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by Dennis Da-ala Mirilla

Nigerian writer Dennis Da-ala Mirilla on the reality of the protests against the country's police brutality.

The country woke up on the 20th of October to a bright sun shine. It was a Tuesday and for many Nigerian youths, it seemed like a perfect day to join the #EndSARS protest. And so by the number they packed some supplies, and headed out for yet another day of singing the national anthem and chanting “End SARS!”

For two weeks, young Nigerians camped outside government buildings – statehouses, local government offices – all over the country, protesting police brutality, extortion and harassment by the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian police, set up to among other things fight cybercrime. For years, gruesome stories made their way to the internet. A Nigerian woman kidnapped in Oyo, a close neat south-western state and taken to the capital city of Abuja in the north, all without an arrest warrant, after weeks of hearing nothing about her whereabouts, her family went into mourning. A young Nigerian entrepreneur, arrested and beaten on his way to work for having tattoos. Many stories of young Nigerian men arrested by SARS with only their corpses returned back to their families were brought to light. Nigerians have had the final straw. Pushing the #EndSARS movement on the internet would cut it no more and so they solicited funds on social media.

With at least 5 million naira in the bank, on the 5th of October, they took to the streets of Lagos and Abuja with placards and the #EndSARS movement went brick and mortar. The next day, they continued protesting peacefully on major roads. By Saturday, they had set up camp at the Lekki Tollgate in Lagos and the protests had gone nationwide. 

Then news broke that police officers were using water cannons and teargas to disperse protesters and some had been arrested. As Nigerians protested police brutality, law enforcement officials met them with even more brazen acts of brutality. In the little town of Ogbomoso, a young promising student of Ladoke Akintola University of Technology, Jimoh Isiaka was shot on the protest ground. The spokesperson for the police told reporters that he wasn’t shot by the police. Countless eye witnesses disagreed. Clips of a father in tears after hearing the gut wrenching news of the loss of a son made the rounds on social media. The police insists “that nothing of such occurred.” 

“What started as a bright shiny morning for many to fight for a better country, ended with the country thrown into mourning"

On Sunday, with mounting pressure, the inspector general of police, Mohammed Abubaka Adamu announced that SARS was being dissolved. This was the fourth time that the government had disbanded the unit in four years. The script was too familiar. The protest soldiered on. More Nigerians took to the streets.

The youths had only five demands. The immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families, setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all police misconduct, psychology evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS official before they can be redeployed and increment in police salaries so that they are properly compensated for protecting lives and properties of citizens.

Weeks passed, donations flourished, a #EndSARS helpline was introduced, daily audits of expenditure were posted on Twitter, more casualties from police brutality on protest grounds swelled and then hoodlums hijacked the protest. Clips of hoodlums chasing peaceful protesters with machetes were shared on the fast streets of the internet, some clips showed hoodlums with weapons jumping into government owned SUVs. The narrative was that the government had paid the hoodlums to infiltrate the protests. Tensions skyrocketed and the Lagos state government ordered a curfew for 4 pm on the 20th of October. Later the curfew was extended to 9 pm.

First at least two cameras at the Lekki Tollgate were removed, later the lights went off. Nigerian youths stood their ground and minutes later it started. First, a shot was fired. Raising the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem, the sounds of gunshots filled the air as many ran helter-skelter in total darkness. They couldn’t tell where the bullets were coming from. There was a stampede. “Lie down” a faint voice could be heard. DJ Switch, a Nigerian disk junky went live on Instagram. The shots continued. What the world was witnessing live was the massacre of Nigerians by trained soldiers. It went on for minutes. Video footage caught on phones showed soldiers shooting at Nigerians.

What started as a bright shiny morning for many to fight for a better country, ended with the country thrown into mourning by soldiers.

“This was the fourth time that the government had disbanded the unit in four years. The script was too familiar. The protest soldiered on."

Nigerians gathered together in their homes, on the dinner table, around the sitting room table with very heavy hearts, wiping for the many that died within a few minutes. Videos shared on the internet showed internal organs out of the people’s body, the few that came out unscathed by the gunshot called for an ambulance. Many didn’t want to go to the tollgate for fear of fire being opened on them. The EndSARS response unit was overwhelmed with requests for help. Churched flung their doors open. Hospitals flooded with patients suffering from gun wounds. World leaders lent their voices to the movement, calling on the president to intervene.

The EndSARS response unit sent out a new link for people to upload video footage of the bloody night as proof of what had happened. “Don’t allow them to change the story by morning,” they said.

But then Thursday came, even with many who had died, the governor of Lagos said in a live broadcast that he can only confirm some casualties. As more world leaders weighed in, the Nigerian president remained mute. 

It will be Friday evening before he will address Nigerians. Nigerians gathered together looking for comforting words from their president in one of the harshest moments in recent times. “Sadly the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests,” the president Mohammadu Buhari read from a speech in his hand in a recorded video. The massacre at the Lekki Tollgate wasn’t mentioned at all in the speech.

Nigerians didn’t get the comfort that they had needed. That night the country was heavy with disappointment. The tiny hope that drove young Nigerians to the streets for two weeks got dimmer. The mood in the country was summed up in one tweet. “I had no expectations for that speech and that man still managed to disappoint me.”

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