On October 3, 2020, Prince Nicholas Makolomi was driving from Ughelli to a wedding party in Warri when he saw a young man tossed out of a moving police vehicle.
How a misleading video sparked the final downfall of SARS
Last year's protest was sparked in part by a video that miscommunicated facts.
Believing he knew enough of what was going on, he switched on his phone’s video camera and chased the police officers.
"They don kill the boy o. Safe Delta Ughelli. The boy don die o," he said while chasing after the police vehicle belonging to the Operation Safe Delta unit of the Delta State Police Command.
Makolomi posted the video on his Facebook page, and went on to the wedding party where he later got word that the victim did not die.
He deleted the video from his Facebook the next day, on October 4, posting an update that the victim in question did not die.
But he was no longer in control of his own creation.
When that video was shared on Twitter late on October 3, one tweet in particular, posted by someone that was not Makolomi, falsely claimed that operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shot the young man to death.
This tweet gained thousands of retweets and likes, and was expectedly received with outrage at the excesses of the Nigeria Police Force, especially SARS.
Festus Keyamo, the Minister of State for Labour and Employment, moved quickly on October 4 to clear up the confusion, announcing that the young man, Joshua Ambrose, was not dead, and that SARS wasn't the unit responsible for his fall.
The police claimed the victim jumped out of the vehicle himself, after he had been arrested, but he said that he was pushed by the police officers.
Keyamo promised that the conduct of the officers would be investigated, but stressed that the video online misrepresented facts.
"I wish to appeal to the youths in Ughelli not to resort to violence and/or destruction of lives and properties," he appealed at the time.
The Ughelli incident reopened old wounds inflicted on regular Nigerians by rogue officers of the notorious SARS unit, and pockets of protests started popping in a couple of states.
Police corporal, Etaga Stanley, was killed at a protest in Ughelli on October 8 reportedly because he had shot a young protester in the leg.
Later that night, the police harassment of peaceful protesters demonstrating overnight at the Lagos House of Assembly fueled more public interest, and the #EndSARS campaign entered its full-blown nationwide phase.
While Makolomi’s misleading video stirred last October’s movement, its absolute significance to what played out last October has been debated.
The reason SARS became the false target for the Ughelli incident was because it had grown over the years to become the face of police brutality in Nigeria.
Since it was created in 1992 to combat armed robbery and other violent crimes, officers of the unit have been accused as serial perpetrators of harassment, extortion, torture, and extra-judicial murder.
SARS had for a long time been considered by the public as a menace and an existential threat, especially to Nigerian youths who are often the victims of their atrocities.
Past #EndSARS campaigns had forced authorities to announce reforms, but those reforms didn’t change much.
But on October 11, then-Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced that SARS would no longer exist as a unit of the Nigeria Police Force.
It was a long-overdue victory for the public, but one that was ironically incited by an atrocity that SARS was not directly responsible for.
But the sentiment was, and remains, that SARS had nonetheless allegedly been responsible for worse violations of rights and was deservedly scrapped, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the inciting incident.
Social media played a huge role during the protests, and young Nigerians organised largely leaderless demonstrations that had the world’s attention for two weeks.
But as much as it was a useful tool for fighting institutional power, social media also was a ripe breeding ground for misinformation to spread unchecked.
A random photo of a young woman crying during a demonstration in Enugu went viral after someone had claimed on Twitter that police killed three of her brothers in one day.
The photo and the claim received thousands of retweets and likes before the woman involved, Ugwu Blessing Ugochukwu, announced it was a lie that had nothing to do with her.
Numerous social media posts also falsely claimed that the United Nations (UN) would be compelled to stage an intervention in Nigeria if the people protested for more than 30 days.
Another false claim that was widely shared on social media at the time said protesters holding the Nigerian flag would be immune from being attacked by security forces.
This claim was tragically proven to be false when Nigerian Army troops fired on peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on October 20, the event that effectively marked the end of the street demonstrations.
An analysis by Dubawa, a fact-checking outfit, found that social media users, celebrities, and influencers were the source of 83% of disinformation and misinformation regarding the #EndSARS protests, and Twitter was the major platform used to spread them.
MacHarry Confidence, a security analyst at SBM Intelligence, believes the viral spread of misinformation and disinformation during the protests was as a result of its largely leaderless structure.
"The impact of unchecked streams of information, some altruistic and devoid of malice, adds to the flavour of movements and goes a long way in determining its outcome," he tells Pulse.
By the time the #EndSARS protests were over, 57 civilians had been killed, according to government records.
Those killings were perpetrated by armed thugs that tried to break up the demonstrations, or security operatives with the same objective.
The government’s records also note that at least 37 policemen were killed, most of that emanating from the escalation that followed the Lekki shooting of protesters.
When the government started hunting scapegoats, social media was one of the easy targets.
The role Twitter played in providing a platform for protesters was used as one of the justifications for why the government suspended its operations in June, a suspension that remains in place despite widespread condemnation.
But perhaps the easiest of scapegoats for last year's events has been Makolomi whose life has taken a dramatic turn since he recorded that video in Ughelli.
A friend was used to lure him to a public place, he told Vanguard last year, when he was first arrested on October 5 by the Delta State Police Command, and arraigned in court in Asaba, the state capital, on allegations of spreading false information, and inciting violence.
He was granted bail days later, and even met Keyamo, a native of Ughelli, to thank him for his intervention.
The sound engineer heaved a sigh of relief when the Police told the court on December 14 that it was no longer pursuing a case against him, but he was immediately arrested moments later outside the court.
Makolomi was freshly arraigned at the Federal High Court in Abuja, accused of intentionally spreading a false story that eventually led to the loss of lives connected to the #EndSARS protests.
He went on to spend a little over six months in detention, in Abuja and Niger State, according to sources familiar with his situation, before he was released on bail in June.
His case remains pending in court, but he’s lost his job and is sinking in debt trying to avoid a conviction for allegedly violating the Cybercrime Act.
Makolomi’s video kickstarted the chain of events that led to the final nail in the coffin of SARS, but many critics remain unsatisfied with the impact the dissolution has had on general police reform.
Police brutality in Nigeria was always more than about SARS, a unit that was the brutal poster child for what many consider an institutional rot that has been left to fester for too long.
Confidence thinks this needs to be tackled efficiently as police officers are themselves becoming targets for criminals who are capitalising on the chaos.
The security analyst also thinks that reform efforts must take a more general approach to include the nation's entire security architecture.
"Other security agencies, especially the Nigerian Customs Service and the Air Force have increased the pace of their unchecked brutality against Nigerians, and this goes beyond the youths," he says.
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