Long Read: One year since the Lekki Toll Gate massacre, Nigeria continues its slide into failed statehood

On 20 October 2020 Nigerian security forces at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos opened fire on unarmed and peaceful demonstrators who had gathered to protest the notorious police unit, the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) and call for good governance. The soldiers opened fire just as the protestors finished singing the national anthem.  When they withdrew, the police arrived and also opened fire.

Estimates of those killed are variable, ranging from nine to over 70. The real number could be higher still, with video footage subsequently emerging which appeared to confirm allegations by survivors that the military had evacuated bodies from the scene in armoured vehicles, as had occurred in 2015 when soldiers attacked Islamic Movement of Nigeria (IMN) facilities in Zaria, Kaduna state, and more recently, during an armed raid on the home of a Yoruba activist in Ibadan.  

Prior to attacking, engineers had arrived at the toll gate earlier that afternoon and removed and disabled the CCTV. Just before the attack began, the lights in the area were switched off. 

The Nigerian army, which was ostensibly enforcing a curfew announced by the Lagos state government just hours before the attack, initially attempted to deny responsibility, and even claimed soldiers were not in the area, despite footage from mobile phones proving otherwise.  The Governor of Lagos also attempted to distance himself from responsibility for the incident, visiting some of the wounded in hospital. However, he later claimed in a television address that there had been no casualties, enraging survivors, families of victims, and all who had followed livestreaming of the massacre on social media. Regardless of the number of casualties, these deaths amount to cynically executed extrajudicial killings of young people merely for demanding good governance and rule of law.

Unprecedented demonstrations

The protesters had gathered as part of unprecedented demonstrations which erupted across the country on 3 October 2020 after a video emerged of a young man in Delta State being killed by SARS officials.  This was not the first time members of this unit had murdered a young Nigerian extrajudicially.  Disturbing stories abound dating back over a decade of the manner in which it has targeted Nigeria’s youth for extortion, rape, torture, arbitrary detention and murder. In fact the #EndSARS campaign was initiated by an older activist in 2017, following atrocities that had occurred at that time.

With the advent of social media, stories of extrajudicial execution, sexual molestation, rape and effective abductions for extortion of young people in expensive cars or carrying laptops or iPhones by members this unit have emerged with depressing regularity, even as robbery, crime, abductions and banditry – the crimes SARS was created to address – have risen exponentially throughout the country. 

Additionally, Nigeria’s regular police is also known to abuse its power to extort those it was created to protect.  Both forces were, and in the case of the police force remain, notorious for threatening their victims that they can murder them without facing any consequences – which in fact was the truth. The experiences of survivors who fell into the hands of a particularly infamous SARS agent named James Nwafor, who is reported to have dumped the bodies over 1000 youth into the Eze River and remains at large, makes for chilling reading.

The extrajudicial killing of the young man in Delta State serves as the tipping point. #EndSARS protests broke out in southern Nigeria and the federal capital Abuja, and grew into a cry against the corruption, nepotism and injustices that have blighted the lives of young people, depriving them of a hope and a future and stymieing the growth of a country blessed with abundant human and natural resources.  Over a week after the protests began in the south and centre, cities in the north also began to see protests that included a call for an end to the insecurity and terrorism that has wracked the region since 2009, and had spiked since 2016. Hundreds of thousands of Nigerian citizens had united in their calls for the squad to be disbanded, with some 28 million Tweets issued under the hashtag #EndSARS, while protest in the north included the additional hashtag #SecureThe North.

A familiar response

The Nigerian authorities responded to the protests using tried and tested means, beginning with dissolving SARS. However, the youth demanded visible evidence, since SARS had already been “disbanded” around five times by then, including in 2019.  Later SARS was rebranded into SWAT, causing the youth to dig their heels in further, and expand their demands to include comprehensive systemic reform.   

The authorities then searched for the movement’s leaders, presumably to arrest or otherwise induce them, but found it was effectively leaderless. Next, thugs were hired and equipped to attack protests, often driven to protest sites in police vehicles. Disinformation aimed at implicating protestors in looting undertaken by the hired thugs, and particularly in a jail break in Edo state came to nothing, as social media film emerged of prisoners escaping with no #EndSARS protestors in sight, and without any interventions by security officials. In short, the authorities tried everything except listening and executing justice.

As protests spread to northern cities uniting Nigerians of all creeds in a common recognition of the need to end insecurity and address bad governance, false narratives invoking religious sectarianism emerged which portrayed the protests as an effort by southerners and Christians to remove President Buhari. 

On 19 October a prayer walk for peace and security by churches in Anyigba in Kogi state was stopped an hour after it began by local vigilantes who tore signs and a flag held by the marchers and told them to continue their activities in a church. The 400-strong crowd, which had even been joined by members of the Muslim community as they walked, retired to a nearby church and knelt outside it to pray prior to dispersing, upon which they were violently attacked by a crowd led by a local official who particularly targeted church leaders, three of whom were briefly detained.   

