The history of police brutality and violation of human rights dates back to the colonial period with the then police operating to protect the economic and political interest of colonizers, and subsequently political elites. In 1930, the Southern and Northern police were merged to form one Nigeria Police Force, whose duties were to detect and prevent crime, apprehend offenders and maintain law and order in all the states of Nigeria. While the historical development of the Nigeria Police Force indicates different phases of development suggesting evolution in its structure as the Nigeria Police Force, the institution has however struggled with public perception and failed to build citizens confidence in its operation. The caption “Police is your friend” has not helped either with citizens sharing tales of woes from their interaction with the police which is a clear contradiction to the supposed perception of a friend and civil protector which the police have tried to project in the media.
The operation of the “defunct” Special Anti-Robbery Squad which was created as a faceless undercover police unit to fight armed robbery increased citizens’ trust deficit and loss of confidence in the Nigeria Police as an Institution of Government created to protect lives and property. The spread of SARS officers across Nigeria is almost directly proportional to the human rights violations by the officers of the squad. Although different regions may experience the violation of the defunct SARS units, what is clear is the fundamental rot in the system which has enabled a long history of police brutality and impunity.
The #EndSARS demand kicked off around 2017 when young people shared experiences of violation of human rights by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad popularly known as SARS. However, with several declarations of the supposed disbandment of the SARS unit in previous years, the reports of extrajudicial killings by security agents especially SARS operatives across Nigeria remained rife while assault and extortion seemed to be the order of the day. However, a viral video of a citizen in Delta state being brutalized by SARS officers revived the movement, and inspired an organic, youth-driven protest across different states in Nigeria.
This time around, the protest moved from online engagement to occupying major streets and cities across states in Nigeria which was sustained by an effective system of youth organizing, with the protesters highlighting specific demands requiring immediate government action. Some of the demands popularly termed the “#5for5” include; immediate release of #EndSARS protesters arrested, justice for victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation of to victims and families, setting up of independent panels to investigate police misconduct and prosecution of perpetrators, psychological evaluation and re-training of all officers of disbanded SARS before redeployment and an increment in police salaries and welfare package. While the protests lasted, the government announced the disbandment of the SARS and a few days later created a unit: Special Weapons And Tactics unit (SWAT). This was received negatively by the youths protesting and interpreted as an indication of the Government’s lack of sincerity in truly disbanding SARS and providing a permanent solution to police brutality in Nigeria.
Government’s Response to the #EndSARS Demands
The protests continued with the young Nigerians persistent on the demands summed into 5 key asks from the Government and popularly called the #5for5. While the street protests had to be suspended because of the insistent attacks on protesters, the Lekki Tollgate shooting of protesters and the destruction of properties by thugs and hoodlums, directives were given to State Governors to set-up Judicial Panels of Inquiry. These Panels were to attend to petitions from victims of police brutality and extra-judicial killings. However, #EndSARS enjoyed support from young people in Nigeria, international recognition and support, it also received some opposition leading to different levels of attacks on the movement and supporters. This also led to certain governmental decisions that can only be described as a violation of fundamental human rights by the government through actions that cannot be classified as reasonably justifiable in a democratic society. For instance, the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission (NBC) imposed a 10 million Naira fine against some media organizations for what was described as “unprofessional” reporting and use of “unverified” online materials during the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria. Recall that Nigerians, mainly young people trooped out to protest against police brutality across over 26 states in Nigeria. With a large number of the protesters using their smartphones to cover their participation in the protest, document important moments via videos and take pictures. This created a lot of content on the protest with videos and pictures shared on social media. However, after authorities theorized that some videos could have been doctored, individuals were encouraged to put time stamps on each photo or video.
Although traditional media in Nigeria were initially accused of not providing adequate coverage to the protest, the protest grew in magnitude, size and indeed attention from international media. Thus it became an unavoidable media agenda across conventional and online media regardless of ownership. The protest reached an anti-climax on 20th October, 2020 when men of the Nigerian army reportedly shot live bullets at peaceful protesters sitting at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos. The major documentation of that incident is a live Instagram video made by DJ Switch, and snippets of CCTV cameras that were nearby. This is followed by the report by Amnesty international Nigeria, Premiumtimesng and CNN especially with the contradictory stories from the government on the Lekki Tollgate shooting. In the aftermath of the protest, Judicial Panels of Inquiry were set up in at least 29 states and the FCT to investigate cases of police brutality. This was unfortunately followed by witch-hunting of known promoters of the movement by government agencies as promoters raised alarm over seizing of International passports, freezing of accounts, arrest and unlawful detention.
