#EndSARS protests were peaceful, until Nigerian government weaponised violence to crush them [Pulse Feature]
Nigerian youths raised their voices, and the Nigerian state rolled out the guns.
Tuesday night's ugly incident, and the attendant violence that has followed, could very well become the hallmark of a generation-defining movement, but it is important to remember how peaceful it was until it was crushed by the Nigerian state.
The escalation of Tuesday night didn't come out of thin air.
Instead, it was the result of a methodical buildup that went through numerous stages before the world watched harrowing scenes of helpless young Nigerians battling for their lives in the heart of metropolitan Lagos.
The protests kicked off on Sunday, October 4, 2020 in Delta State a day after police officers had allegedly shot a young man who was in their custody.
Even though the alleged shooting, which didn’t really happen, was wrongfully attributed to officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), protests in Delta targeted the unit due to its notorious reputation and well-documented history of abuse of citizens.
The Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, reacted swiftly and announced a reorganisation of the unit on Sunday, October 4; but since it wasn’t the first time Adamu or his predecessor, Ibrahim Idris, had announced similar reorganisations that failed, it didn’t appease a lot of people.
The Delta incident and Adamu’s cosmetic solution sparked conversations on Twitter, and old wounds inflicted by the notorious SARS were being reopened, eventually leading to mobilisation for street demonstrations in Lagos.
A planned 72-hour protest in Nigeria's commercial capital would go on to become a tinderbox that sparked a nationwide movement that is now being suppressed by the Nigerian state.
On Day Two of the protest, police officers who acted rather aggressively against protesters who were spending the night camped outside of the Lagos State House of Assembly in Alausa created the spark for other Nigerian youths to call for more demonstrations in their own cities.
And then demonstrations started popping up, in Abuja, in Oyo, in Edo, in Anambra, in Abia, in Ogun.
The demand was unanimous - a complete dissolution of SARS.
Adeeko Ademola, a digital content creator in Abuja, says he joined the protests because it’s such an important moment in Nigeria’s history.
The 34-year-old says he and his loved ones have been victims of police high-handedness too many times to count, and he couldn’t waste a good opportunity to demand better.
"We cannot continue to live in fear of the same people that are saddled with the responsibility of protecting us.
"I am tired of running from criminals and then still running from the police," he tells Pulse just a day before the Lekki incident.
During a protest in Ughelli on Thursday, October 8, a police officer, Corporal Etaga Stanley, was shot to death after he reportedly shot a protester in the leg.
At the time, that incident was the only major stain on a movement which was soon to gain nationwide and global acclaim for its peacefulness as much as for its end goal - the end of a police unit that was cutting down too many lives with brazen impunity.
"Doctors, engineers, intellectuals, students came out in their numbers and protested," Cyrus Tha Virus, a rapper who participated in demonstrations in Benin, Edo State, tells Pulse.
While #EndSARS became a burning issue online and trended globally, protesters in the streets were cleaning up after themselves, and conducted themselves in a civil manner even while begging for their lives being terrorised by people paid with taxpayers' money to protect them.
The Nigerian state responded in the best way it has perfected over its independent years - violence.
During a violent pushback against #EndSARS protesters in Ogbomosho, Oyo State on Saturday, October 10, police officers shot and killed Jimoh Isiaq.
The 20-year-old's death became a rallying cry for the protests, and the demonstrations remained largely peaceful despite an invasion of the palace of the Soun of Ogbomoso, Oba Jimoh Oyewumi, where two others are believed to have been killed, according to videos that later surfaced online.
The IGP blinked on Sunday, October 11 and announced the complete dissolution of SARS as a unit of the Nigeria Police Force.
However, trust in the institution was at one of its lowest so the announcement did not do much to alter the course of the protests.
At this point, a fundraiser had already started to help protesters across the country with sustenance, medical emergencies, and legal aid that were starting to become a necessity for the protests that had at this point lasted for longer than authorities are used to.
So the Nigerian state responded in the best way it knows - more violence.
While Lagos Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, was addressing protesters who had shut down business at the lucrative Lekki-Epe toll gate on Monday, October 12, police officers were cracking down hard on protesters in the Surulere area of the state.
Ikechukwu Iloamauzor, a bystander who was caught in traffic caused by the demonstration, was killed during the crackdown.
The Lagos State Police Command claimed the 55-year-old driver was actually killed by protesters who attacked the Anti-Kidnapping Unit at Hogan Bassey Street in Surulere to free criminals.
The command claimed that the protesters also killed a police inspector, Erinfolami Ayodeji, and shot two others.
