#EndSARS: Remembering a massacre
‘They are coming, run!’ – These were the words that echoed in Emeka’s* ears as he woke on the morning of Wednesday 21 October 2020, heavily bandaged and immobilized on a hospital bed. This was what he heard the night before, just seconds before falling under a hail of bullets.
On the Tuesday, the 22-year-old generator repair apprentice had joined friends at the Lekki toll gate for a demonstration at the height of the #EndSARS protests that rocked Nigeria for nearly two weeks. Emeka says he went out of curiosity, but it was a decision that would change his life forever. Two years on, he recalls the events of that night – seeing a lot of people running while holding Nigeria’s flag. He ran, tripped, and fell. Then everything turned dark.
According to Amnesty International, at least 12 people were shot dead that night after the army fired on peaceful protesters singing the national anthem. Dozens of others were wounded. After about a year of examining petitions, cross-examinations, and visits to the crime scene, the judicial panel of inquiry set up in the aftermath of the killings, found the army culpable of a massacre in a damning report and made recommendations for restitution. But to date, nobody has been held accountable and police brutality has slowly become the order of the day again.
Soro soke – speak up!
The #EndSARS protests were fuelled by the reaction to footage that surfaced on social media on 4 October 2020. It showed officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) dragging two unarmed men from a hotel and shooting one outside. SARS was a special police unit established in 1992 to respond to armed robbery and other violent crimes. However, it soon went rogue with SARS officers accused of profiling young Nigerians, mostly men, based on fashion choices, tattoos and hairstyles. With its long record of abuse including torture, arrest and detention without warrant or trial, rape and extortion, SARS became for young people a symbol of all that was wrong with Nigeria.
Within days, the demonstrations spread like wildfire to more than 20 cities and towns across the country. There was also a massive international #EndSARS movement on social media, backed by many celebrities, and solidarity demos sprang up in several US and European cities.
Decentralized, leaderless and organic, this was the most organized and powerful expression yet of Nigeria’s huge youth demography – the population has a median age of 18, and more than half of the country are under the age of 30.
At its heart #EndSARS reflected young people’s deep-seated anger at years of inequality, unemployment, and the failure of Nigeria’s government under President Muhammadu Buhari to transform hope into reality. While 27.1 per cent of the overall workforce is unemployed, up to 40.8 per cent of those under 24 years are out of work, with 30.8 per cent of those between 25- and 34 also left jobless. As Chatham House has noted, ‘if Nigeria’s unemployed youth were its own country, it would be larger than Tunisia or Belgium’.The revolt also reflected the disgust young people felt for the compromising leaders of Nigeria’s powerful trade union movement. Just days before the uprising emerged, leaders of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) suspended a planned general strike meant to commence on 28 September 2020 to protest an increase in fuel price.
But as the #EndSARS movement progressed, an important feature was the support it enjoyed from the wider population. It could be argued that, at the time, the general situation was so favourable that if the trade union leaders had called a general strike to support the youth, they could have received enthusiastic support from the country’s powerful working class. The movement could have been strengthened to win more significant concessions and avert the bloodbath that followed, while laying a basis for achieving a meaningful change in the way Nigeria is governed.
Since #EndSARS, it has now become commonplace in Nigeria to refer to the youth as the ‘Soro soke generation’ – which loosely translates from Yoruba as ‘speak up’.
Too little, too late
When the protests began, people called for the disbandment of SARS and police reform. Interestingly, they also demanded an increase in the salaries of the police, citing their poor working conditions as one of the reasons they are so hostile to citizens.
Although on 11 October 2020, the regime complied with the movement by announcing the dissolution of SARS, it was the fifth time SARS would be disbanded by authorities since 2015. On each occasion, the deadly unit always managed to re-emerge to continue with its atrocities. So, many protesters shrugged the announcement off while they continued to take to the streets.
The government’s concessions were not only too little, they were also too late. As more people, especially youth from working-class backgrounds, joined the protests, mass consciousness grew. This was due to the direct experience of the protesters themselves, as well as the work carried out by activists who argued that system change was required to truly end police brutality. The movement’s demands began to expand to include better governance and an end to elite corruption.
In panic at the radicalization taking place, the state began to take a series of repressive measures. First, bands of thugs armed with guns, machetes, and other weapons were sent after protesters in Lagos and Abuja. When these failed, the state turned towards the army.
The #EndSARS girl
In the wake of the protests, many of its organizers fled the country. Others went into hiding due to threat of retribution as a shadowy group prowled the streets targeting activists. Some have described how they got phone calls at odd hours with a cryptic voice at the other end threatening to hurt them for organizing the protest.
Kamsi Ibeh was an organizer of the protest at Lekki toll gate. On 21 November 2021, she was assaulted by three men armed with a pocket-knife and club at around 9.00 pm, as she walked home in Sangotedo, a neighbouring community to Lekki. ‘They jumped out of nowhere, pulled me, and shone a torch on my face shouting “Is this not the #EndSARS girl?”. She explains that she tried to pull away but could not match the strength of her assailants and was badly beaten. The assault happened about a week after the submission of the report of the ‘Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS-Related Abuses and Other Matters’ that formally declared what happened at Lekki a massacre. Kamsi believes her ordeal must be connected to the role she played testifying at the panel against the army.
Other protest organizers and prominent supporters were charged with financing terrorism. On 4 November 2020, the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) obtained a court order authorizing it to block their accounts for 90 days in a move Human Rights Watch described as using ‘coercive financial measures’ to suppress protests and independent media reporting.
The date of the Lekki toll gate massacre – 20 October – has become a historical one in Nigeria. It is marked by activists with press conferences, public meetings, rallies, and protests. This year’s anniversary is taking place four months ahead of a general election around which a group of participants in the #EndSARS protests are galvanizing with the hope of using the ballot to achieve some of the demands of the movement – good governance and an end to elite corruption.
For the survivors of the massacre, the day has a different significance. Emeka still needs crutches to get around – the bullet that ripped through his flesh also cost him a leg. Now he has to struggle as he continues to pick up the pieces of his life.
‘I have contemplated suicide many times’ he says, swatting flies as he shifts his weight uneasily from one crutch to another, ‘but I can’t do it – I need justice. That way all this would not have been in vain.’
* For safety reasons, some of the people in this article have chosen to remain anonymous.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism