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Nigeria’s Protests Against Police Violence

The government’s denials about the Lekki Massacre reflect a leadership unaccustomed to being held accountable. But that is changing.
Protestors in Lagos, Nigeria, wave Nigerian flags for the #EndSARS movement against police brutality

Adetona Omokanye/Getty Images

Demonstrators protesting police brutality at the Lekki toll gate, Lagos, Nigeria, October 20, 2020

Lagos—On October 22, President Muhammadu Buhari, the former army general who was elected to office in 2015 and again in 2019, stunned Nigerian citizens with a televised twelve-minute speech. He began with a warning “to those who have hijacked and misdirected the…protest of some of our youths,” and ended by declaring that his government “will not allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace.” On social media, the response was mostly shock: Was that all he had to say?

Nigerians had demanded a statement from the government after people all over the world watched via Instagram Live on October 20 as the army opened fire on a crowd of young people demonstrating against police violence at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos. Eyewitnesses reported up to fifteen dead. Who ordered the shooting of peaceful protesters in a democracy? Nigerians wanted to know. But the president ignored the subject.

This round of protests had been sparked earlier this month by a video showing occupants in a vehicle chasing after a police van in the southern Delta state. They were pursuing the police, they said, because a man had been robbed by officers and his vehicle taken. Although the police later denied the account, years of similar reports of theft from civilians by police officers soon spurred a protest in that state. And when the Lagos-based pop star Runtown urged a protest in support, in the commercial capital of Nigeria on October 8, many young people joined, calling on the government to “end SARS,” the Special Anti-Robbery Squad police unit that was formed in 1992 to tackle armed robbery.

The idea behind the formation of the squad was to combine surprise, the use of plainclothes officers, and a higher level of training. At first it worked, reducing the spate of armed robberies. But as the years passed, the unit’s operatives became notorious for their brutality and corruption, extorting huge sums from people they claimed were criminals. Often, these were young men whose only crime was to be seen sporting tattoos or earrings and carrying laptops or smartphones.

Given SARS’s reputation, the anger at the latest outrage was immediate—first online and then on the streets. By the second week of October, the protests had coalesced into a movement that seemed to have gained almost universal support among Nigeria’s youth, none of whom claimed leadership. Online, the protest quickly found international support from celebrities like the rapper Kanye West, as well as the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey.

Spooked, on October 11 the inspector general of police announced the disbanding of SARS and its replacement by a new unit named SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). But this generation of tech-savvy Nigerians easily discovered after some sleuthing that there had been several such claims in the past that SARS was being dissolved, and that SWAT was an already existing unit. Almost immediately, the hashtag #EndSWAT joined the trending #EndSARS.

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On October 16, I joined the protesters at the major thoroughfare in Lagos where the Lekki toll gate generates revenue for the local government. A piece of cardboard tacked to the rear windshield of a car parked nearby read “So proud to be doing this for my 4yr old Seyi. You’ll make it in this country. #Endsars #Endswat #End police brutality.” Those words conveyed the reason so many young people had joined the protests. Here, at last, was a chance to do something about corruption in Nigeria. Music and prayers mingled with chants. “How many people SARS go kill,” asked a guy with a microphone. The crowd responded, “Hey, dem go shoot dem go tire.” (How many people would SARS kill? They will shoot until they are tired.)

The scene was carnivalesque, with food, drink, and even two reedy hawkers asking if anyone wanted some weed. From time to time, someone would leave the bazaar on the periphery and come over to the core of the protest, raise a fist to the sky, and shout, “End SARS!”

I left late, thinking the federal government had only two choices: lean on some senior official to resign, to signal that it was taking the protests seriously; or forcefully eject the protesters from the streets. For a former military leader like President Buhari who, I imagined, would want to be seen as upholding democracy, the latter would be a very bad look. Besides, the country was still recovering from the economic effects of Covid-19 and dwindling oil prices. Why alienate trade partners? In hindsight, my hope was naive.

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As days passed and the protesters remained on the streets of Lagos and other states around the country, the coordination enabled by Twitter began to have real-world effects. Online volunteers supplied food to street protesters. A group of young women known as the Feminist Coalition posted a link for donations and, in days, raised over $350,000, which the group said was used to pay for food, drinks, and health care. A network of volunteer lawyers across the country helped win the release of arrested protesters.

