By Richard Elesho
Today is the anniversary of #EndSARS, a series of protests against police brutality in Nigeria. For fear that it might degenerate into further mayhem, Police authorities earlier in the week threatened fire and brimstone for those who would gather for the anniversary. Since Tuesday, 19 October, Police patrol vehicles, with cops armed to the teeth, paraded the Lekki Toll Plaza, the epicentre of the fracas of last year.
That notwithstanding, protesters in vehicle convoys defied Police orders and gathered at the plaza. They were led by musician, Falz; comedian Mr Macaroni and others. In Abuja, Omoyele Sowore led another. Reports this morning had it that two people were arrested by the Police at Lekki this morning.
The above shows that the EndSARS protests of last year came, but its spirit has refused to go. Since reaching a turning point at the Lekki Toll Gate on the night of Tuesday, 20th October, references to the protests like an ocean surge have been billowing at discourses across the country. The approach of its first anniversary has further accentuated fears of repeated civil disobedience.
The Human Rights Community has no disguised intention to mark the anniversary. Notable activists like Prof. Pat Utomi, Barr Femi Falana SAN, Lanre Arogundade, Richard Akinola, Chido Onumah, Dr. Tanko Usman along with other Representatives from the Bureau of National Consultative Front have planned a commemorative event for NECA House in Ikeja, Lagos.
In a related and worrisome development, another defiant group was reported to be planning a counter-memorial protest tagged “Defend Lagos Rally.” The group in a trending message said “about a year ago, this carnage fell on Lagos State while Lagosians thought it was just going to be a protest. Lagos State was destroyed by End SARS protesters. Lagosians are ready to defend Lagos NOW. Never again will Lagos be destroyed.”
The Nigeria Police Force has however spoken from both sides of the mouth on the issue. While admitting the right of citizens to lawful gathering and protest, the law enforcement agency frowned at making bonfires, blocking roads and harassment of innocent persons.
Similarly, the National Economic Council, NEC, under the Chairmanship of the Vice President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, citing the current security situation across the country, on Friday cautioned against the planned protests, urging those behind it to consider other options.
“Organisers of the planned protests should explore the various channels of communication with governments at various levels to advance their positions and avert the breakdown of law and order that may result from such public protests.” The council said in a statement. Not for no valid reasons.
Reminiscent of the Arab springs a few years ago, the protests took the country by storm. Not many people saw it coming. But like a coastal hurricane, it started from Lagos, moved through other states in the south and blew northwards. By the time the rage of the youth, as expressed in the EndSARS protests subsided, its effects left no one in doubt, as it laid prostrate an economy that was already famished by the Coronavirus disease pandemic. One year after, bout 300 suspects arrested during the disturbances are believed to still be languishing behind bars in Kirikiri Correctional Service, Lagos. Suspects also abound in detention centres in other states.
The EndSARS started about 2017 as a demand for police reforms by an activist, Segun Awosanya. It eventually metamorphosed to a loud rejection of police brutality, extrajudicial killings, injustice and bad government by Nigerian youths. A Twitter campaign using the hashtag #EndSARS at a time generated about 30 million tweets.
Youths began to gather in groups about the 8th of October, 2020. It started as a well organised peaceful protest against the excesses of the Special Anti Robbery Squad, SARS, a police unit that has gained notoriety for profiling Nigerian youths with their attires and hairstyles.
Every day, the young people in their hundreds congregated at the Lekki Toll Gate, Lagos. In protest songs, the group demanded the disbandment of the dreaded unit formed in 1992, as a response to rising armed robbery across the Nigerian federation. On 11th October, Ibrahim Adamu, the Inspector General of Police, announced the dissolution of SARS.
However, the announcement did not stop the protesters from what had become their ritual at the Toll Gate and other places. In the night of October 20th, a detachment of soldiers from the 91 Brigade of the Nigerian Army, Bonny Camp along with some policemen forcefully dispersed the protesters with live ammunition. The number of casualties ranges from 2 to 45, depending on who is reeling out the data. The Army initially denied using live bullets against the protesters.
The Toll Gate attack rather than quell the uprising aggravated and turned it into a national rebellion by the youth demography. It spread to all states with the speed of wildfire. Hoodlums and sponsored groups hijacked and turned it into a looting spree. Public buildings, warehouses where Covid-19 relief materials were kept, supermarkets, other business outfits and policemen became prime targets. Nigeria bled from all veins.
Former IG Adamu while assessing the damage to the security agencies revealed that 22 policemen, seven soldiers and 59 civilians were killed. In addition, he said 205 police stations were destroyed, while 71 public warehouses and 248 private stores were looted or razed. Lagos State lost several public transit luxury buses while many government buildings were attacked by arsonists. For a season, policemen were withdrawn from road duties.
The government at all levels and well-meaning people made appeals for the protests to be called off. At first, the sermons fell on deaf ears. In the midst of the anarchy, the protesters dug in and made five more demands from the government. They are: (i) immediate release of all arrested protesters; (2) justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; (3) Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all aspects of police misconduct (within 10 days); (4) In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed and (5) Increase police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens.
Yes, the protests achieved the rustication of SARS or its name change to SWAT. That is not all. The Judicial Panel of Enquires were formed to address petitions on police brutality in 28 states. But the extent to which the five demands have been met is a far cry from expectations. For instance, Police brutality and poor discretion by officers are yet matters of concern in the land. Except for Lagos, Ekiti and perhaps one other State, the majority of the states have not paid any compensations to victims of police brutality. In fact, many states treated the EndSARS panel with levity. It is still unclear if any of the former members of SARS have been sent for psychological evaluation since the protests halted.
One year after, the question on many minds is what next for the EndSARS demands?