At the Lekki toll gate in Lagos on Oct. 20, thousands of peaceful demonstrators stood their ground, demanding police reform, singing the national anthem and hoisting Nigeria’s green-white flag. But, as soldiers warned protesters that day, the national flag is not bulletproof.
“One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity,” the protestors sang before the soldiers opened fire, killing more than 10 demonstrators, according to multiple eyewitness accounts from the scene. Despite the mounting evidence of the military’s role in the violence at Lekki, Nigerian army officials still flatly deny that their soldiers were involved in the shooting.
Just hours earlier, the government had declared a 24-hour curfew in an attempt to head off more protests that for weeks have been roiling the nation. The government alleged that thugs and hoodlums had infiltrated the demonstrations, intent on destroying public property. Soldiers and anti-riot police units were deployed to enforce curfew orders.
The protests began on Oct. 7 after the extrajudicial killing of another Nigerian youth at the hands of the detested Special Anti-Robbery Squad was caught on video and quickly went viral on Nigerian social media. The SARS police unit has become notorious for illegal arrests, torture, extortion, sexual violence and the killing of young Nigerians. The unit is alleged to operate secret torture camps and detention facilities.
“One nation bound in freedom, peace and unity,” the protestors sang before Nigerian soldiers opened fire, killing more than 10 demonstrators.
Protestors using #EndSARS as a social media hashtag took to the streets, demanding that S.A.R.S. be disbanded and calling for other police reforms, the prosecution of officers who have killed unarmed Nigerians and compensation for the families of victims. But the demands of the demonstrators have quickly expanded into a broad critique of government corruption, incompetence and impunity as human rights abuses and economic malaise continues in Nigeria.
Lagos, a city of more than 20 million people, is the largest in Africa and the commercial heart of Nigeria. It quickly became the epicenter of the protests, but demonstrators have occupied major cities and towns and gathered at strategic locations across the country. Government buildings, entrances to airports, thoroughfares and bridges have been shut down.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria has issued statements supporting the protesters, though they have urged both protesters and security forces to use the utmost restraint. “We support the youths who have taken this step and we caution that they are allowed without any intimidation to exercise their right to peaceful demonstration and should not be provoked or incite to violence,” the bishops said.
“The audacity and impunity with which the SARS officials have been operating all the while is a manifestation of the failing State of Nigeria,” the statement continued. “Various bodies and patriotic Nigerians have expressed the opinion that just ending the SARS will not solve the enormous problems of Nigeria, because it is futile treating symptoms of a disease when the root cause is known.”
That root cause, according to the protesters and the bishops, is government corruption and impunity to prosecution. “The youths, and indeed most well-meaning Nigerians, are calling for justice for the individuals and families affected by the brutality of the policemen attached to the disbanded SARS unit,” the Archdiocese of Lagos said in a statement on Oct. 17. “They are also using the protest to bring to the fore the systemic failures which have led to widespread corruption, lack of accountability and massive youth unemployment, among other ills.”
Nigerian bishops: “Just ending the SARS will not solve the enormous problems of Nigeria, because it is futile treating symptoms of a disease when the root cause is known.”
The Lagos archdiocese said that the problems which confront the nation are clearly more fundamental “than the replacement of one police unit.” It called for police reforms and dialogue instead of a continued crackdown on the demonstrators. “We believe that a sincere and transparent response to the demands of the young people would go a long way in resolving the present impasse.”
The North-West Africa Province of the Society of Jesus has added its voice to the protest in solidarity with the demonstrators, calling on the government to “institute sincere reforms in the criminal justice system to guarantee accountability, protection of citizens’ rights, fairness, and access to justice for all on the basis of equality.”
The protests are not only aimed at ending police brutality but also impunity, lawlessness, corruption and abuse of power by government officials in the country, according to a statement by the Society.
“The #EndSARS campaigns are a profound expression by the youth of Nigeria over bad leadership, lack of access to basic social amenities, increasing poverty, and loss of hope for a better future,” it said.
The Society said it condemns “the use of force and intimidation by security personnel,” adding that “Peaceful protest is a fundamental right of every Nigerian.”
“This protest is long overdue because the people have endured to a breaking point,” said Aniedi Okure, O.P., the executive director of the African Faith and Justice Network, a Catholic nonprofit based in Washington. “Nigerians have been very restrained with all the atrocities committed by the police over the years.”
