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Nigeria: A police clampdown on #EndSARS protest shows nothing has changed, activists say

By Dele Yusuf
Posted on Wednesday, 20 October 2021 18:10, updated on Thursday, 21 October 2021 02:04

Nigeria Protest Anniversary
A man is detained and later released by police officers following a demonstration at Lekki Toll plaza in Lagos Nigeria Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021. Nigerian police officers fired tear gas at protesters in Lagos, the country's largest city, as they tried to disperse hundreds of people demonstrating against police brutality on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)/

When young protestors gathered to commemorate those who had died in the Lekki massacre one year ago and protest against police brutality, they found a security force uncompromising in its policing of the event.

The Nigeria police force warned youths against protesting police brutality in remembrance of those killed during a similar demonstration one year ago and in pursuit of justice for other victims of police abuse.

The protesters defied the police warnings and, as they organised a peaceful rally in Lagos and other states, were met with the use of force, arrest and tear gas. It is all a sad reminder about how much Nigeria is in dire need of police reforms, activists say.

The scenes across Nigeria during Wednesday’s #EndSARS protest against police brutality were very much similar to how the protests unfolded exactly one year ago. Only that this time, people added another demand to a litany of grievances: Justice for those killed during that October 2020 protest and a much-needed end to police brutality.

It did not take long before protesters realised that the journey to accountable policing in Nigeria is still far off. After earlier arresting a handful of protesters, especially those who arrived early at the Lekki tollgate for the rally, heavily armed police officers swooped on protesters who converged at the scene, trying to get hold of as many as they could while firing tear gas to disperse hundreds of others.

In the chaotic scene that followed, many rounds of tear gas trailed protesters, who were mostly youths. Many of them had their own experiences of police abuse or knew someone who had suffered such brutality.

“What is happening is that the police and authorities have an under-appreciation of the issues and they just believe that once they use force, they can stop people from protesting,” said Idayat Hassan, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD), an Abuja-based advocacy and research organisation.

One year and counting: What has changed? ‘Nothing’

Speaking on the state of play a year after the #EndSARS protests began in Nigeria, Amnesty International said in a statement that “no one has been brought to justice for the torture, violence and killings of peaceful protesters, while reports of human rights violations by the police continue.”

“A year on, despite the gravity of these human rights violations, not a single member of the security forces has been prosecuted while judicial panels of inquiry set up to investigate abuses by officers have made little progress,” the rights watchdog added.

In Lagos, Rinu Oduala was a youth representative on the panel set up to investigate the cases of police abuse and the reported killings in the October 2020 protests. But she withdrew her participation in February this year, alleging a cover-up of what had transpired. A year after the panel was set up, she tells The Africa Report that promises made by authorities after setting up the panel have not been fulfilled and many victims of police brutality are still awaiting justice.

Adesina Ogunlana, a lawyer who represented many #EndSARS victims at the judicial panel, joined the protests in Lagos on Wednesday for the few hours it lasted. Addressing hundreds of youths, including those still counting on the committee for justice, he said there was the “absence of openness and accountability” at the panel sittings.

“That panel was set up publicly, conducted public enquiries and witnesses came publicly. Then, you have to read out your report to us. We are not saying we must win; we are saying it is the proper thing,” he said, taking a swipe at the panel for not publicising its final report.

Out of all the 36 states and Nigeria’s capital Abuja where the judicial panels of enquiry were set up, only three states have reports that are publicly available, said Ibrahim Faruk of the Youth Initiative for Advocacy, Growth and Advancement, which monitored the proceedings in all the states.

Faruk further tells The Africa Report: “For many young Nigerians, the #EndSARS panel was their last hope for justice. And unfortunately, it seems that these panels have failed them.”

Where will help come from?

In a newly published Nigerian situation report, Human Rights Watch said the prospects for accountability in the West African country’s policing situation remain “inconclusive and bleak”.

“Nigerian authorities should clearly demonstrate that they are serious about holding those responsible for abuses against protesters to account,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Failure to pursue justice will strengthen the culture of impunity and reinforce the perceptions that brought protesters to the streets in the first place.”

Activists say the buck stops with President Muhammadu Buhari, whose government was notorious for human rights abuses in the 1980s during his regime as military ruler. “President Muhammadu Buhari must fulfil his promise of reforming the police to end the reign of impunity Nigerians have been protesting against for many years,” said Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria via a statement.

Bottom line

“The #EndSARS protests created a lot of intergenerational distress, and the police have re-emphasised it in such a way that people can no longer believe in the state,” says Hassan of the CDD. “Government must build trust with her people and also undertake police reform and accountability.”

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