Nigeria was gripped by a moment of uncertainty and palpable anarchy from October 8 to 20, 2020 after protests by mostly young Nigerians against police brutality turned bloody, resulting in several fatalities.
Originally well-organised, orderly and peaceful, the nationwide protests soon metamorphosed into scenes of arson, killing, damage to public property and looting of private businesses as well as the famed Covid-19 palliatives stashed in warehouses by politicians and their cronies.
Authorities were hardly exonerated from the enveloping crises as their misguided and ruthless clampdown further incinerated the situation with fume, turning some parts of the country to war zones where full military deployments were ordered and unarmed civilians allegedly killed in their prime.
It was the shame of a nation state in full glare; democratic, yet displaying the nuances of an authoritarian regime; civil, yet clamped in barbaric vendetta. In a matter of days, protesters cowered into hiding even though the right to peaceful protest is a constitutional right.
Authorities only reluctantly caved in to allow protesters to pour out into the streets, but soon after chased many to their graves. A number of police officers and security agencies also paid the ultimate price, protecting public infrastructure in the heat of the protests.
Amidst the unfolding scenes of damage to life and property across mostly southern states, Nigeria’s President Muhammdu Buhari remained mum without a word to dissuade rampaging youth from burning public property, much to the amazement of many Nigerians. Even protesters shared in the belief that the president’s words could bring things under control. Largely, the lack of communication accounted for the prolonged protests and the destruction that followed.
After much pleading, the government finally disbanded a notorious police department named Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, which was allegedly credited for carrying out extrajudicial killings and maiming of innocent young Nigerians.
SARS, a special police department, was set up solely to tackle the growing cases of robbery in neighbourhoods and highways across Nigeria. However, in what has become known as one of the most flagrant dereliction of duty, armed robbers multiplied across the country while innocent citizens were hunted and killed.
Commissions of inquiry opened in some states against police brutality such as Lagos have amassed evidence of serious violation of professional ethics and extrajudicial killings. While it is commendable that the government disbanded a rogue police department, it is apparent that the police still believe Nigerians do not have a right to peaceful protests.
It is imperative for the police to recognise the constitutional right of citizens to peaceful protests and only query abuses of such rights.
Where the police receive intelligence on possible hijacking of protests by hoodlums, there’s need to engage parties involved to see reasons why such protests must be called off rather than the use of threats and brute force to disperse them.
Against this backdrop the Lagos State Police Command must be commended for issuing and advisory on the eve of the #EndSARS anniversary, against protests rather than deploying force to engage the protesters.
“Credible intelligence at the disposal of the Command has revealed clandestine plans by some youths, individuals or groups to embark on protest today in commemoration of one-year anniversary of #ENDSARS.
“In view of the volatility of the present situations in the country, and the breakdown of law and order which the planned protest might cause, the Lagos State Police Command sternly warns against any form of protest today,” it said.
While the scars of vandalism, arson and horror in some parts of the country remain, one year after, the government must rethink its strategy of governance to forestall needless protests.