Now is not the time to stop talking about police brutality in Nigeria

Sahara Reports have recently reported that the Nigerian army has illegally detained 95 Igbos in Kaduna prison since 2020 while 257 other youths have gone missing. This violation of human rights from the Nigerian forces is not new.

Would you give your life for your country? On the night of the 20th of October 2020, Nigerian’s youth gave their lives in the fight for their freedom. For over 28 years, the Nigerians Police's Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, had developed a reputation for brutality against civilians, especially the youth. But its greatest atrocity was the killings on the 20th of October 2020.

In 2020, after years of frustration, Nigerians have taken over social media with the #ENDSARS hashtag trending on Twitter. A protest movement that was once invisible except to those who knew of a barbaric abuse of power by the Nigerian police, and the government that enables their cruelty. After weeks of protest nationwide, streetlights were switched off at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos: enabling the Nigerian army and police officers to take advantage of the fundamental human right to protest. This was following a 4 pm curfew that was imposed by the Lagos state government and other states banning protest. At the time of disobedience towards the curfew, there was no intention as to what it would become. The continuing protest was a by-product of the insecurity that Nigerian civilians had suffered at the hand of the people who were meant to be protecting them. The asperity and sense of danger that were intrinsic in those moments became a defining factor of the policy reforms that Nigeria sees today.

Twenty-six-year-old Buhari Yesufu moves with the same impetuous attitude that was present among demonstrators in the protest he attended.

However, he had initially decided to stay home on the 20th of October, the day that a 24-hour curfew was imposed, as he had already heard about the restriction. Yesufu simply couldn't stay away as word spread that the demonstration at Lekki toll gate was going to go ahead regardless. There was intent and self-assuredness to achieve something greater that led to the curfew being disobeyed.

“The situation with #ENDSARS for me personally was deeper than just police brutality,” he says. “It was more about the government and the Nigerian state in general. The system in place that systematically denies the youth's access to wealth and money and access to other things including security and human rights.”

Demi Babalola, 22, a graphic designer from London who had moved to Nigeria the previous month was motivated by the same frustration.

Babalola attended protests, but she stayed at home that day because her family predicted that “it was going to end badly.” She says:

“We’re not just trying to #ENDSARS it’s something bigger than that. We want to reform Nigeria as a whole, #ENDSARS is just the tip of the iceberg.”

By 6 pm Yesufu recalls some "weird men" arriving and switching off the CCTV cameras. "People tried to challenge them," says Yesufu. "But they said they're acting on instructions." Suspicions started to build as the lights at the toll gate were off. The lights at the toll gate were always on. The Lagos state government was already putting stuff in place beforehand. Babalola mentions "the government was starting to say stuff like we don’t need protesting anymore, we're going to use force.” However, no one could have imagined the extent to which the Lagos state government would go to impose the curfew.

“The first thing I heard around 6:30, was sporadic gunshots and people screaming,” says Yesufu who was hanging back from the vanguard. He emphasises that it was hard to get a sense of what was going on in the chaos and the pitch black.

"The first thing, I saw which blew my mind was a lady fell into a gutter. I don’t know if a bullet hit her, but I just heard her screaming, “My leg! my leg!”

Yesufu escaped the unfolding carnage on an 'Okada', a motorcycle that serves as a taxi in the urban city. He recalls the torturous sounds of people helplessly screaming as they tried to reach their cars. "We all knew when the soldiers and police would come because they come every day… But the sporadic shooting by semi-automatic weapons – that is ridiculous. If you’re coming to a peaceful protest, you can’t just be shooting.”

Babalola who was at home at the time of the alleged shooting but lives only a 10-minute drive away says the events were 'surreal'. "I couldn't do anything,” she admits. “People on Twitter were asking for resources such as numbers for lawyers and hospitals nearby. I was helping in that sense because I know the area. That's the most I could do because I couldn't leave my house. So it was just through social media that I helped people that day.”

Wole Tomisin, 25, who had been protesting all month, says he was ‘heartbroken’ when he first heard the news. “These were civilians protesting to live better in their motherland,” says Tomisin.

“All they want is to feel secure. They went out to protest and they ended up dead.”

Today an accurate number of the lives lost is still debated but a judicial panel has ruled the incident as a 'massacre' and that army soldiers injured and killed unarmed peaceful protestors. We asked Yesufu whether he would consider the protest a success and what are the next steps to be taken.

“Hundred percent it was a success,” says Yesufu. “Most of the things we asked for, the Nigerian government later agreed to do it. SARS was banned.” He adds “Although they have been disbanded before and restated, for now, I would say the Nigerian police force have been better. But there are still killings. Nigeria still has a long way to go…I feel like the ball is in the court of the youths. We showed what we can do with togetherness and how organised we could be. If we continue to work together and understand that regardless of these people if we create our own system and we create our own institution and structures they will work.”

What do you think are the next steps for cultural reform by the youth in Nigeria? Let us know in the comments below!