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#ENDSARS: Nigeria must demand accountability, justice -By Osai Ojigho and Chuka Arinze-Onyia

Nigeria must show commitment to preserve the right to peaceful protests by prosecuting military and police officers when they attack peaceful protesters. The government must also ensure that victims of government’s sanctioned attempts to repress protests have access to effective remedies, including adequate compensation, restitution and guarantee of non-repetition.

It has been two years since young Nigerians protesting police brutality and corruption by the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad were violently attacked and killed by the police and military across the country, and yet there has been no accountability. This is despite the fact that there is ample and documented evidence of the gruesome brutality perpetrated on peaceful protesters by members of the security forces across the country. The brutal attack of protesters by the Nigerian authorities is part of a current trend of governments across the world attacking protesters in their bid to silence dissenting voices. Protesters in Cameroon, Senegal, and most recently, Iran, have been met with all sorts of violence and excessive force, and many have been killed as a direct result of the violence deployed by state actors.

Noting this often bloody crackdown on protests in several countries across the world, including Nigeria, Amnesty International recently launched a campaign to ‘Protect the Protest,’ which recognised that “the right to protest is under unprecedented and growing threat across all regions of the world”, thereby seeking “to confront states widening and intensifying efforts to erode this fundamental human right.” The campaign reaffirms that there is an international human right to protest, which is enshrined in most regional and international treaties. This right is not a separately given right but one based on the exercise of multiple rights, including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.  These rights are protected as fundamental human rights by the 1999 Constitution and in various international treaties such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nigeria is a state party.

Despite the constitutional protection of the right to protest, Nigeria has an abysmal record of violently repressing protests and silencing dissent. In its very recent history, the Nigerian security forces, including the military, have attacked and killed several protesters, including the over 350 Shia Muslims who were shot at for blocking a road during their procession in Zaria in December 2015. Subsequent protests by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, demanding the release of their leader, Ibraheem Yaqub El Zakzaky, who was unlawfully detained by the Federal Government in spite of a court-ordered release, led to the death of some protesters. Similarly, Nigerian security forces attacked and killed over 150 members of the now proscribed pro-Biafran organisation called the Indigenous People of Biafra during peaceful assemblies. Nigeria’s brutal and often fatal attack of individuals exercising the right to protest is concerning given the constitutional guarantee of the right.

When on October 8, 2020 young Nigerians, starting from Lagos and eventually spreading to other parts of the country, took to the streets to peacefully call for immediate police reforms,  and importantly demand the disbandment of SARS, the Nigerian government reacted as it always had, with brute force.  Rather than listen to the demands of the protesters and engage them in meaningful dialogue or at the very least, respect their constitutional right to protest, the government chose to violently repress the protest. The government deployed thugs to stir up violence and attack the protesters. Security forces across the country were recorded to have utilised excessive force against protesters. Some protesters were arrested and detained unlawfully for long periods, while being denied access to lawyers. And many were killed by security forces, including the police and military. Amnesty International estimates that at least 56 persons lost their lives during the ENDSARS protest.

The climax of the government’s brutality against protesters occurred on the night of October 20, 2020, when the military was deployed to the Lekki Toll gate in Lagos. Amnesty’s investigation revealed that no less than 12 persons were killed by the military that night in Lagos at two different locations. This determination by Amnesty is substantially corroborated by the report of the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses and other Matters, which was authorised to investigate the events of that night in Lagos. The panel’s report found that of the 41 casualties that night, eleven were confirmed dead, another 4 were missing and presumed dead, and the rest suffered  from gunshot injuries, stampede injuries and other forms of assault by the military and police. The report concluded that the security forces picked up the bullets and cleaned the site in a bid to destroy evidence and cover up their crimes. The panel found that Nigerian security forces “injured and killed unarmed, helpless and defenceless protesters without provocation or justification while they were waving the Nigerian flag and singing the National Anthem. The manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre.”

The very brutal clampdown on protesters did not happen only in Lagos. Amnesty International estimates that no less than 38 persons lost their lives across the country on October 20, 2020.

Though the panel’s report provides a conclusive confirmation that the Nigerian government violently attacked and killed peaceful ENDSARS protesters, there has been no effort till date by the government to hold the perpetrators of the violence accountable for their actions and ensure justice for the protesters. There is no record of prosecutions carried out on the basis of the recommendations by the panel or any other independent investigation carried out by the government.

This is in tandem with Nigeria’s perverse culture of impunity for members of its security forces when they commit serious crimes, including attacking and killing peaceful protesters. Members of the Nigerian security forces who attacked and killed IPOB protesters have not been made to face any kind of justice, despite the overwhelming evidence that these crimes were committed. Also, no member of the Nigerian security forces was held accountable for the killings of Shia Muslims in Northern Nigeria.

This culture of impunity is not only limited to when members of the security forces violently repress protests. In 2018 Amnesty International found that the Nigerian government was “willingly unable” to prosecute members of its military responsible for crimes under international law, including crimes against humanity committed against civilians in the North-East region.  The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court came to a similar conclusion in 2020 when they found that the Nigerian military was unwilling to hold its officers accountable for their crimes.

This guarantee of impunity for members of the Nigerian military and police force is set to continue unless the government ensures accountability for the perpetrators of violence against protesters during the ENDSARS protests in Nigeria. This kind of impunity puts all protesters at the risk of suffering violence at the hands of security forces as the members of the security forces are essentially assured that there will be no consequence for violating the human rights of peaceful protesters.

The consequence of this impunity is that the nation’s security forces will continue to brutalise and kill protesters and other civilians with the guarantee that they will not be held accountable for their crimes. On April 5, 2021, two protesters, Larry Emmanuel and Victor Anene Udoka, were tortured for protesting corruption and the poor state of human rights in the country. They were unlawfully detained for 72 days before being granted bail. There have been other instances of the government barring protests and peaceful assembly.

It is time for Nigeria to take necessary steps to end impunity and demonstrate its willingness to protect the rights of its citizens, including the right to protest and express dissent. To this end, it is mandatory for the government to ensure that members of its security forces, who were involved in the brutal repression of the ENDSARS protests, are held accountable for their actions.

Nigeria must show commitment to preserve the right to peaceful protests by prosecuting military and police officers when they attack peaceful protesters. The government must also ensure that victims of government’s sanctioned attempts to repress protests have access to effective remedies, including adequate compensation, restitution and guarantee of non-repetition.

Ojigho is the Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, while Arinze-Onyia is Amnesty International’s International Justice in Africa Fellow.



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