On Friday, October 23, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari reported that at least 51 civilians have been killed during widespread protests against police brutality over the past few weeks. Additionally, eleven police officers and seven members of the army have been reported dead, with a further 37 civilians injured – although reports suggest the number of those injured is significantly higher.
President Buhari made no mention of the shooting of unarmed protesters by security forces on Tuesday that left at least twelve people dead. This statement follows weeks of civil unrest as Nigerians demand the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, due to numerous allegations of corruption and brutality. SARS was formed in 1992, with the mandate of stopping violent crime through the use of plain-clothed officers; however, officers allegedly use their anonymity to extort and harass citizens. Demonstrations began across Nigeria on October 8, 2020, after footage emerged of SARS officers dragging two men from a hotel in Lagos and shooting one in the street.
Following the initial shooting, dozens of Nigerians took to social media to share their experiences of violence and harassment at the hands of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, and #EndSARS began trending on Twitter. On October 11, M.A Adamu, Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police, announced that SARS would be dissolved as per the wishes of the Nigerian people. Instead, officers would undergo additional training and psychological assessment and be redeployed to a new tactical unit, called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). Protesters raised concerns that instead of enacting meaningful change, government officials simply rebranded SARS and will allow officers to continue enacting violence with impunity. As such, demonstrators have continued taking to the streets to demand police accountability and reform on a larger scale.
On Tuesday, October 20, a crowd gathered at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos for the thirteenth consecutive day of protests. In an effort to dispel demonstrators and prevent further unrest, Lagos state governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu imposed a 24-hour curfew and deployed security forces to contain the crowds. Around 7 o’clock in the evening, witnesses reported that streetlights went out and CCTV cameras were removed; shortly after, police fired tear gas and live rounds into the crowd of peaceful, unarmed protesters who were flying the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem. One participant, Nigerian DJ Obianuju Catherine Udeh, streamed the shooting on Instagram Live to raise awareness of the carnage. The shooting sparked international condemnation, with Amnesty International reporting at least twelve people dead. President Muhammadu Buhari provoked ire with a statement on Friday in which he made no mention of Tuesday’s killings instead warning Nigerians against “undermining national security” and saying that police forces had demonstrated “extreme restraint” in response to demonstrators. Citizens fear that this ‘law and order’ approach will embolden security forces to continue responding to lawful demonstrations with violence.
The push to abolish SARS and ensure wider police accountability has been ongoing for many years. In December 2017, a video circulated showing SARS officers fleeing the scene after shooting a man. Nigerians responded by sharing their encounters with the Special Anti-Robbery Squad on social media, saying that officers routinely set up roadblocks, unlawfully detained and searched civilians, and harassed anyone who was perceived to be involved in criminal activity. A report by Amnesty International documented 82 instances of police brutality by SARS between 2017 and 2020, including “hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions, and sexual violence.” Despite the widespread abuse, few cases are investigated, and officers are not prosecuted, despite the Nigerian government adopting a law criminalizing torture in December 2017.
The right to peaceful assembly is a fundamental part of democracy, and excessive use of force without justifiable grounds is stated by Amnesty International to be a criminal offence under international law. The widespread violence perpetrated both by SARS and other security forces, as well as the lackluster government response, illustrates a blatant disrespect for human dignity. In 2016, the World Internal Security and Police Index rated Nigeria’s police forces as the worst in the world, based on the availability and efficient use of resources, internal security threats, and whether the public viewed the police favourably. Additionally, a recent study by NOIPolls found that 32% of Nigerians reported that their human rights had been infringed upon, and that police made up nearly a third of the violators. In light of these findings, President Buhari’s decision to replace the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad with a similarly mandated SWAT team, made up of largely the same individuals, is decidedly lacking.
Instead of simply rebranding SARS, steps must be taken to address the underlying issues of discrimination, violence, and corruption present in the larger system. This can include launching investigations into the allegations of harassment, abuse, and murder; trying those involved in a court of law, ensuring that officers receive appropriate psychological evaluation and training; and implementing recommendations submitted by previous committees. International communities should continue to exert pressure on the Nigerian government to condemn these acts of violence and hold offenders accountable, ensure that protesters are able to access sufficient assistance and first aid, and allow Nigerians the opportunity to participate fully in their democracy.
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