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Not everything was perfect: the dancing protesters at Lekki were accused of frivolity; the Feminist Coalition was accused of hoarding the funds donated (the group announced on October 22 they would stop accepting donations). On the other hand, a deeply divided, patriarchal society had come together across ethnic divisions and accepted a feminist group as central to the protest. Was it possible that the movement might bring with it a new, more equitable Nigeria?

By the evening of October 20, hope turned to unease. The first sign of trouble came when the state governor, Jide Sanwo-Olu, announced at 12 PM that a curfew would begin at 4 PM—notice too short in a city famous for its traffic jams. Later, a photo of a man removing fixed cameras from the toll gate went viral. The last ill-omen came when, before nightfall, both the electronic billboard over the toll gate and the streetlights went dark. Suspecting foul play afoot, some people urged their peers to leave. Days later, two now-deleted tweets posted a few minutes before 6 PM would stand out for their accuracy:

Classified information from the office. Please anyone at the Lekki toll gate, leave. They plan to clean up the youth, might end up in deaths, and it would be like nothing happened tomorrow morning (1)

They are also switching off the cameras and the wiring/lighting at the Lekki toll gate and they plan to bombard and attack them in the nighttime. There have been instructions from above to do so. Let’s be very vigilant. (2)

The “office” of the first tweet was unspecified, but it seems clear that the person who posted them had been informed of what was coming. About an hour after these tweets appeared, a group of soldiers arrived. Soon after, the shooting started. In videos recorded that night, you hear the gunfire and see people running for safety. One video appears to show the soldiers firing, but the pandemonium and low light levels meant that none of the blurry images tell a conclusive story. 

The confusion allowed Governor Sanwo-Olu to deny both that there had been any fatalities and that he had been responsible for the incident; later, he said one person had died and admitted to CNN that the military had been present. His prevarications created a clamor for President Buhari to respond—as the titular chief of the armed forces, the only person with the legal authority to order military action. For its part, the army labeled news reports about its presence at the scene “fake news.” A senior officer said the videos circulating online were “photoshopped.” Later, a statement from the army claimed it had been called in by the Lagos state government.

The initial denials and changing stories reflect a leadership unaccustomed to being held accountable by the citizenry. But that is changing as young Nigerians are refusing to accept the status quo. To them, a generation of out-of-touch gerontocratic leaders that cannot see the folly in claiming that live video footage has been photoshopped are unsurprisingly aligned with a police unit that cannot understand how young people, notably those in the tech industry, might be able to buy a car without dabbling in crime. Older Nigerians were surprised at the ease with which the Feminist Coalition switched to bitcoin after its bank account suffered restrictions.

President Buhari himself, now seventy-seven, has clung to the past: his TV-broadcast speech hearkened back to his time as military ruler, from 1983 to 1985. But the clearest indication of Nigerian leaders’ loyalty to the past is embodied in the police force itself, a relic of the colonial era. As early as 1895, the police—an outfit created by the British, and poorly paid—had acquired a reputation for attracting poor and dishonest people. Since then, Nigeria has become independent, undergone decades of military rule, and is now under democratic leadership, but the police force has never been able to shed that reputation.

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After the outrage that greeted President Buhari’s speech, the government has said it will launch an investigation into what happened at the toll gate, which was later set ablaze by persons unknown. But on Monday, in a video that quickly went viral, a former governor of Lagos named Babatunde Fashola discovered a pristine camcorder perched on the ruins of the toll gate, untouched by bullets, fire, and rain. In the video, Fashola is seen picking up the device with a handkerchief and handing it over to current Governor Sanwo-Olu, saying it “will help with the ongoing investigations.”

The former governor was roundly mocked on social media and nicknamed Fashlock Holmes. His clownery lent some comedy to a situation that is anything but funny: Lagos state government has inaugurated a panel of inquiry and restitution but none of the authorities have taken responsibility for the events of October 20. Clearly shaken by the violence and shocked by the president’s threatening speech, the protesters have quit the streets. The #EndSARS hashtag has ceased trending. A few young people still use it, but the assertiveness that reigned before what’s now called the Lekki Massacre has been extinguished.

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In its place are calls for an intervention by the International Criminal Court. Whether the Hague will do anything is unclear, but everybody knows that seeking justice against the government within the country is almost as futile as waiting for its president to say what the youth of his country need to hear.

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