On 11 October 2021, the highly disruptive yet tagged peaceful protest action dubbed EndSARs made headlines yet again, but this time it was not only about the disbanding of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit under the Nigeria Police Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID), and general violence against civilians (police brutality) but also about memorialising killings and seeking closure to the events of 20 October 2020.

Thousands of EndSARS protesters gathered at the Lekki-Toll gate on 16 October for a candle night memorial for the various victims of SARS/police killings at Lekki, Lagos Island.

On 15 October 2021, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo’s National Economic Council (NEC) asked the organisers of the EndSARS march to suspend preparations for such events due to general insecurity concerns. In part, a press release stated; “While appreciating the role of lawful peaceful protests in the advancement of public discourse under democratic governance, the [NEC] strongly advise those planning public protests across the country to mark the anniversary of the #EndSARS, to consider other lawful alternative means of engagement,”.

EndSARS planned a #Sòrósókè Summiton 20 October 2021 at the Landmark Event Centre in Lagos, which can be said to be following the NEC’s “alternative means of engagement.” The programme line-up revolved around discussions about police reform in Nigeria as well as providing updates on the status of Special Judicial Panels of Inquiry.

However, in an unexpected turn of events, the Landmark Events Centre will withdraw its lease to host the summit as previously planned on October 15, 2021. This has been widely condemned by key public personalities and has been seen as bullying by the government to thwart any sort of mass assembly on October 20th, as revealed by an examination of open-source conversation. While these accusations have not been independently substantiated, they demonstrate how hesitant individuals are to join in such activities in light of the Federal Government’s hard-line stance against protest marches.

The Nigerian Police Force (NPF), which appears to have been in the spotlight and suffered the most impact during last year’s march, has issued strong warnings in response to alleged planned demonstrations for 20 October 2021 in an attempt to deter any form of gathering that may become riotous, further endangering human life (assault), businesses (robbery/looting), and strategic infrastructures (vandalism/arson).

On 20 October 2020, a part of an NPF station in Orile-Iganmu Local Government Area of Lagos State was attacked by arsonist and hoodlums. The facility served Iganmu community in Apapa Iganmu and Orile Community in Coker/Aguda.

In a press statement released by the Lagos State Police, the command describes the October protest march as a “distasteful experience,” while indicating a determination to repress any protest action. According to the police, this is in response to “…the volatility of the present situation in the country, and the breakdown of law and order which the planned protest might cause…” As a result, “…. the police will use all legitimate means within their constitutional powers to suppress the planned protest.”

The line “legitimate means within their constitutional rights” alludes to Nigerian Police Force Order 237, which governs how the police might use force to “prevent a breach of the peace or violent assemble.” Section 275 of the Criminal Code Act of 1990 and Section 276 of the Criminal Code Act of 1990 Support Force Order 237. According to Sections 275 and 276 of the CC Act, the use of force must not only be required but also “reasonably necessary for such prevention and is reasonably proportioned to the danger to be apprehended from such continuance or renewal.” As a result, security officers must do a security risk assessment of such gatherings to guide how they must or should engage such groups. In other words, what will happen if he/she does nothing? Or, if he/she uses force, what would be the consequences?

A group of armed police officers wielding lethal and non-lethal weapons in preparation for the #OccupyLekkiTollGate protest on 13 February 2021.

The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials make clear that firearms cannot be used unless certain additional requirements are met, including as a preliminary matter that there exists a grave or imminent threat of death or serious injury. Principle 9 of the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms states: “Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defense or defense of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives.

However, despite these laws, the use of force appears to be the first call of action, as well as other theatrics in dealing with protest actions. The majority of the undesirable events that marred the October 2020 protest were driven by the inaction of the Nigerian Police, which was indirectly influenced by the Governments position on the protest action owing to pre-existing political intolerance for perceived “anti-Government” groups.

The aforementioned inactions highlight the fact that, despite the obvious decay begging for reform within the Law Enforcement system, the Government, comprised of the Presidency, NPF, Police Service Commission, and the Legislature has been hesitant to put their foot on the ground in addressing this issue since 2017, even before tensions reached an all-time high in 2020.

SARS DISSOLUTION.

In response to pockets of #EndSARS protests that emerged in early October 2020, the President’s office announced the dissolution of SARS through a tweet. Among numerous attempts to disband the unit, this was the first time any concrete action was taken to ensure its execution.

Since 2017, the debate over SARs has been mostly verbal, with partial sanctions and even a name change; the timeline includes:

4 December 2017: Ibrahim Idris, the former Inspector-General of Police, ordered the reorganisation of SARS.

23 December 2017: Ex-IGP Idris had issued a new directive prohibiting SARS officers from conducting roadside stop and search operations “except when necessary.”

14 August 2018: Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who was acting president at the time, requested an immediate reform of the SARS unit. Ex-IGP Idris renames the unit the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS), as SARS teams across the country will report to Abuja.

5 September 2018: Ex-IGP Idris reiterates his order prohibiting FSARS personnel from conducting roadside stops and searches “…unless the search is directly connected to a case or directed by the IGP or any person he [Idris] has so delegated.”

21 January 2019: Mohammed Adamu, the acting Inspector-General of Police, directs the decentralisation of FSARS, the Special Investigation Panel, and the Special Tactical Squad. He also split the FSARS unit across the Federation’s 36 states.

4 October 2020: With immediate effect, the IGP, Mohammed Adamu, prohibits various tactical units of the NPF, including FSARs, from performing regular patrols and other customary low-risk duties.

11 October 2020: IGP Mohammad Adamu declared the dissolution of FSARS/SARS on behalf of President Muhammadu Buhari.

7 October 2021: Alternative media outlets ran an article implying that the dissolved unit will be reactivated. The NPF, through its spokesperson, Frank Mba, responded quickly, saying, “The Force wishes to categorically emphasize that there is no plan whatsoever to bring back the disbanded SARS. SARS is no longer a threat and not resurrect under any guise whatsoever,”

The absence of security personnel supervising protest marches to ensure that they remained peaceful added to the trail of inaction. However, it became clear how rigged the system was when armed thugs attacked demonstrators outside government institutions such as the Lagos State Secretariat in Alausa, the Central Bank of Nigeria Headquarters, and the Nigerian Police Headquarters.

An argument about misplaced priorities by police officers, particularly in Lagos State, came up in a conversation with a cadet of the Nigerian Police [name withheld] on 3 July during a rally at Ojota Ikorodu area of Lagos by the Yoruba Nation in Lagos State, where I criticized how police officers clamped down on protesters with live ammunition without any existing form of hostility, resulting in the death of an underage bystander. This prompted the cadet to react, stating; “…it’s a rally, and you know how security situation can be these days in Nigeria, whereby from rally it will lead to something else, so these men [police officers] have to be combat-ready for any nonsense, so it is no misplaced priority please.”

A violent upheaval happened in Apapa 1 hour after our conversation, along the Apapa-Oworonshoki highway, Tin Can Island, between a cult group. The conflict lasted about an hour and eventually faded when both parties withdrew. There was no security presence confirmed in some way, which supports the idea of a misdirected priority.