Lekki Toll Gate, a nondescript toll plaza on a busy Lagos highway, has become a rallying cry for Nigerians demanding police reform.
After dark on October 20, eyewitnesses say, security forces opened fire on protesters demonstrating against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS. According to Amnesty International, at least 12 people were killed at Lekki and a second location, though the government said two people died.
“This place was a war zone, but it was more army fighting civilians, unarmed civilians,” Ephraim Osinboyejo, a 39-year-old businessman, told Reuters. “Peaceful civilians, civilians who were exercising their constitutional right.”
Days of confrontation followed between protesters and police. The clashes left at least 51 civilians, 11 police officers and seven soldiers dead, according to government figures.
The Nigerian government vowed investigations and police reform. It disbanded the SARS unit, reassigned officers and promised additional human rights training.
There are several investigations of alleged police abuse of power underway. Officials in November admitted that the soldiers did have live rounds while at Lekki. But they insisted that forces did not fire into the crowd and acted with restraint.
“At this point, it’s important to say that the federal government is very satisfied with the role played by the security agencies, especially the military and the police, all through the EndSARS crisis,” Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s information minister, said during a press conference November 19. “The security agents were professional and measured in their response. Even when their lives were at stake, they exercised uncommon restraint.”
However, as a Nigerian judicial panel continues its probe into excessive force, 154 organizations from the world over have asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to conduct its own probe.
Symbol of problem
Rights groups say that the SARS unit was a symbol and example of excessive force.
“This unit had been associated with egregious and systematic human rights abuses, including torture, extrajudicial execution, arbitrary detention,” Adotei Akwei, managing director of government relations at Amnesty International USA, told VOA. “They were almost a law unto themselves and have been the focus of concern by the media as well as by domestic and international human rights groups for several years.
“And so when the announcement came that the unit was going to be disbanded, on the one hand, it represented a major step forward. But on the other hand, there was nothing else,” he said. “And that triggered the protests, that were linked to calls for a systematic, comprehensive security sector reform and reform of the police.”
Protesters say disbanding the SARS police unit is not enough — they are calling for lasting police reform at all levels, and they say their demands are not being met.
There are allegations that Nigeria’s security forces have used heavy-handed tactics against members of the public for years and continue to do so.
During summer’s COVID-19 lockdown, Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission found that security forces killed 18 people. Rights groups say the culture of police abuse is pervasive.
In Africa’s most populous nation where the median age is 18, many of the protesters are young people. Analysts say their public dissent is likely to continue.
“One thing is clear, right? What is clear is that the youth in Nigeria are awake,” said Chiedo Nwankwor, a Nigerian native who is director of SAIS Women Lead, a women’s leadership development program at Johns Hopkins University. “They have decided that they have a voice and that the government is going to hear their voice, one way or the other.”
Nigeria’s attempt at reform is being closely watched in the United States, where protesters have also marched this year for police reforms.
After protests spread throughout Nigeria in October, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, a Texas Democrat, marched with her constituents at the Mickey Leland Federal Building in Houston to show solidarity with the Nigerian protesters.
“They want a free, peaceful Nigeria, free of the killing of innocent persons. They are outraged by the violence, the burning that they’ve seen, the killing at the gate that they have had to experience. They had a video showing the outright shooting by military persons that would really break your heart,” Lee said, adding that each unarmed person killed that night was “someone's young son or daughter.”
Opal Tometi, a Nigerian-American human rights activist and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S, said Nigeria must allow public dissent.
“The brutality that the protesters have been met with is not tenable,” Tometi told VOA. “They had a right to assemble; they have a right to protest. And in many ways, it’s their duty to protest when things have been so. When they’ve gotten to a certain point, [protesters] have no other choice.”