Nigeria 2023: Could painful #EndSARS memories influence outcome of polls?

By Eniola Akinkuotu

Posted on Wednesday, 19 October 2022 09:13, updated on Wednesday, 23 November 2022 12:25
Protestors hold a poster and placards as Nigerians mark the one-year anniversary of the EndSARS anti-police brutality protest in Abuja, Nigeria October 20, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Two years after Nigeria's #EndSARS protests and the shooting of unarmed protesters at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos State, many youth who played active roles in the movement have turned the pains of the protest into a political movement that continues to gather momentum. Will this momentum be enough to upend the existing political order in next February’s polls?

Along the Lekki/Expressway in Lagos stands the expansive Lekki Toll Plaza, which was constructed by the Lekki Concession Company (LCC) in 2011 for the sole purpose of collecting tolls from the over 50,000 cars that ply the route daily.

However, since 20 October 2020, the tollgate brings back nothing but terrible memories for many, so much so that the state government and its special purpose vehicle, the LCC, have been unable to collect tolls from motorists. This is to avoid provoking members of the public ahead of a crucial election in which Lagos godfather, Bola Tinubu, is running for president.

Two weeks before the shootings, the tollgate served as the epicentre of the #EndSARS protest that was triggered by incessant cases of police brutality against youths. The tollgate, which reportedly rakes in over $100,000 daily in revenue, was forced to shut down as thousands of youths held a carnival-like protest.

However, this all changed on 20 October 20 2020 after Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu imposed a curfew in order to put an end to the demonstration. By evening, bright lights of the display boards at the tollgate were turned off while the CCTV was off. Armed soldiers in the cover of darkness subsequently opened fire on some of the adamant protesters who were waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem.

In retaliation, attacks were launched on critical government facilities starting with the tollgates which were set ablaze. Seyi Tinubu, the Lagos godfather’s son, was also viewed with suspicion as his company, Loatsad Promomedia, was responsible for turning out the lights at the tollgate on the fateful day.

Companies that were suspected to be linked to Tinubu were subsequently attacked, including The Nation newspaper. Perhaps the biggest casualty was Television Continental, a TV station partly owned by Tinubu, which was completely burnt to the ground along with equipment worth millions of dollars.

Court houses, the palace of the king of Lagos, police stations and a fleet of government-owned commercial buses were destroyed in the melee.

Privately owned supermarkets and stores were also vandalised and burgled while prison breaks were recorded in some states as the chaos continued for several days. According to the state government, the losses incurred were over $2.3bn. Many lives were lost, including those of 22 policemen.

No justice

Amid pressure, the state government set up a panel of inquiry to investigate prior cases of police brutality and also determine what happened on the fateful day.

The Nigerian government, however, continued to downplay the severity of the #EndSARS protest. In June 2021, the government suspended Twitter for seven months for what it termed the ignoble role the social media platform played during the protests. It also froze the accounts of some of the notable #EndSARS figures, accusing them of terrorism financing. This order was later rescinded.

The findings of the state panel set up to probe the #EndSARS shootings revealed some shocking details. The panel, which was led by a retired judge, found that there were 48 casualties – of which nine were confirmed dead on the night soldiers stormed the tollgate. The panel described the incident as a “massacre in context”.

The 309-page report provided graphic details of how after soldiers exited the scene, the police followed up with the killing of the protesters, shooting directly at fleeing demonstrators, who were running into shanties and the lagoon.

It said officials of the Lagos State Environmental Health Monitoring Unit evacuated dead bodies and deposited them at various hospital mortuaries in the state. The report shockingly averred that some trucks with brushes underneath were brought to the Lekki Tollgate in the morning of 21 October to clean up the scene and conceal evidence.

The panel recommended that the tollgate be made a memorial site by renaming it the #EndSARS tollgate. The panel also recommended that there should be a monument memorialising the lives lost and those injured at the tollgate with the names inscribed on the monument. The Federal Government was also advised to publicly apologise to the youth for the 20 October 2020 incident.

However, both the state and the federal governments rejected the findings of the panel. The state government still compensated some past victims of police brutality with over $800,000.

2023 angle

Although the #EndSARS protests failed to put an end to police brutality, it revealed the true strength of Nigerian youths and what they could achieve if they unite. The renewed awakening contributed to the rise in voter registration among youths.

The LCC firm, which operates the tollgates in Lagos, is believed to be owned by Tinubu, an allegation he has since denied. For now, however, no tolls will be collected so as not to rock the boat before the elections.

Given this new political consciousness, it will not be business as usual for the country’s political leaders

However, the two main political parties – the All Progressives Congress (APC) and the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) – have widely been rejected by a large number of youths while most of the prominent faces of the #EndSARS have since adopted Peter Obi of the Labour Party as their presidential candidate.

23-year-old Rinu Oduala, whose accounts were frozen for her role in the #EndSARS movement believes the momentum will be the game changer next year as she has now pitched her tent with Obi.

“Given this new political consciousness, it will not be business as usual for the country’s political leaders,” she tells The Africa Report.

Similarly, Aisha Yesufu, the hijab wearing activist whose viral photo of a raised clenched fist became a symbol of the #EndSARS protest, tells The Africa Report that the momentum of the protests can indeed upend the current political establishment.

Yesufu, who now supports Peter Obi, says the protest was indeed a turning point in Nigeria’s political history as it revealed not just the ability of youths to organise, but the danger of not participating in the political process.

“The question now is will they be able to carry it on and will it be enough to change the political establishment that has been there for 23 years? Absolutely! Yes. They can do it and they are already showing signs of doing it. They are actually making the difference and are the ones dictating the way the political process will go,” she says.

However, Omoyele Sowore, a presidential candidate who also took part in the #EndSARS protests, disagrees. He says the movement would not be enough to secure victory for Peter Obi, adding that the #EndSARS movement failed to gain traction in Northern Nigeria.

“There is this conspiracy that youths are on the side of Peter Obi and it is not true. At least 12 of the northern states have no sign of Peter Obi except those arranged rallies. It is like saying every youth participated in #EndSARS.

“The northern youths did not participate in #EndSARS and you cannot say the northern youths don’t matter. Even in the southwest, how many youths are with Peter Obi?” Sowore tells The Africa Report.

In an interview with The Africa Report, Hannatu Musawa, a spokesperson for Tinubu’s campaign, says the #EndSARS momentum is not enough to ensure Tinubu’s defeat at the polls.

This Peter Obi movement is not visible in every part of the country.

Musawa, who is from the northwest, says the only reason it seems Obi is popular is because his followers, who are mostly from the south, are more active on social media than their northern counterparts.

“If you look at the northern part of the country, a lot of youths do not have the same access to social media the same way another section has.

“This Peter Obi movement is not visible in every part of the country. If you go to the northern part of the country, they don’t understand the Obi movement and they have as much a right to vote as the youths that are on social media, so I don’t think this #EndSARS momentum will affect Tinubu in a negative way,” she says.

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