It is one year since the historic #ENDSARS protest, a youth-driven anti-police brutality demonstration, shook Nigeria.
The protest, which morphed from social media campaigns into street demonstrations in October 2020, was triggered by the excesses of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a now-disbanded police tactical unit notorious for cruelty against crime suspects.
Although SARS activities and general issues of police brutality, including unlawful arrests, torture, and extrajudicial killings, were at its core, the protest became a platform for demanding government’s decisive action against insecurity, corruption, economic woes and general maladministration blamed for the suffering of the majority of Nigerians and lack of opportunities for the youth.
The five-point demand
Without a central leadership structure coordinating the protests in different parts of the country, the street demonstrations continued with the agitators widening their requests which came down to the five-point demand.
The demands included compensations for the families of those who died under police brutality, the release of arrested protesters and an increase in the salaries and allowances of police officers.
Protesters also demanded that an independent body be set up to investigate allegations of police misconduct and to prosecute those indicted. They also called for the psychological evaluation of officers of the disbanded SARS before they are redeployed into other units.
PREMIUM TIMES looks at the state of implementation of the five key demands of the protesters.
Proscription of SARS was the primary demand of the protesters – the reason the demonstration was tagged #EndSARS. In response to the fast-spreading protest, the Nigerian government acceded to the request and announced the disbandment of the unit. It also announced the establishment of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to replace SARS.
However, the announcements did not satisfy protesters, who viewed them as just another renaming exercise and vowed to remain on the streets. It was the umpteenth time police authorities had announced the disbandment of the notorious police unit.
Compensations for victims of police brutality
Vice President Yemi Osinbajo [VP’s Twiter handle]The National Executive Council (NEC), chaired by Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, with state governors as members, passed a resolution for the setting up of the panels in the wake of the #EndSARS nationwide protest.
The panels, commonly referred to as #EndSARS panels, are chaired by retired high court judges and have members from civil society groups, the police, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and youth groups.
Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Tony Ojukwu
A version of the panel was set up by the NHRC in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), to receive petitions on police brutality from across the country.
Aside from Katsina and Kaduna, the five other states in the North-west region, comprising Kano, Jigawa, Kebbi, Sokoto and Zamfara, did not set up the panel, PREMIUM TIMES’ findings showed.
Adamawa and Yobe states in the North-east too did not constitute the panel.
In the FCT and 29 states that set up the judicial panels of enquiry, over 2,700 petitions were submitted.
PREMIUM TIMES also found out that the majority of the 29 states that set up the panels have concluded hearings. But none has made their findings public. This has fueled accusations that the process was just a charade, according to Confidence MacHarry, a security analyst at SBM intelligence.
Although the panels in various states have awarded compensations over some of the cases, many of the petitioners, apart from in Lagos State, have not been paid.
PREMIUM TIMES reported that the Abuja panel designed to be the federal government’s version of the panel replicated in many states has been crippled by a lack of funds since March. However, the panel resumed sitting on Monday, October 18.
Investigation of police misconduct and prosecution of the indicted
Part of the demands of the #ENDSARS protesters was an investigation of allegations of police criminality and prosecution of the indicted.
The #EndSARS panels were tasked with the investigations.
An early survey by the CSO Police Report that is being coordinated by CLEEN Foundation and NOPRIN Foundation suggested that “most of the petitions allege human rights violations such as extra-judicial killings, torture, extortion, harassment, sexual and gender-based violence, indiscriminate arrests, illegal detention, illegal arrests and abuse of power by personnel of the Nigerian police and other security agencies.”
The report commended various state governments for engaging qualified professionals as members of the judicial panels, but it noted that “there have been questions on the competence and expertise of “some members of the panels regarding the technical nature of the assignment.”
It added that “some petitions filed before the panels across the states have also suffered undue delay as a result of lack of cooperation from the police and other security agencies.”
CLEEN Foundation in its report noted that some police and military officers had not been cooperative with the panel.
“Uncooperative police and military officers should be subpoenaed to appear before the panel to respond to issues involving them,” it added.
With the recommendations of the panels in many states still largely unimplemented, it is doubtful if any of the police officers investigated had been held accountable.
Release of arrested protesters
Former Police Inspector-General (IGP), Mohammed Adamu. [PHOTO CREDIT: Official twitter handle of the Nigerian Police]The Inspector-General of Police at the time of the protests, Mohammed Adamu, agreed to halt the use of force against the #ENDSARS protesters and the unconditional release of those arrested.
Mr Adamu, the Ministry of Police Affairs and the Police Service Commission (PSC) also reaffirmed the constitutional rights of Nigerians to peaceful assembly and protest.
Despite the claims, however, the police and other security agencies continued to use force against the protesters.
Less than a month after the protests, the police announced the release of people taken into custody in police facilities and correctional centres over the #EndSARS protests.
The police, thereafter, promised to constructively engage the protesters in dialogue towards finding lasting solutions to some of the issues they raised. But this was cut short as the federal government started targeting key figures in the protests for punishment.
PREMIUM TIMES reported last November how the government deployed different strategies to punish those who played key roles in the protests.
The development, which involved freezing of bank accounts, confiscation of travel documents and gestapo-like arrests, was contrary to the administration’s endorsement of dialogue as the best approach to addressing the protesters’ call for justice and good governance. The government echoed this choice when the protest peaked and spread across many states.
