The shooting of peaceful protestors has highlighted the injustice and state brutality that have fuelled this movement
Nigeria’s flag is stained with blood once more. Protestors were clutching it as security forces opened fire at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos late on Tuesday. The state’s governor denied that anyone was shot dead, but witnesses spoke of multiple fatalities among the hundreds gathered in defiance of a curfew. The #EndSars campaign against police abuses has drawn high-profile support around the world, but at home has unleashed more state brutality.
Around the country, demonstrators had already been attacked by groups of thugs. Although there has been unrest during the protests – participants blame unscrupulous elements taking advantage of the demonstrations, or police provocateurs – the tollgate gathering was peaceful. Official rhetoric towards the movement had hardened, with the army warning that it could step in “against subversive elements and troublemakers”. It now denies involvement, but the governor of Lagos said it had been deployed, and that Tuesday had seen “some of the darkest gradients of our history”.
Nigeria has a long history of violent clampdowns on peaceful protest. Muhammadu Buhari, who was elected president five years ago and previously headed a military junta in the 1980s, has a grim record. Amnesty International says security forces killed at least 150 activists and demonstrators in the south-east (a claim denied by the army), and a judicial inquiry found that soldiers killed hundreds of Shia Muslims in Zaria, in the north, in 2015.
State violence permeates society. #EndSars, a call for the dissolution of the notorious special anti-robbery squad, gathered momentum two weeks ago as a video apparently showing officers shooting a man dead went viral. Stories and evidence of police harassing, assaulting, raping, unlawfully arresting, extorting and murdering citizens circulated widely. Nigerians across the country have too often been terrorised by those supposed to protect and serve them. A 2016 index of world policing ranked Nigeria’s force as the worst out of 127 countries.
Police brutality in Nigeria: what is the #EndSars movement? – video explainer
The government said it would disband the squad, but added that it would create a new unit. Activists want justice for bereaved families, the retraining of Sars officers and an independent investigative body – but also adequate pay for police, recognising the underlying issues. Some states have now created investigative panels, but the offending police have yet to be arrested. Worse still, deaths in custody have continued.
The Lekki shootings show signs of turning a campaign focused on policing but tapping into much deeper anger about the state’s treatment of its citizens into an anti-government protest. Some now call for Mr Buhari to quit. More broadly, people link the state’s response to a failure to meet basic needs. Soaring unemployment, worsened by the pandemic, has fuelled anger. Protestors have grown up expecting the state to do little and receiving worse. It fails to afford them even basic respect. Now they are demanding it.
An extraordinary outpouring of support from celebrities worldwide – from Kanye West and Beyoncé to Marcus Rashford and John Boyega – comes in stark contrast to the muted response from leaders in the region. The South African president, Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the chair of the African Union, and Ghana’s president, Nana Akufo-Addo, chair of the West African Ecowas bloc, spoke out strongly on George Floyd’s death. They appear less keen to address police brutality in their neighbourhood. But Nigerians have good reason to protest. They must be defended.