Since last Thursday, Nigerians in cities such as Lagos, Ughelli and Abuja have taken to the streets in protest against the SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) police unit, long accused of operating with impunity and brutalising the country’s youth. However, police violence, shown in numerous videos posted to Twitter, have upended what were peaceful protests. According to Amnesty International Nigeria, “Nigerian police have killed at least 10 people since the start of protests against callous operations of SARS”, and “hundreds of protesters have been injured and arrested”.
The Observers team spoke to “Nonye”, a nurse on the medical team volunteering at the October 12 protests in Surulere, a district in Lagos. They requested anonymity for the article.
“Who brings live rounds to a protest? The Nigerian police.”
“It was a peaceful protest in front of the Area C police command at Ojuelegba. A few youths were on a street beside the police command, where a few SARS officials were on patrol. A senior officer in a red shirt and black jeans ran to the front of the protest, apparently trying to avoid a clash between some youths and a member of his SARS team. Then we heard two gunshots and a round of shots fired simultaneously. We had to run for our lives.”
This video sent by Nonye shows the scene described on October 12 in Surulere. Young protesters are walking the streets peacefully when two gunshots are heard. Then, a round of shots is fired and the protesters take off running.
“As the shootings went on, an innocent bystander was hit in the neck by a stray bullet. A group of the medical team rushed back to try and rescue him. I stumbled upon another gunshot victim: a young man who had been hit on the thigh by another stray bullet. I applied pressure to the wound and put him in a cab to a nearby hospital.
We later learned that the first shot was from an officer of the SARS team who "accidentally discharged" his weapon while trying to scare the youth. He hit the senior officer in the red shirt. His abdomen was severed, and he didn't survive. So two people died and one person was injured that day.”
This screenshot from a October 12 video posted by Twitter user Courage Ngele shows the medical team trying to resurrect the bystander hit by a stray bullet, to no avail.
In a report published this year, Amnesty International documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020, mostly towards men between 18 and 35 years old from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups.
On October 11, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to dissolve SARS, replacing it with a new unit called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). However, protesters esteem that this amounts to empty rhetoric. Over the last 10 years, the government has made numerous attempts to reform the police unit yet, according to Amnesty, has failed to prosecute a single officer.
“Hired hoodlums are terrorizing peaceful protests”
“The Nigerian Police have also equipped some hoodlums to terrorise ongoing peaceful protests in Abuja and Lagos. A few of them were caught and have confessed to being paid 1500 naira (3,34 euros) for this. That is the government’s plan - they will tell international bodies that we fought amongst ourselves so they can have a reason to unleash the army in the name of “maintaining peace.”
An October 15 Twitter video posted by user Ruffwise shows men carrying machetes, knives and batons crossing a road in Alausa, a district in Ikeja. The user writes that they are the hoodlums attacking peaceful protesters.
An October 14 Twitter video posted by user YouthprotestNG shows a car with broken windows and two bloodied men on the side of a road in Abuja, the country’s capital. The man recording the video narrates: “They came to attack us. This is enough! We are fighting for everybody in this country, why would they attack us?” According to the video’s caption, “these Fulani hoodlums came to attack protesters at Berger in Abuja”.
In an October 14 Twitter post, Amnesty International Nigeria condemned the “attacks on peaceful protesters by armed hoodlums specifically hired to disrupt the ongoing #EndSARS protest”. It is not clear whether the hoodlums were hired by the government or by other actors seeking to incite violence.
On October 14, the country’s police chief ordered police officers to stop using force against protesters, announced the release of all detained protesters, and affirmed Nigerians’ right to protest peacefully. However, on October 15, the government announced a ban on all protests in Abuja. The same day, a post on the Nigerian Army’s official Facebook page “warned all subversive elements and trouble makers to desist”, adding that the army is “ready to fully support the civil authority to maintain law and order”.
According to Nonye, Nigerians are not relenting. The #EndSARS protesters are calling on the government to implement 5 key reforms: immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all victims of police brutality and compensation for their families, an independent body to oversee investigation of police misconduct, retraining of dismissed SARS officers, and pay raises for police so that they are adequately compensated for protecting citizens.
“They must hear our voices. They want to instill fear so as to disband us and make us quiet like we used to. But enough is enough. We the youths are first asking to stay alive, and when that is achieved, we are coming for our corrupt leaders.”
A video posted on Twitter on October 14 shows a large crowd of protesters gathered together and singing at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos.
Article by Diana Liu.