By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins of Lagos has called on the faithful in the archdiocese to pray for peace in Nigeria in the wake of two weeks of protests against police brutality and bad governance.
“The last few weeks have been filled with mixed emotions,” he said in a circular released on Thursday. “There was a general outrage at the way young people were being treated by the SARS in particular but also other security agencies…we dared to hope that the much-desired change in the way we do things in Nigeria would happen.”
For the next nine days (23 - 31 October), the Archbishop invites priests to celebrate at least one Mass a day for peace, for the repose of the souls of those who died during the protests and for the consolation of their families. In addition, he is encouraging the faithful to say a “Prayer for Nigeria in Distress” – a prayer composed by the Nigerian Bishops in 1993, and families and individuals to pray the Rosary, after which they should say the “Prayer to St. Michael the Archangel.”
For two weeks, Nigeria has seen tumultuous times marked by protests against police brutality which evolved into broader protests against bad governance.
Nigerian youths, mobilizing through social media, began staging demonstrations in cities across the nation, calling for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) which they accuse of brutality, extortion, unlawful arrests and extrajudicial killings.
With the demonstrations growing in size, the government announced the dissolution of the controversial unit on 11 October. Authorities, bowing to pressure from the protesters, ordered all SARS personnel to report to the police headquarters in Abuja and announced the formation of a Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT) to replace SARS.
This announcement did not satisfy the protesters who continued their demonstrations. Many Nigerians accuse the government of carrying out an empty renaming exercise devoid of any real structural reform, as the government, while dissolving SARS, had also said that it would reassign its members to other police divisions.
Three times in the past three years, the Nigerian government has announced the reorganization or disbanding of SARS. However, the police unit’s violence has continued.
Crackdown on protests
The mostly peaceful #endSARS protests against police brutality were, in some instances, met with even more brutality, with security forces using tear gas, water cannons and live ammunition against protesters.
According to Amnesty International, by 15 October, at least 10 protestors had been killed. On Tuesday, the death toll doubled with reports of at least 28 people killed in mass shootings in the Lagos suburbs of Lekki and Alausa. The human rights organization added that at least 56 people have been killed and several others injured since the protests began.
Lamenting this in his Thursday letter, Archbishop Martins noted that the Nigerian Bishops had warned that “dialogue and not force” is the way out of the situation. Now, he added, “many young people have been killed and many more injured.”
“We hope that government would heed the call of the UN and investigate how the command could be given and who gave the command that live bullets should be used on unarmed and peaceful protesters.” This, Archbishop Martins added, “is necessary so that people would show more responsibility in carrying out their duties.”
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation on Thursday evening but made no mention of the Tuesday shooting deaths of the mostly peaceful protesters against police brutality. Rather, among other things, he called for an end to the protests and patience as the government implements the demands of the protesters.
In Lagos, the governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said in a televised briefing on Wednesday that he would be ordering an investigation into the Lekki attacks.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad also known as SARS was created in 1992 as a division of the Nigerian Police Force to curb the increasingly worrying cases of robberies, kidnappings and other crimes.
Initially, it was effective in reducing criminal activity but more recently, SARS became notorious for reportedly targeting young Nigerians who appear to be well off, have tattoos, expensive phones or sport dreadlocks and other hairstyles different from the perceived norm.