Following an investigative report by CNN on the alleged Lekki massacre, implicating video clips and evidence against the Nigerian Army surfaced. The federal government of Nigeria condemned this report and termed it “irresponsible”, followed by further denials by the Army stating that they didn’t shoot unarmed protesters, with more contradictions on who invited the army to the Lekki tollgate, whether blank bullets or live rounds were shot. The government has for some reason not clearly answered these confusing questions, provided clarity, or taken responsibility for the Lekki tollgate shooting. The Lagos State Judicial Panel of inquiry summoned CNN to the panel, for further questioning based on the CNN report on the Lekki Tollgate shooting. CNN however, declined the summon, on the grounds that they are an American media and the Judicial Panel had no jurisdiction over them. The report was clear and when facts speak this loud, the Government whose sole purpose is the welfare and security of the people has the responsibility to investigate and ensure justice for victims.
In addition, early days of December had the internet buzzing with headlines about Police asking courts to end the Judicial Panel probe of abuses. The Panels which has become a place of solace for victims and relations of victims of police brutality to share their horrid experiences of their hours/days/months of torture in the hands of officers of the Law. While few agreed with this move by the Police, majority said it was inhumane and an abuse of Nigerians’ human rights. Within 48 hours however, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu denied being aware of this lawsuit by his officers, and promised to investigate the matter. This move by the police and the ease of the lockdown in many states led to a second wave of the EndSars Movement. The hashtag #EndSARS topped the list of trends on Twitter again, and while some states planned to march again in protest, Akwa Ibom and Osun states were the states who successfully held protests again.
The Judicial Panels of Inquiry set up across the States mostly commenced sitting in October 2020 with victims of police brutality presenting petitions before the Panels. Different groups have kept watch over the Panels. For instance, Yiaga Africa deployed observers to observe the Panels and working with Enough is Enough Nigeria, provides weekly updates on the Panels.
Direction of Media Reports of #EndSARS– More Positive than Negative
With the setting up of the panels of inquiry to investigate cases of police brutality, media reports have focused more on tales of pain by Nigerians who have suffered various degrees of agony as a result of their encounter with men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or other police officers. This is a positive direction of news as media projects how one of the demands of the protest is being implemented across states with young people also represented in the panels. Some of such reports were published by International Media organizations like the BBC, British Reuters, CNN and Aljazeera. CNN went the extra mile to make further investigations, and gave a detailed report, even revealing the origin of the bullets found on the alleged crime scene of the Lekki massacre. Other platforms that paid attention to the setting up of judicial panels include, Premium Times, The Punch, This Day, Vanguard, Sahara Reporters, The Cable, The Punch. Headlines include; Judicial Panel Into Shooting, Police Brutality Convenes in Lagos; End SARS protest: Rinu Oduala, Majekodunmi Temitope go represent youths for Lagos judicial panel of enquiry on police brutality; Inquiry probes shooting of Lagos protesters, police abuses; Benue state joins Lagos, others, sets up judicial panel of inquiry, amongst others.
Media reports on testimonies of victims of police brutality is similarly a positive direction as the media successfully exposed more ills committed by men of the SARS. Similar reports also include the number of petitions received in some states. For instance, headlines like, #EndSARS: Judicial panels in Ogun, Enugu, three others receive 101 petitions, further amplifying implementation of demands.
Another headline that typically paints the ills of SARS is, SARS officers tortured me for 48 hours, extracted my teeth, petitioner tells Lagos judicial panel. An editorial of the Tribune Newspaper titled The continuing victimization of #EndSARS protesters, serves to show the stand of the Paper on the EndSars issue. Also, the media was also able to identify big names where possible and as a matter of fact, set an agenda by mentioning some big names in the headline of their story. For instance, this headline by The cable reads, DCP Abba Kyari extorted over 41m from me – business man petitions judicial panel. This addresses a demand of the movement which is prosecuting perpetrators of these crimes by the police.
Headlines like, #ENDSARS Protest: We’ve footage of Oct 20 Lekki shooting, LCC tells Judicial Panel, comes with some form of optimism especially for the controversial shooting at Lekki tollgate. This shows a positive direction that newspapers are on the side of the people with the framing of their news story. Media reports also took some human interest angle which evokes sympathy for the End Sars movement. One of such headlines was well captured by Channels TV online, “How I Spent 22 Days In SARS Custody, Lost Two Pregnancies – Victim Tells Lagos Judicial Panel.
