A culture of impunity in Nigeria’s police must stop

The world was watching when soldiers and police officers shot into a crowd of #EndSARS protesters, killing more than ten and highlighting police brutality in Africa’s most populous country.

Forces beyond our direct control. These five words stick out like the blood on the green and white flag of Nigeria, a haunting image that came out of the country following waves of protests against police violence. 

In response to those protests, Nigeria’s law enforcement agencies meted out more violence. The culmination of that violence was the Lekki massacre, where soldiers and the police reportedly killed more than 10 people. The exact number of deaths hasn’t been confirmed. Government officials have only been speaking about those who were injured. When looking at the events leading up to this massacre, it is difficult to not surmise that the killings were part of a coordinated plan, particularly when hearing and seeing the details and accounts that have been shared by protesters who were at the Lekki tollgate.

It started around midday on 20 October, when the governor of Lagos State, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced a 4pm curfew with immediate effect following fresh protests against police brutality and the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). But people were already at work and with Lagos’ traffic, it wasn’t feasible for everyone to get home by 4pm.

It was also unlikely that the protesters would simply stop demonstrating, as many of the issues that had forced them on to the streets weren’t addressed by the government disbanding the SARS.

Reports allege that at around 3pm, closed-circuit television cameras at the Lekki tollgate were removed. The tollgate had been occupied by protesters since the calls to #EndSARS intensified earlier this month. Hours after the cameras were taken down, just before 7pm, the lights were switched off and soldiers opened fire on the peaceful protesters, who responded by singing the national anthem in the dark. In one of the numerous videos on Twitter documenting the massacre, you can hear someone trying to hold back tears as they sing the anthem amid gunfire.

20 October 2020: Blood stains on the Nigerian flag after the Special Anti-Robbery Squad opened fire on protesters at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos. (Source: Twitter)

“This is the toughest night of our lives as forces beyond our direct control have moved to make dark notes in our history, but we will face it and come out stronger,” Sanwo-Olu tweeted in response to the violence. 

Sanwo-Olu is either incompetent or a terrible liar. Either way, this is worrying for Nigerians. Why should he remain governor when forces beyond his “direct control” in his state can just march up and kill and injure protesters? It’s unlikely soldiers would carry out such a task without someone high up ordering them to do so. 

This is not to say that Sanwo-Olu is the one who gave the order, but someone clearly did. There were already murmurs that soldiers would be roped in to deal with the protests that have thrust Nigeria’s police violence problem into the global spotlight. And don’t hold your breath thinking someone will be brought to book for this despicable act.

A history of impunity 

The now-disbanded SARS got away with murder for years. The unit was known for its thuggery, torture and widespread human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, sexual harrasment and extortion. Amnesty International investigated the conduct of SARS and put together a report titled Nigeria: Time to End Impunity (Torture and Other Violations by Special Anti-Robbery Squad)

The report documented 82 cases between 2017 and 2020 in which detainees were tortured. This is despite President Muhammadu Buhari signing into law the Anti-Torture Act in 2017. Amnesty International found that no SARS officer had been convicted of torture.

“At SARS Awkuzu [a town in Anambra state] … their leader directed them to hang me,” Miracle Onwe, who was 23 when he was interviewed in 2017, told Amnesty International. “They took me to the back of the hall and tied me up with ropes. They tied my hands behind me, tied my two legs together and then tied the rope binding my hands with that around my legs behind me, causing my chest to protrude. 

“They had two, already-prepared iron stands where they hang people. They passed an iron rod through the ropes and then lifted me up by the rod and hung me from the iron stand. Then they started to use all manner of items to beat me, including machetes, sticks, inflicting me with all manner of injuries … When the first officer came to check and saw that I was almost unconscious, he went to call their team leader, who then asked them to bring me down. They dumped me inside the interrogation hall.”

Onwe’s story isn’t unique. There are many Nigerians with harrowing stories of the abuse they have suffered at the hands of law enforcement agencies. The SARS alone isn’t the problem, but it is part of a bigger crisis in a country where those who are meant to serve and protect inflict pain and fear. 


