By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
For nearly two weeks, young Nigerians have been taking to the streets in protest against police brutality and calling on the government to shut down a notorious police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
They accuse this police unit, originally formed in 1992 to deal with cases of armed robbery and other criminal activity, of crimes including torture, extortion, illegal arrests and extrajudicial killings.
The youths also extended their demands to include calls for an end to corruption and better governance in light of the high level of economic inequality in the country, marked with sharp contrasts between the rich and poor. According to the World Poverty Clock, just over half of Nigeria’s approximately 200 million people live in extreme poverty, surviving on less than two dollars daily.
Pope Francis’ closeness
Pope Francis, during the Sunday Angelus, appealed for an end to the violent clashes in Nigeria between security forces and #endSARS protesters demonstrating against police brutality.
"Let us pray to the Lord,” the Pope said, "so that any form of violence might be avoided, in the constant search for social harmony in the promotion of justice and the common good."
On 3 October, a video alleging that a SARS official had shot a young man and made off with his Lexus SUV went viral on the internet. Within hours the video had generated public outcry across social media platforms. Over the following days, as more Nigerians shared their own experiences of brutality with the hashtag #endSARS, the online protests moved into the streets. By 8 October, protesters across several states in the country began to organize daily mass demonstrations.
Though the protests which saw thousands of young Nigerians gathered in select venues were mostly peaceful, some of the protesters accuse authorities of hiring hoodlums to disrupt the demonstrations by confronting protesters and causing damage to property. Many of the people allegedly hired to discredit the protests are unemployed with little to no job prospects, fall easy prey to manipulation by people willing to pay them.
As the protests continued to gain momentum, the #endSARS protesters were, in some areas, met with resistance by security personnel who deployed tear gas canisters, water cannons and live ammunition to disperse the crowds.
According to Amnesty International, at least 10 protesters had been killed by 15 October. However, a defining moment for the protests was the evening of 20 October when witnesses and Amnesty International reported that at least 12 people were killed and many others injured when soldiers opened fire on a crowd of mostly peaceful protesters in the Lekki suburb of Lagos.
Two days later, President Mohammadu Buhari addressed the nation calling for an end to the protests but made no mention of the shooting deaths of the protesters in Lagos. Although first appearing to be responding to the demands of the protesters, the Nigerian government drastically shifted to employing measures to end the protests.
Over the last few days, the protests have taken a different and sometimes violent turn. Mobs of Nigerians have overrun and looted several government-owned warehouses containing food allegedly meant to be distributed during the Covid-19 lockdown earlier this year. In states such as Lagos, Kogi and Kaduna, among others, storage facilities holding tons of relief materials have been broken into and emptied out. There have also been recent instances of arson as private and government-owned properties have been set ablaze by angry crowds.
Many victims of police violence
Many Nigerian youths - the demographic propelling the protests - report being profiled and targeted for appearing to be fashionable, well off, having body tattoos, expensive phones or for sporting hairstyles considered different from the perceived norm.
A 2020 report by Amnesty International titled: "Nigeria, Time to End Impunity", details horrifying cases from 82 people recounting their experiences of torture, extortion, sexual violence, seizure of money and property, illegal arrests and extrajudicial killings from officials of the SARS police unit.
“I want a Nigeria where there is hope, love, peace and unity,” a participant at the protests told Vatican News, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
In his opinion, the #endSARS protests began in reaction to long-running instances of violence, brutality and impunity of members of the Nigerian Police Force. A member of his family had also been a victim of police brutality from SARS.
“My cousin was harassed this year, he almost got shot… I was crying when he told me about it. I cannot imagine losing my cousin – that’s the only cousin I have – to a policeman and no one would do anything about it.”
Clampdown on protests
He recounts the terrifying experience of being present during the shooting on Tuesday evening.
“We were a peaceful bunch of people; we did not kill anyone; we didn’t spoil property…They were shooting at us…They were shooting at peaceful protesters," he said.
He recalls that the lights around the Lekki protest venue were turned off before the shooting started around 6:43 pm. In response, the protesters sat on the ground waving the national flag and singing the national anthem, hoping that the soldiers would respect the flag and stop shooting.
Many of the injured had to be taken to hospitals by the protesters themselves as the soldiers would not allow the ambulances through to them on the protest grounds. The shooting, he said, lasted for about thirty minutes.
Humanity before conflict
Regarding the Pope’s appeal for peaceful protests in Nigeria on Sunday, he welcomes it as a sign of the Pope’s care for the country.
“We are meant to love each other. We are meant to be there for each other,” he said.
“Humanity comes before any conflict – that’s how it should be,” he added. Young people are dying and the government is trying to sweep this under the carpet. We need all the help we can get.”
He dreams of a Nigeria full of hope, love, peace and unity. A nation where “the child of anyone can become someone without knowing anyone.”
The government’s response
The Nigerian police chief, on Saturday, ordered the mobilization of security personnel to regions of the country where the protesters were beginning to get disruptive.
Despite not mentioning the 20 October shooting deaths in his address to the nation, Buhari's Special Adviser on Media and Publicity, Femi Adesina said in a statement on Sunday that the President vows to ensure justice for “the peaceful protesters who lost their lives.” Adesina also reiterated the President’s call for “peace, brotherhood and inter-communal harmony,” urging Nigerians “not to turn against one another in hate.”
Although the government announced the disbandment of SARS on 11 October, police authorities, in the same breath, announced its replacement with a Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT). This announcement did not pacify the protesters who continued their demonstrations, accusing the government of an empty renaming exercise without proper structural reforms.