The media also paid huge attention to the current clampdown of EndSars which includes stories of arrests and freezing of accounts of perceived promoters of the movement. For instance, #ENDSARS: NBA, CSOs, SANs flay FG’s move to try protesters. There is also news of the release of over hundred protesters who were arrested during the protest.
The reportage of the media on The Police initial attempt to end the panel sittings were also positive. Headlines like, Move By Police To Stop Judicial Panel On #EndSARS ‘Shocks Presidency’. Despite the number of positive reports on the End SARS protesters, there are a good number of balanced, fair reports with few negative reports. For instance Premium Times reported, #EndSARS: Man sues Aisha Yesufu, Falana, Davido, Burna Boy, Don Jazzy others. Others include headline reported in Guardian thus, Nothing wrong in freezing #EndSARS protesters account, says Ondo governor. Another; EndSARS Protest: ICC confirms receipt of criminal complaint against Falana; while another example is All #EndSARS protesters should boycott judicial panels until government stops intimidating them – an opinion article by an Editor of Pulse News.
Major Sources of News are Victims, CSOs, Witnesses, Lawyers
Major sources from reports on #EndSARS stories reported include Civil Society Organisations, Youth groups, Eye witnesses, Governors, Senate President, Lawyers, victims of police brutality amongst others. While eye witnesses and victims formed the crux of news sources for reports on tales of pains on police brutality and mainly contained in petitions submitted to the judicial panel.
Similarly, the voices of CSOs have been loud, either in criticizing the government for its role in the escalation of the protest or its repression of promoters of End Sars. Same is the case for youth groups calling for comprehensive investigation into Lekki shooting. The Nigerian Army and Police on the other hand made the stories as they are also called on to testify in some of the state panels of inquiry. The hesitation of officers of the Nigerian Police who are summoned to the panels also met with disapproval from CSOs like Yiaga Africa, EiE etc. One of the headlines read, EndSARS: Yiaga Africa, EiE want compliance of NPF, SARS on panel’s invitation.
Other sources include President Muhammadu Buhari, the Presidency, Lagos state Governor Jide Sanwo-olu speaking on the postmortem of the End SARS protests.
Learnings So far
The media coverage of the EndSars Movement has been positive. Even though some media houses were initially fined by the NBC, they still report the issues, with headlines that are more favorable to victims than the government.
Opinion articles are also not left out. Nigerians in Diaspora have used their platforms to make the movement even more popular. In Wole Soyinka’s article, Déjà vu: In Tragic Veins, he recounts his experience with the violence preceding the alleged Lekki incident, and explains how it seemed almost the same with the anti-Abacha movement. In his words, “the centre has chosen to act in an authoritarian manner and has inflicted a near incurable wound on the community psyche”. This writing was published on Brittle Paper.
An opinion article by Ifeoluwa Adediran reads, Police Power: New Police Act, Same Officers, in which she writes that “As long as the power remains subjective to each police officer, more laws will never solve the problem.”
Similarly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote a paper titled, Nigeria is Murdering its Citizens, in which she recounts the ills Nigeria has faced since Buhari’s regime, stating, “under President Muhammadu Buhari, there is a sense that the country could burn to the ground”. This in turn was published on The New York Times. Several learned Nigerians have also written articles regarding the protests, the government’s clampdown on the supposed leaders, the Judicial Panels set-up, and the overall economic implications of the EndSars Movement. Aside very few of these, the majority of Media reports are positive towards the #EndSARS Movement.
While the demands of the protest have not been mostly met, the Judicial Panels of Inquiry established in 26 States have received petitions from victims of police brutality, their representatives, and others, with states like Borno, Jigawa, Kano, Kebbi, Sokoto, Yobe and Zamfara States yet to set up their Panels. As citizens approach these panels to seek justice, the Government must set a new trend by showing a new attitude to responding to injustices done to the people by ensuring that the findings from the Judicial Panels of Inquiry are duly enforced and justice truly done for victims of police brutality.
In conclusion, reimagining the future of police in our democracy as a civil protector of the people must take centre-stage in the efforts for police reform. The piece-meal approach to police reform will not provide a reformed system as history has shown, and the reform of Police as an Institution must be all encompassing, indepth and must adopt a rights-based approach. This should be a critical point of reflection for Nigerians and citizens in a democracy.
From the media desk of Yiaga Africa.