A video later surfaced online to suggest that the inspector might have been killed by friendly fire from his own colleagues, poking holes in the official police story.
Another video emerged of police officers of Area C Police Command in Surulere arresting two female protesters who they savagely assaulted in the streets before they further beat them in detention away from the cameras.
State-sponsored violence on peaceful protesters was not isolated to just Lagos as scores of Nigerians were similarly tear gassed and brutalised in Abuja, the nation’s seat of political power.
Right around the time Adamu was announcing the dissolution of SARS on October 11, peaceful protesters in the capital city were getting hosed down with water cannons and getting beaten with sticks by police officers.
This pattern of aggression was widespread at many of the nationwide demonstrations as authorities struggled with finding the best way to regain trust that has eroded over the years.
Human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, estimated at this point that police officers had killed at least 10 protesters. No one had been held accountable.
Despite the aggressive tactic of the police force, protesters remained largely peaceful, and with the eyes of the world starting to really turn in the direction of the demonstrations, there was a need for a strategic shift for the Nigerian state.
Salako Ayoola, a video producer based in Lagos, was at Alausa on Wednesday, October 14, when the first major batch of thugs attacked peaceful protesters.
"The protest which started at Alausa had advanced to the Lagos-Ibadan expressway.
"Thugs wielding an axe and cutlasses showed up," Salako recounts to Pulse.
Despite the surprising lack of police presence, according to Salako, protesters were able to repel the attack and even capture some of the thugs to hand over to authorities.
But another army of thugs also popped up in the Berger area of Abuja where many protesters were injured and some cars were vandalised.
"The police stood aside and watched them attack people with machetes, clubs, and daggers," Ademola, who was present at the demonstration, tells Pulse.
The sudden rise in thug violence did not spare Benin where Cyrus says thugs threatened peaceful protesters with guns and machetes to disrupt their demonstration.
The pattern of attacks, coupled with notable police inaction, did not escape the scrutiny of many observers who deducted that it was an attempt to disrupt the peaceful protests with violence.
"The rise in violence against peaceful protesters in my opinion is from mischievous actors weaponising ignorance and poverty to unleash willing thugs against peaceful protesters.
"The state isn't innocent too, many of these thugs are well known in communities," Salako says.
The spate of unchecked violence was causing a range of reactions - it inspired more people to join the protests, or it demoralised those already in the streets.
Kelvin Odinaka, a digital marketer based in Abuja, was at Berger where the first thug attack happened, and he admits it got to him.
"At first, it didn't affect our morale because we were pushing back, but it got to a time that we kept on seeing more and more thugs," the 29-year-old tells Pulse.
The uptick in violence prompted Feminist Coalition, a group that had started coordinating relief and fundraising efforts for the protests, to start hiring private security guards to protect protesters, a major indictment of the Nigerian state that stood by and watched them get hurt.
Even this did not do quite enough as the relentless attacks continued, and a protester was killed during one of such attacks in Benin on Friday, October 16.
Anthony Onome Unuode was also stabbed by thugs in Abuja on Saturday, October 17, and died hours later.
Another coordinated thug attack on protesters in Abuja on Monday, October 19 led to the death of at least three protesters and burning of dozens of cars.
Some of these thugs were seen in viral clips online being coordinated in buses and SUVs that many suggested proved the government’s culpability.
While violence started to creep into the streets, the online fundraising effort suffered violence of its own with multiple accounts targeted for freezing by financial institutions who were getting squeezed by the government.
Feminist Coalition raised an alarm on Tuesday, October 13 that its bank account had been deactivated.
"Our bank account has been deactivated and so has the Flutterwave donation link. Our members' lives are also being threatened!" the group posted in a now-deleted tweet.
A source familiar with the issue, who requested to not have their name publicised, told Pulse at the time the deactivation was due to government pressure.
"There are no formal queries or accusations. Just pressure coming from the government," the source said.
A freeze was also reportedly slammed on the account of another group that has raised funds for the protest, and other accounts were targeted.
Despite the numerous thug attacks popping up at different demonstrations all over the country, the sit-in protest at the Lekki toll gate was largely untouched by violence.
In fact, the demonstration was considerably too relaxed that many others on social media started to accuse protesters there of losing sight of why they were blocking one of Lagos' busiest intersections.
There was a general carnival-like atmosphere that many people regarded as them feeling too much at ease especially with the violence affecting their comrades in other places.
A later-discarded plan to stream live football matches on the giant screens at the toll gate was evidence of how cocooned from violence the protesters there were.