On 20 October, a march against insecurity in the overwhelmingly Muslim and notoriously volatile Kano state proceeded peacefully until it was intercepted by thugs armed with machetes and sticks, who attacked as the marchers approached the Christian suburb of Sabon Gari in Kano City.  According to reports, four protesters were killed by the thugs. two of them young women. One died after being hit with a machete and sticks. Looting ensued – by the thugs – of Sabon Gari’s main mall. Next came news of an attack on St Thomas Catholic church in Sabon Gari,  of destruction of cars outside a primary school and general destruction and burning of property largely belonging to the Yoruba and Igbo inhabitants of the area.

Then, as night fell and deadly violence was being unleashed at the Lekki Toll Gate, Sabon Gari came under sustained attack, with inhabitants forced to defend themselves until morning. Video emerged of police shooting at people in the area, and of the burnt remains of at least one body. Meanwhile in Abuja, people belonging to the Igbo ethnic group were targeted for attack in Apo Mechanic village destroying property, allegedly despite a police presence.

In the aftermath of the 20 October violence the government has embarked on actions that effectively stifle the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and the press, freezing the bank accounts of 19 people and a public affairs company deemed to have played prominent roles in the protests, and arbitrarily detaining any deemed to have participated in the protests.  Several prominent protestors were forced to flee the country, including journalist David Hundeyin and Obianuju Catherine Udeh, known popularly as DJ Switch, whose live streaming of events at Lekki Toll Gate provided incontrovertible evidence of military involvement in the killings. 

Justice remains elusive

One year on and justice for those killed remains elusive. The aims of the End SARS movement continue to be misrepresented by members of the political elite who are currently immune from the daily struggles of ordinary citizens due to their privileged positions, including the governors of northern states, who opposed the disbanding of SARS and claimed the protests were infiltrated by “political marauders bent on destroying Nigeria”, and the president himself, who described the protestors as “the young people who wanted to march here and remove me.”  There have also been efforts to obscure the peaceful and orderly nature of the #EndSARS protests by associating them with wider explosions of frustration that occurred soon after the massacre linked to the hoarding of COVID-19 palliatives by state and other authorities.

Worse still, over 300 people remain detained without charge in Lagos jails in connection with the End SARS protests. One of them, a minor who was aged 17 years when she was detained arbitrarily, gave birth in prison in Ondo state in June this year.

Instead of holding to account those responsible for the killing of civilians who had merely exercised their right to peaceful protest, the Nigerian government has continued to crack down on expressions of dissent, even as the country itself slides into rampant insecurity and failed statehood.

Rather than attempting to silence anyone it perceives to be a critic, the Nigerian government would do well to concentrate its energies on ensuring good governance, sound economic management and genuine reform of policing and security.  A year after the most recent disbanding of SARS, reports continue to abound of abductions pending extortion, harassment and extrajudicial killings by police and other security sectors. 

It should also focus as a matter of urgency on combatting the pervasive violence currently plaguing the country’s northern and central states, prioritising the protection of vulnerable communities who continue to face threats, forced displacement, extortion and killings at the hands of an array of armed non-state actors.

For example, the central state of Kaduna has become a particular epicentre for violence, with fatal attacks primarily perpetrated by militia of predominantly Fulani ethnicity reported on a near daily basis. For example, 49 people were killed in a series of attacks which took place in three Local Government Areas (LGAs) in the south of the state from 26-27 September. A Catholic priest who witnessed one of the attacks described it as “a massacre against the natives”, with the assailants reportedly initially targeting people known to coordinate security for the community, as well as their families. Worse still, 250 Boko Haram terrorists were recently reported to have relocated from the Sambisa Forest in Borno state in the northeast to the Rijana Forest in southern Kaduna.

Additionally, violence by armed Fulani non-state actors in the north-western states has spiralled inexorably, forcing many to flee into neighbouring states. Hundreds of communities in eight political wards in Niger State are currently controlled by Boko Haram terrorists, who have planted their flag in an area a mere two hour’s drive from the federal capital, Abuja, and on 19 October at least 43 people were killed in Sokoto state in an attack in at a weekly market in Goronyo which continued through the following day.

As well as killings, Nigerian citizens continue to live under the ever-present threat of abduction and kidnap for ransom. Schools are particularly vulnerable, and since December 2020 the country has witnessed 13 armed attacks on educational establishments in which more than 1,100 students have been abducted for ransom and at least seven have died. 

The Nigerian government is failing to protect its own citizens, while at the same time cracking down on those calling peacefully for justice and reform, raising legitimate doubts about its ability to bring the nation safely through this extremely perilous period.

Still waiting

The families of those who lost their lives during the Lekki Toll Gate massacre are still waiting for justice, as are others who lost loved ones during last year’s #EndSARS protests. So too are the hundreds and thousands who have been victims of the rampant insecurity that is wracking the nation which the Nigerian authorities have done all too little to stem. Without this justice, and concerted international action to ensure it is secured, Nigeria’s downwards trajectory to failed statehood is all but guaranteed.

By CSW’s Public Affairs Officer Ellis Heasley