Since the demonstrations began, mostly peaceful protestors have endured live fire, tear gas and water cannons deployed by security forces.
Father Okure said the protest against police brutality has triggered attention to other issues that affect Nigerians daily. Their lives have been made miserable by the failure of Nigeria’s leaders, he said. “They have mortgaged the future of young Nigerians.”
Since the demonstrations began, mostly peaceful protestors have endured live fire, tear gas and water cannons deployed by security forces. In locations across the country, protestors marched through city streets holding banners with the names and pictures of those who have been killed by police inscribed on them. At night, candlelight processions have been held for victims.
According to Amnesty International, more than 56 people have been killed by security forces so far—including 38 who were killed at the shooting at the Lekki toll gate and another site in Lagos on Tuesday. The government acknowledged on Oct. 23 that 69 people, mainly civilians but also police officers and soldiers, have died.
Amid the growing tension, the Nigerian inspector general of police, Adamu Mohammed, announced on Oct. 11 that SARS had been dissolved on President Muhammadu Buhari’s orders. Two days later, a new unit known as the Special Weapons and Tactics team was announced as its replacement. The government also says a judicial panel of inquiry would be set up to investigate police brutality and a special fund to compensate families of victims would be established.
But the protestors have rejected those concessions, pointing out that the government and police authorities have never kept their word on disbanding SARS and suggesting that members of the disbanded unit would be secretly reintegrated into the new SWAT team. Protesters are likely suspicious because this is not the first time the police authorities have announced the banning of SARS or police reforms after reported killings, extortion or torture.
The demands of the demonstrators have quickly expanded into a broad critique of government corruption, incompetence and impunity as human rights abuses and economic malaise continues in Nigeria.
Between 2017 and 2019, SARS was briefly disbanded and reportedly overhauled after similar complaints of illegal arrest, extortion and torture. A few weeks later, however, members of the unit went back to their former ways of profiling and brutalizing young Nigerians as criminals.
Despite the heavy-handed actions of police, insecurity remains a profound problem in Nigeria. Father Okure once led 87 sisters from 28 religious communities to police headquarters to protest that insecurity. Many priests and sisters have been kidnapped for profit in Nigeria.
“You are not safe in the church or travelling on the road or going anywhere. The insecurity is so intense and can affect people’s mental health,” he told America.
The protest has turned into a global movement, with demonstrations in London, Toronto, Paris, Berlin, New York and other cities around the world. In response to rising tensions, the U.S. consulate in Nigeria announced it was closing its office in Lagos and advised its citizens to be vigilant and avoid areas affected by protests. The British High Commission in Lagos also announced its visa application centers would be shut down.
Former United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and presidential aspirant Joe Biden have separately called on the Nigerian government to end the violent crackdown on peaceful protestors. And the current U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, said through his Twitter account: “The United States strongly condemns incidents of military forces firing on unarmed protestors in Lagos. Those involved should be held to account under the law. We extend our condolences to the victims of the violence and their families.”
Father Okure said the increasing pressure from other governments and international organizations around the world should help discourage further violence and human rights violation by Nigerian security forces and help press reform of the police force. The church is on the right side by standing with young people leading the protest for change in the country, Father Okure added.
In local parishes, priests and bishops have used their homilies to talk about the protest and support an end to police brutality in the country. Mass was held on the protest ground, and sisters and seminarians helped distribute holy communion to protesters.
“The church realizes that this is more than just a protest,” Father Okure said. “It is something much deeper because the church recognizes that the government has failed to protect the citizens and to provide the basic infrastructure to enable citizens and make the society a better place to live.”
Father Okure said security officials responsible for killing peaceful protesters should be arrested and prosecuted. “Human life is sacred as God’s creation,” he said. “The church is against the violation of human rights or taking life because it is only God who gives life.”
In a national address on Oct. 22, President Buhari did not mention the shootings in Lagos that provoked international outrage but warned protesters against being used by “subversive elements” and “undermining national security and law and order.” He reiterated that point in a statement released on Oct. 23, warning that the government “will not fold its arms and allow miscreants and criminals [to] continue to perpetrate acts of hooliganism.”
Soldiers remained in parts of Lagos as a 24-hour curfew remained in place.
Citing the president’s comments, one influential group behind the protests, the Feminist Coalition, urged Nigerian youth to stay at home, arguing that “we need to stay alive to pursue our dreams to build the future.”
With reporting from The Associated Press