But a year after the protest, many protesters are still being detained or prosecuted for being part of the protest.
Increase in the salaries of police officers
In their five-point demand, the #EndSARS protesters suggested an increase in the salaries of police officers, partly linking the latter’s endless extortion of citizens, corruption and viciousness to their poor remuneration, training and welfare.
PREMIUM TIMES has reviewed the poor salary structure of the Nigerian police and findings shows that the police are the least paid among corresponding security agencies in Nigeria, a factor experts believe fuels corruption, extortion, and abuse of power.
President Muhammadu Buhari
In 2018, President Buhari approved a new salary package for police personnel. But there is confusion over the implementation of the new salary structure.
The Police Service Commission declined to speak on the matter. The spokesperson of the commission, Ikechukwu Ani, said he was not in the best position to speak. Police spokesperson, Frank Mba, did not answer calls placed to his lines.
Earlier in April, PREMIUM TIMES interviewed several police officers who confirmed that nothing had changed in terms of their remuneration and welfare since the #EndSARS protest.
Psychological evaluation of all disbanded SARS officers before redeployment
Two days after the disbandment of SARS, the erstwhile IGP, Mr Adamu, ordered officers serving in the rogue unit to report to the Force Headquarters in Abuja for debriefing and psychological and medical examination, ahead of their redeployment to other units of the police.
It remains unclear whether this process was carried out. While police vehicles and personnel are no longer seen in public with the SARS inscription, many believe members of the rogue unit have been redeployed without proper evaluation.
The ENDSARS protests
The #ENDSARS protests are arguably the biggest public demonstrations led by young people in Nigeria’s recent history.
What started as a small campaign after a video went viral of a man allegedly killed by SARS operatives snowballed into a nationwide protest in a matter of days.
The protest was galvanised online with about 28 million tweets bearing the hashtag accumulated on Twitter alone. The ripples of the #EndSARS protest were soon seen around the world.
The protests started peacefully but turned violent especially after a government clampdown. Dozens of people, including peaceful protesters and police officers, were killed while public and private facilities were attacked and torched. Private and public warehouses, where foodstuff including COVID-19 palliatives hoarded by many state governments were stored, were looted by hoodlums who perpetrated all sorts of criminal activities under the cover of the protest.
The highpoint of the violence recorded during the protest was at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on October 20, 2020, when soldiers shot to disperse peaceful protesters who had gathered there for days.
According to Amnesty International, at least 56 people died across the country during the protests.
What has changed?
Many reform-seeking Nigerians said not much has changed since the #ENDSARS protests. Real change and broad structural reform of the force demanded by the protesters remain elusive, they said.
“SARS was disbanded but the police structure remained firm, and the corruption still thrives unabated,” said Mr MacHarry, the security analyst at SBM Intelligence.
“Unfortunately, things have gotten way worse than they were a year ago, which has led many young Nigerians with talents to leave the country and seek a life elsewhere.”
Many like Mr MacHarry believe only little has changed since the protest.
“While the police may no longer make daily headlines with acts of brutality, other security outfits, especially the anti-graft agency, EFCC, have taken their place.”
“And so, the more things change, the more they remain the same,” he added.
A human rights activist, Omoyele Sowore, was among the strong voices that led the EndSARS protests. Others included Aisha Yesufu and Raphael Adedayo.
Mr Sowore, the publisher of Sahara Reporters, is not new to arrest, detention and attack by security operatives. He has been arrested at least three times this year.
Earlier in 2019, he was detained for nearly 150 days for organising the #RevolutionNow protests.
On New Year’s Eve in 2020, less than three months after the ENDSARS protest, the former presidential candidate of the African Action Congress (AAC) was arrested alongside five other activists following a peaceful protest in the nation’s capital, Abuja.
They were initially taken to Abattoir police station, formerly a facility of the disbanded SARS unit, and later arraigned at a Magistrate’s Court in Abuja where they were denied bail and then remanded at the Kuje prisons.
The activist who narrated his ordeal at the “Abattoir” to PREMIUM TIMES earlier in October said while the government claimed SARS had been disbanded, members of the rogue unit still ran the dreaded facility.
“We were taken to a police cell in Abuja known as ‘Abattoir’. Victims of SARS were still locked up there and subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment,” the activist narrated, adding that a police officer broke his nose during his detention.
“I’ve not seen or heard of any of the SARS officers arrested and prosecuted for the atrocities committed by the dreaded unit. And now, the abuse, torture, extrajudicial killings, racketeering and extortions are back in full force,” he said.
“No reforms or reforms have taken place. SARS personnel and infrastructure is still very intact,” the activist said in another interview.
Crackdown on leading voices, mechanisms that propelled ENDSARS protests
Since the #EndSARS protest, the government has targeted some of the activists who played various roles in galvanising the protests, including freezing their accounts.
The platforms and mechanisms used by activists to plan the protests have also been allegedly attacked.
Twitter, whose founder Jack Dorsey vocally supported the #EndSARS movement, was banned in June after it took down a controversial tweet by President Buhari. The ban is seen home and abroad as a manifestation of Mr Buhari’s administration’s little tolerance for critical views, an attribute his stint as a military dictator in the early 1980s is still remembered for.
Many Nigerian users have turned to virtual private networks (VPNs) to circumvent the ban, but activities have yet to return to their peak on the microblogging site.
In all, the freedoms the #EndSARS protest set out to achieve remain elusive.