The Nigerian police continued to show villainous side during EndSARS memorial protests
Arresting protesters, assaulting journalists and other familiar traits
Arresting protesters, assaulting journalists and other familiar traits
In November 1949, 21 Nigerian men were shot to death by the Nigerian police force. The men were miners at Enugu’s Iva Valley mines, Nigeria’s largest coal mine at the time, and were protesting their unfair treatment alongside their colleagues. Prior to the massacre, the miners had complained bitterly about inhumane working conditions and low wages, amongst other tangible reasons, adopting a go-slow method to their production as means of emphasising their grievances.
When the British colonial government at the time began laying off the miners en masse, they decided to carry out a sit-in protest, making it difficult for the mine to be closed and new workers to be hired. On November 18, led by Senior Superintendent F.S. Phillips (a Brit), officers of the Nigerian police began shooting at the protesting miners, after Phillips translated the miners’ camaraderie at the protests as menacing war dances. In addition to the 21 killed, at least 50 others were reportedly fatally injured in the massacre. Apart from Philips, the other policemen were reportedly Nigerian.
This story is perennially relevant when trying to understand the relationship between Nigerians and the Nigerian police force, a perfect framing for how the policing system in Nigeria has never been geared towards serving and protecting its citizens. The Nigerian police was formed as a unit to cater to colonial interests, and after independence, its allegiance shifted to the cruel leadership that replaced those colonial powers. Coupled with a severe failure to evolve its practices, and arbitrary abuse of power becoming a prominent part of its identity, it’s a system that will always resist the idea of reform, and see calls for change as a challenge.
During the EndSARS memorial event at the Lekki tollgate, honouring the passing of those massacred by the Nigerian army, a protester was ruffled and arrested while granting an interview. With a combative tone in his voice, one borne out of anger and that many Nigerians could easily identify with, he said something that stood out to me: “We have shown that the police have not learnt their lesson.” Even though last year’s EndSARS protests was one of the most vital civil rights moments in Nigerian history, our return to the streets served as a reminder that the Nigerian police weren’t built to learn any positive lessons. It was created to uphold the status quo, and that included brutalising Nigerians both at the behest of governing powers and for the officers’ own reasons.
There’s a part of last year’s heart-rending massacre at the tollgate that doesn’t get enough attention. According to stories from survivors, after the army wreaked havoc on peaceful protesters who were unarmed, police officers came into the same grounds and began shooting unarmed citizens at point blank range. The army is definitely responsible for one of the darkest nights in Nigerian history, but we should never forget that the police are just as complicit.
Throughout last year’s protests, their cruelty matched the fervour with which the government brought in paid thugs to attack and disrupt peaceful protests. They shot live bullets at several of the protests, killing several protesters and even bystanders. They arrested and severely tortured many, and they’re still using the country’s inept judicial system to their sinister advantage—it’s reported that over 300 people are still in prisons from the EndSARS protests, in Lagos alone. In the aftermath of the massacre, hundreds of people were reportedly killed by the police, many of them in cold blood. All of that reinforced the fact that, to the Nigerian Police, the idea of positive reforms is an incendiary suggestion; they understand their role in keeping Nigeria’s exploitative and citizen-squeezing system in place.
On the first anniversary of the Lekki massacre, the Nigerian police reprised its role as expected. Police officers were geared to the teeth, as though it was a war zone and not a gathering of people honouring the memories of their tragically slain countrymen and demanding that they would like not to be brutalised, exploited and killed by the civil force meant to keep law and order. In the days leading up to the memorial protests, police officers had already been sighted at the tollgate, as a loud promise to continue their atrocious deeds during the Occupy Lekki tollgate protests earlier this year. In fact, the police commissioner in Lagos issued an unconstitutional statement warning against any physical protests at the tollgate.
Although heartbroken, the Nigerian youth came out in a procession of cars and people, even with the knowledge that the police would continue its violent and citizen-averse methods. Towards midday, teargas was thrown at protesters, at least four people were already known to be arrested by the police, and as the day wore on, the numbers increased. In one of the arrest videos that went viral, an Uber driver, Clement Adedotun, was picked, violently badgered and bundled into the police van, infamously known as the black Maria. More people were arrested and assaulted in a similar manner, and while social media projected the numbers hadn’t entered double figures due to the reports that made their way online, it turned out over 30 people were arrested at the Lekki tollgate.
Following the same community-based welfare approach as last year’s protests, spearheaded by members of the Feminist Coalition, legal services were provided for those who needed them. Already with that knowledge, it seems as though the police slightly modified its approach, tacitly arresting and assaulting protesters, as well as allegedly hiding the location of the stations’ people were being held for hours—that’s if they were even taken to a police station in those hours. Thankfully, over 30 people were released on bail towards midnight, a huge relief even though none of them should’ve been arrested in the first place.
While the focus was in Lagos, as expected, those who participated in memorial demonstrations across the country also faced the cowardly, intimidating methods of the police. In Abuja, where last year’s protests were subjected to unrelenting assault from the police, protesters were surrounded by armed policemen who sneered at them as a show of force. In Enugu, a coalition of the police and army combined to maltreat and arrest protesters, before they were released after interrogation. BBC reporter Ebere Ekeopara also stated that she and her cameraman were roughly handled while attempting to cover the protests.
During this year’s memorial events, the press seemed to be particularly targeted. In Osogbo, the capital of Osun state, Daily Post reporter Sikiru Obarayese was reportedly arrested despite identifying himself, during a police invasion that disrupted the peaceful protest. Back in Lagos, Legit TV journalist Abisola Alawode was picked up by the police earlier in the day and was finally released later on. In a viral clip, Arise TV reporter Oluwaseyitan Atigarin was seen fending off aggressive police officers while they tried to confiscate equipment being used to cover the protests.
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With their callous response to the memorial events of October 20, 2021, the Nigerian police once again reminded us of why they are villains to young Nigerians. At one point, the commanding officer at the Lekki tollgate read protesters the Riot Act—even though it was him and his officer perpetrating the violence—pledging his allegiance to the president, even though the police system is meant to be beholden to the country and work for the people. It was another snapshot of why the police have always been complicit in the tyrannical leadership that’s constantly plagued Nigeria.
Arbitrarily demeaning and killing Nigerians is deeply woven into the very fabric of policing in Nigeria. It’s a long shot to wonder if that would change anytime soon, but the first step is not just realising that the Nigerian Police is NOT (y)your friend, it’s realising the institutional, contextual and historical reasons why. The line runs from the Iva Valley massacre to the Lekki tollgate to the consistent brutality they mete to all of us, and the fear they will constantly elicit until the whole thing is revamped, not just reformed.
[Featured Image: Web/FIJ]
Dennis is a staff writer at the NATIVE.