'Just stop killing us': young Nigerians rise up against brutal police force

Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

After weeks of unrest, men in fluorescent coats were clearing ash and blood from the streets of Lagos on Saturday. But for many like 22-year-old Anthony Oyodele, the memories of soldiers firing live ammunition at hundreds of peaceful protesters at a tollgate in Lagos, killing at least 12 people, will be harder to scrub clean. “Whether here, or in Yaba, or Alausa, we all saw the atrocities online. It’s not possible that we will pass through there and not remember.”

A wave of protests which erupted across Nigeria against the now officially disbanded Sars police unit, and more generally against police brutality, have met the brutality they hoped could finally end. At several protests, police units have responded with force, and groups of young men wielding knives and sticks have attacked demonstrators. “It doesn’t make sense,” said Oyodele. “We were only demanding that they stop harassing and killing us but they still responded by doing even worse.”

More than 56 people have died since demonstrations began in Nigeria more than two weeks ago, Amnesty International has said. “End Sars” – a predominantly online campaign against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars), a police unit, plagued by a history of extra-judicial killings, torture and extortion – flooded on to the streets in early October. In a country where peaceful protest is often repressed, demonstrations were met with further acts of violence by police officials.

The cries for change in Nigeria, largely from a younger generation in a country where young people are the largest demographic, have been met with a lack of urgency, bemusement and threats of force by a generation of elderly governing officials, led by the 77-year-old president, Muhammadu Buhari. For much of the past few weeks the president has cut an aloof figure, silent as outrage in the country grew following abuses against protests across the country. On Thursday after widespread international criticism of the killings and his response, he failed to directly mention the fatal shootings or order an investigation.

Shoppers return to a marketplace as Lagos eases the curfew imposed after protests
Shoppers return to a marketplace as Lagos eases the curfew imposed after protests. Photograph: Temilade Adelaja/Reuters

Calling for an end to the demonstrations he warned protesters to “resist the temptation of being used by subversive elements to cause chaos”.

The shootings in Lagos by security officials on Tuesday left the country and many around the world aghast. Footage posted after the events and broadcast live on social media showed soldiers firing live rounds into fleeing protesters at the tollgate in the more affluent Lekki area of Lagos. After the killings, the army denied any of its soldiers were even at the scene, claiming footage of the killings was manipulated. Lagos’ governor said there were no casualties.

After the killings at the tollgate Oyodele lay on the ground, felled by a body covered in blood as he was running from police. When officers sped past him, pursuing other protesters, he fled into a nearby bush, and waited for hours as bullets rang into the air. Nigeria’s authorities had announced a number of policies in recent weeks to placate the protesters and reform the police, yet the attacks by security forces and groups ofthugs on protests was their clearest response to their demands, he said. “They would rather send guns on us than put in place real measures or make real changes,” he said.

In recent years, President Buhari’s government has made numerous promises to reform, overhaul or disband Sars. On 12 October in response to the growing protests he announced the unit would be dissolved. The reforms are the most comprehensive announced by his government, a measure of the pressure the protest movement has forced. Yet a widespread sense they do not go far enough has fuelled dismay.at the government.

“There is a generational issue,” said Chioma Afwuegbo an activist. “Nigeria has the highest demographic of young people in Africa. Young people are making fair demands but in some of the statements by government officials you can see they’re still being dismissive.”

The shock of the killings has left the protest movement reeling. Twenty-four-hour curfews adopted by many states are slowly easing but have effectively shut down the protests. Yet anger is simmering and could prompt fresh demonstrations.

The protests have offered a sense of new possibilities for a younger generation frustrated with poor governance in Africa’s most populous country. They have given rise to an ecosystem of support groups, coordinating help and providing logistics across the country.

Feminist Coalition, a group of young women, and the End Sars Response team were just two such groups. They set up phone lines for protesters, provided medical aid for the injured, and organised ambulances and private security at protests across the country.

For Ariet Honest, a 23-year-old artist and model, marching to end Sars has been her first protest, driven by several occasions where she was searched and harassed by police. “It’s inspiring to see our power, our unity,” she said. “We’re not even asking them for much. Just stop killing and harassing us, that’s all.”