiltration of the Protests
In the context of all these happenings, thugs started to attack protesters. This started on 14 October in Lagos and Abuja, when protesters were attacked by thugs with cutlasses and sticks, and quickly spread to other states like Edo. There were pieces of evidence to suggest that these thugs were sponsored by state elements.
Eventually, thugs infiltrated and hijacked the protests, brutally attacking protesters and causing massive destruction to property, including burning over 200 cars in Abuja.
There were horrific pictures and videos showing in gory detail people who had been injured or killed by thugs or police officers (I have refrained from inserting links to those media because they are truly horrifying). In retaliation, some police officers were also killed, and police stations burnt. It was a lot to take in. I had to stop checking social media for a while to protect my mental health, and I know some people who did this too.
Stage 5: The Lekki Toll Gate Massacre
These attacks culminated in the event that occurred on 20 October 2020, which has been dubbed Black Tuesday. On that day, Governor Sanwo-Olu, declared a 24-hour curfew in Lagos State effective at 4pm (giving only about four hours’ notice) due to the attacks and unrest in the state. The curfew was later shifted to 9pm. However, some protesters stood their ground and refused to leave the Lekki Toll Gate.
Within this time, pictures surfaced of persons removing cameras from the Lekki Toll Gate. The Lagos State Government later claimed that these were laser cameras, not CCTV cameras. The street lights around the Lekki Toll Gate, and the electronic billboard illuminating the area, were also turned off.
This was the background to the Lekki Toll Gate massacre. At about 7pm, even before the curfew was supposed to be implemented, men wearing the Nigerian Army uniform shot and killed protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate. The Nigerian Army later claimed that its personnel were not involved in the shooting. This is doubtful, but even if we choose to believe it, the fact remains that men wearing the Nigerian Army uniform shot and killed Nigerians. This is enough cause for concern.
The actual number of deaths from the incident has been disputed. The Lagos State government claims that only two people died, but according to some estimates, at least 100 people have died since the protests began, and 48 of them were killed at the Lekki Toll Gate. Many witnesses also reported that soldiers, and later the police, took away the bodies of those killed, which makes it even more difficult to ascertain the actual number of deaths.
A brave young woman, DJ Switch, was protesting at the Lekki Toll Gate when all these events occurred. She went live on Instagram in the middle of the shooting, and revealed to the world the brutality that occurred that day. I watched protesters attempt to remove a bullet from a man’s leg, and it felt like I was watching a tragic movie. My brain could not process the fact that this was happening in reality, right here in my country.
What makes everything even more tragic is that these protesters were literally sitting on the floor, waving the Nigerian flag, and singing the national anthem. Yet they were still shot. The picture of the Nigerian flag stained with the blood of Nigerians is one that will not leave our memories in a hurry.
Till today, not one person has been held accountable for the massacre. This reveals the high level of impunity among Nigerian authorities. Someone gave the order to shoot peaceful protesters. Who was it? I’m afraid we may never know. This was really the event that threw a lot of Nigerians into despair. I have to admit that I lost all hope at this point. All I felt was resentment.
Stage 6: The Aftermath
In the aftermath of the Lekki Toll Gate massacre, there was something close to a descent into anarchy in some states. People attacked and burnt buildings, vehicles, and TV stations. People looted both private and public properties, including the Oba of Lagos’ palace. People found warehouses filled with COVID-19 palliatives that had been hoarded (another example of corruption in Nigeria, this time among the state governments), and they struggled to take what they could from these warehouses. There were also reports of killings and ethnic conflicts.
At this point, my feeling changed from resentment to fear. Would this degenerate into a full-blown war? Thankfully, it did not (even though these lootings and destruction of property are still going on in some states).
Stage 7: Protests Die Down
After many calls by the people and even the Senate for the President to address us, he finally did on 22 October 2020. There was barely any empathy in his speech and body language. There was also no specific reference to the Lekki Toll Gate massacre which had happened just two days ago. All he said was:
I am indeed deeply pained that innocent lives have been lost. These tragedies are uncalled for and unnecessary.
In fact, Mr President subtly threatened us by saying:
Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests.
You can view the written form of the full speech here.
In light of the President’s speech, the Feminist Coalition issued a statement on the same day, informing all financial supporters of the campaign to stop sending funds, and revealing plans for the remaining donated funds. The protests effectively died down.
In summary, the people who were supposed to protect us – our government and security agencies – failed us. But I am proud of my generation for refusing to be intimidated. With two weeks of protests, we made sure that our voices were heard in Nigeria and beyond. It goes without saying that the #EndSARS movement will forever be marked in the history of Nigeria, and I am proud to have been a part of it. It is unfortunate that people had to die needlessly for this cause. These people are our heroes, and we will never forget them. We are hopeful that in addition to ending SARS and reforming the police, these protests will also be the beginning of a revolution in Nigeria. Things can never be the same again.
This has been my attempt to make sense of all the drama that happened during the fortnight of the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. I am aware that I have not covered every single detail, but these were the key stages of the protests from my point of view. I am also aware that some of these stages overlap, but this seems to me the most effective way to bring some structure into the events that unfolded.
I would also like to issue a disclaimer, as with events like this where you have multiple sources of (sometimes conflicting) information, it can be difficult to tell which is credible and which is not. I have tried as much as possible to make sure that my claims are backed up by credible evidence, and where there are uncertainties I have indicated this with my language.
If you are interested in finding out more about the protests, read this daily updated timeline of activities on Nairametrics.
More in this series:
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