“Police brutality is not only limited to SARS, but is experienced across the whole police system in Nigeria,” Nigerian journalist Tolu Olasoji, who has been covering the #EndSARS protests, told Radio New Frame. “I will use myself as an example. The fact that I carry a journalist card is probably the only reason why I haven’t been in a police truck. I think that I have encountered them five times. Everyone in Nigeria agrees that the first time you have a gun pointed at you would probably be at the hands of a police officer, not by armed robbers or kidnappers.”

The SARS was established in 1992 as an undercover operation to combat violent crimes. The prevalence of cybercrime in the 2000s allowed the squad to become more brazen as anyone with a technological gadget became a suspect. 

They started to operate openly on the streets, profiling young people who were treated as guilty until proven innocent. In most cases, proving your innocence included paying a bribe. “Most victims are young men between the ages of 18 and 35, poor and from vulnerable groups, and are tortured either to extract information and ‘confessions’ or as punishment for their alleged offences,” Amnesty International said in its report. 

“Amnesty International found that torture is a routine and systemic part of police investigation in SARS, that many SARS stations use designated ‘torture chambers’ – special interrogation rooms commonly used for torturing suspects. These are often known by different names such as ‘the temple’ or ‘the theatre’ and are in some cases in the charge of an officer known informally as ‘O/C Torture’ (officer in charge of torture). In numerous cases, Amnesty International saw scars, bruises and dried blood on victims’ bodies. Many of those subjected to beatings did not receive the medical care they required. In some of these cases, the violations were allegedly ordered by high-ranking officers.”

20 October 2020: Protesters demonstrating against police brutality at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos, Nigeria. (Photograph by Adetona Omokanye/ Getty Images)

The fuel behind the protests 

The recent wave of protests calling for the squad to be disbanded was ignited by a video of a SARS officer shooting a young man in Delta State. Protests followed, with #EndSARS trending on Twitter. It was telling that the law enforcement agencies responded with thuggery when they were criticised for heavy-handedness. 

Calls to disband the SARS started in 2016, led by activist Segun Awosanya. The government made several attempts to reform the unit, but these amounted to nothing more than poor rebranding. That is why the protests haven’t stopped, despite the unit being officially disbanded on 18 October. There is reasonable fear that SARS operatives will be transferred to other units and police violence will remain an issue. 

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#EndSARS has exposed the many problems young people face in Nigeria. Police violence is just one of them. At the heart of this is corruption, which has seen the police extort bribes with impunity. It’s a plague that sees highly qualified young people struggle to find well-paying jobs, forcing some university graduates to resort to selling goods on the streets in the continent’s biggest economy. 

The African Union (AU) released a meek statement following the Lekki massacre. The chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, “strongly” condemned “the violence that erupted on 20 October 2020 during protests in Lagos, Nigeria, that has resulted in multiple deaths and injuries”.

He went on to appeal “to all political and social actors to reject the use of violence and respect human rights and the rule of law [and to] privilege dialogue in order to de-escalate the situation and find concrete and durable reforms”.

What needs to change 

The AU’s toothlessness is worrying. Governments have committed many atrocities across the continent and all the AU seems to do is “condemn” them without taking any real action. Africa is bleeding with violent state responses to protests in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Namibia. If the AU wants to sustain any popular credibility, it needs to be at the forefront of opposing state repression. 

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Disbanding Nigeria’s SARS will not solve the problems the country’s young people have highlighted. Those responsible for the human rights violations that SARS operatives have committed over the years have to be brought to book. Nigeria’s Police Service Commission needs to be empowered and supported financially to improve as an oversight body that investigates and prosecutes the abuse of power by law enforcement agencies. The culture of impunity within which the police operate needs to come to an end. Those in charge also need to be held accountable.

It is shocking for a governor to have the nerve to say that “forces beyond our direct control” are responsible for killing around a dozen peaceful protesters. Solidarity from across the continent is urgently required to support the young people fighting – and being killed – for reforms in Africa’s most populous nation.

28 September 2019: From left, Lagos State governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu and UN General Assemby 74th President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande at the 2019 Global Citizen Festival in New York City. (Photograph by Theo Wargo/ Getty Images for Global Citizen)
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