But violence escalated all around them, and an escalation of that violence, especially the burning of police stations by thugs on Tuesday, October 20, forced Governor Sanwo-Olu to impose a 24-hour statewide curfew.
Regardless of his intention, Sanwo-Olu's declaration of a curfew with only an initial four-hour notice in a city infamous for its traffic congestion was the first in a long line of deadly mistakes made on Tuesday.
The lights illuminating the toll gate complex were conveniently switched off by workers of the toll gate which is managed by the Lekki Concession Company (LCC), and there was alleged funny business that went on with the cameras.
Military boots arrived at the scene of one of the most peaceful demonstrations in Nigeria’s history, and peaceful protesters who sang the national anthem and waved the Nigerian flag were fired on.
More than 130,000 people around the world watched an Instagram livestream run by Obianuju Udeh, a disc jockey popularly called DJ Switch, with dozens of Nigerian youths huddled together in darkness while gunshots filled the air.
Tens of thousands watched as protesters, inexperienced in medical aid, tried to dig the bullets out of the bodies of their fellow Nigerians who had been shot by their own security forces.
All they did was peacefully demand an affirmation of their rights to life and civil liberties as enshrined in the constitution, and what they got over the course of two weeks was unceasing waves of violence from the Nigerian state.
"It is tiring that we are not even asking for too much and this is what we get for asking that the police stop harassing, brutalising, raping, and kidnapping innocent citizens," Ademola says.
To its credit, while the Nigerian government applied undue pressure on demonstrations on the streets, it entertained some of the demands made by the protesters.
SARS was, on paper, dissolved, and a new SWAT unit hastily created; judicial panels were inaugurated by state governments to investigate allegations against SARS officers; and many of the peaceful protesters were released as soon as possible.
However, protesters were unwilling to trust the government’s word to implement a more comprehensive reform because of the institutional rot of the NPF.
The government’s failure to understand that distrust, and its desperation to sweep the demonstrations under the rug as quickly as possible fueled the waves of violence it visited or allowed in a bid to break the spirit of the protesters.
When President Muhammadu Buhari finally broke his trademark silence since the Lekki incident in a national broadcast on Thursday, October 22, he minced no words in making it clear that his government would no longer tolerate the demonstrations.
He had a brief word of consolation for the police officers that have died over the past two weeks, but saved no tribute for the tens of protesters that have died at the hands of police officers or in the escalated violence that followed Tuesday’s event, an event he also completely failed to even acknowledge.
The Army has bizarrely denied that its officers were responsible, and Sanwo-Olu that confirmed that they were indeed deployed to the scene, although not by his office, also initially said no one died at the toll gate, until his government later admitted to two fatalities.
Tuesday night’s shooting marks the end of a momentous movement that basically asked for the government to implement a system that didn’t cut the lives of its young citizens short, and the government's response was to do the opposite of that.
Governor Godwin Obaseki was the first to impose a 24-hour curfew on Monday after thugs broke into two correctional facilities in Edo and freed nearly 2,000 inmates.
Sanwo-Olu followed suit on Tuesday, and many state governors have imposed a similar curfew to all but cut the legs from under the movement.
Feminist Coalition announced hours after Buhari’s speech that it would no longer be accepting donations, after raising a total of N147 million in under two weeks.
Demonstrations have halted across the country, and the Nigerian state can declare itself victorious over the muffled unrelenting voice of its citizens.
The irony of the government's violent response to the demonstrations is the #EndSARS movement became bigger than about SARS itself and became more about accountability in general.
And yet, that problem persists, and the Nigerian state has refused to look in the mirror and make adjustments.
A majority of the unnecessary atrocities unleashed on peaceful protesters over the past two weeks alone has largely gone unpunished.
Jimoh Isiaq’s killer is yet to be identified, never mind made to face justice for cutting down a young man in his prime.
The perpetrators of Tuesday night’s carnage at the Lekki toll gate are unknown as far as the Nigerian state is concerned.
And that is why the protests never stopped even when the Nigerian state believed it had done everything right.
"The people have lost trust in the government and the government needs to do the work to earn that trust back.
"They need to start showing people results, not plenty of talks," Ademola says.
Nigerian youths may be bent right now, but they have shown that they are not broken.
"I'm proud of Nigerian youths, how they were ready to give up their lives for this cause," Cyrus notes.
The Nigerian state has taken the air out of the #EndSARS protests with its tested and trusted tool of wanton violence, but lessons were learned; and this generation of Nigerians has shown very clearly that it will not keep quiet.
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