The #EndSARS protests began in the first week of October 2020, when a video went viral on social media showing an operative with the now-defunct SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) allegedly killing a man in Delta State.
For years, the unit had been accused of abuse of power and committing crimes, rather than it’s mandate of figthing crimes like robberies, killings and kidnappings.
Promises to reform the police have been made by authorities since 2016, all to no avail before a comprehensive revamp was decreed by President Muhammadu Buhari in the aftermath of the #EndSARS protests.
The authorities dissolved SARS and put a new unit in place called SWAT -Special Weapons and Tactics Team. Mohammed Adamu, the inspector general of police, promised that SWAT members would undergo training to prevent abuse of power.
Nonetheless, unprecedented protests against police brutality turned into deadly clashes in several major Nigerian cities.
There is no accurate toll, but as of October 23, 2020, the government had reported 69 people killed, including civilians, police officers and soldiers; some murdered in the most gruesome circumstances.
Earlier on October 20, 2020, soldiers allegedly opened fire upon protesters gathered at a toll gate in the largest city, Lagos, killing at least a dozen, according to rights groups. Although the government rejected these claims, it also blamed and accused Amnesty International of further setting the polity afire with alleged fallacious reports regarding the incident.
The decision to re-open Lekki Toll Gate – scene of alleged bloody massacre
On February 6, the judicial panel established by the Lagos State government to probe brutality and high-handedness of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) approved the reopening of the Lekki tollgate.
Five of the nine-member panel voted to return the control of the tollgate to the Lekki Concession Company (LCC), its operators, on Saturday, February 13.
Doris Okuwobi, a retired judge heading the panel, said insurers can commence assessment of the damage at the facility, renovate and resume its business.
According to the judge, “no party has shown evidence of any further need to investigate” the tollgate.
Giving her ruling, Okuwobi said: “The panel in its ruling had decided that it will not take that ground and will only maintain control until its forensic experts concludes his report. The report is ready as the panel has been satisfied therefore and the assurances from the forensic team that it will no longer require any visit to the plaza. The panel has decided that it will not await the termination of the petitioners before it hands over control of Lekki to LCC.
“To say that its wreckage be preserved as evidence beats my imagination. Whatever evidence any interested person decides to have must have been taken before now as the petitioners do not have any review before the panel to restrain the use of the toll plaza.
“Justice, I must say is a double-edged sword both for the petitioners and the LCC. The company was unfortunate to have its place of business vandalized during the protest. The investigation alluded to from certain persons sent to give evidence before the panel has not been seen to have any connection with the real evidence at the scene.
“It will be foolhardy for any reasonable petitioner to say the toll plaza be closed for the lifetime of the assignment of the panel. The hearing of petitions of victims has not been seen to be tied to the closure of the plaza indefinitely. It is unheard of that a crime scene of this nature would be closed
“Upon all said, I thereby give an order for LCC to repossess the toll gate which has been under the control of the panel upon indication given that the forensic analysis of the said toll plaza are to be concluded. The order made for repossession is for evaluation of the plaza by LCC insurers, renovation and total control.”
This decision by the Judicial Panel led to plans by various activist groups to demonstrate at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos on Saturday, February 13.
According to the groups, the purpose of the action is to protest the tollgate’s reopening
“Heightened security and localized transportation disruptions are likely. Clashes between security forces and protesters cannot be ruled out,” according to a security intel by Crisis24.
Warning against protests by authorities
However, Minister for Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed on Thursday, stated that peaceful protests were a constitutional right, but warned of the risk that the upcoming rallies could descend into violence in the name of justice. He warned that the protest risked being “hijacked by hoodlums”.
“Any further resort to violence in the name of #EndSARS will not be tolerated this time. The security agents are ready for any eventuality,” he said.
“We therefore strongly warn those who are planning to reoccupy Lekki toll gate on Saturday to desist.”
Also, Lagos State Commissioner of Police Hakeem Odumosu on Thursday revealed that no protest would be allowed to take place on Saturday.
“Allowing both groups to carry out their planned protests will be counterproductive,” Odumosu revealed. “No protest in any guise will be allowed to take place on Saturday.”
Adding.its voice to the calls to shelve protests, the Lagos State government through its commissioner for Information and Strategy, Mr Gbenga Omotosho also noted that it was the right of citizens to lawful assembly, and freely express their feelings in form of protest, but that such rights did not give anyone the freedom to block highways, and prevent other citizens from moving about freely.
In what seemed a cruel sequence of events for the protesters, a member of the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry into the Lekki Tollgate Shooting, Ebun-Olu Adegboruwa, also called on the youth to shelve the planned protest and counter-protest at the toll gate this Saturday.
Adegboruwa, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), made this appeal on Wednesday in a statement.
He said “The alleged bloodshed, mayhem, repressions and violence of October 2020 in general, should not be encouraged to be repeated again,” he wrote, appealing to youths not to go ahead with the protests.
Adegboruwa was one of the four members of the Panel that formed the minority group which disagreed with the ruling on the reopening of Lekki Tollgate.
The senior lawyer and three others fiercely opposed the ruling of the retired judge heading the panel and four others that Lekki tollgate should be reopened.
De-excalating simmering tensions
Emotions are at an all-time high due to the Judicial Ruling which has culminated in the decision to organise another round of protests against the re-opening of the Lekki Toll Gate.
However, the governments have a long history of managing protests through a mix of repression and co-optation which eventually defeats the objectives of the protests, in the first place.
The government will need to show further commitment to bringing to justice police officers who had perpetrated abuses over the years.
Several senior SARS officers have been named repeatedly as perpetrators of torture, extrajudicial killings, and other crimes.
While there may not yet be sufficient evidence to file charges against them, the police inspector general, Adamu, should order their immediate suspension, with firm restrictions on their movements (particularly to prevent them from fleeing the country), until investigations are concluded.
Protesters, meanwhile, should shelve the scheduled protest against the Lekki Toll reopening and allow time for work on reforms to proceed, as some eminent groups have urged, and as some protest groups have already done.
While they have an inalienable right to demonstrate, and the authorities have no right to prevent them from exercising it, they also have a civic responsibility to ensure that their actions do not infringe on the freedom of other citizens, or enable bloodshed that some in government will likely argue is their doing.
The protesters have already achieved salutary results: forcing disbandment of SARS and compelling inquiries into past abuses, refocusing attention on police reform.
Sustaining these gains requires closely tracking the government’s implementation of the five-point demands, painstaking legal work to support petitions at the judicial panels of inquiry, and technical work to overhaul the policing system – not necessarily more street protest for now.
By Mayowa Oladeji…
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