A little past 9pm on 21 September 2021, Salako Pelumi and his friend John, both students of the University of Ilorin, were accosted by members of the F-Division, a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, in Kwara State.
The officers’ searched their phones. When they found nothing incriminating, they carted them to a police station in an unmarked van. The men were not informed of their rights, the reason for their arrest, or allowed to communicate with their friends or families. Instead, they were instructed to write a statement that was dictated to them, stating that they were writing it voluntarily and not under duress.
At some point after 11pm, they were finally released.
In October 2020, Nigerians across the country protested against incidents of police brutality such as this as well as poor governance at large. On 20 October, the demonstrations came to an abrupt end when the army shot and killed several people at the biggest protest site, Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos.
Despite this bloody finale, Nigerians held onto the hope that the two-week-long protest meant something and that it made some meaningful achievements: the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was disbanded; the world’s attention was drawn to the horrors perpetrated by Nigeria’s police; judicial panels of inquiry were set up to investigate incidents of brutality. But not everyone is convinced.
“Last year, I thought the protests were about saving Nigeria, and ourselves along with it,” says Salako. “This incident made me realise that this country is a sinking ship.”
To what extent has anything changed a year on? What is the #EndSARS legacy today?
For the family of Chijioke Iloanya, who was arrested in Anambra in 2012 and hasn’t been seen since, justice remains elusive.
“We have had to relive our pain over and over this past year, with no recourse for justice,” says Ada, Chijioke’s sister. “James Nwafor, who was in charge of [the infamous sub-unit] Awkuzu SARS and to whom some money was paid to in the search for my brother, is still free. He was recently appointed the Chief Security Officer of Charles Soludo, the Anambra gubernatorial candidate of [opposition party] APGA.”
The judicial panel set up in Anambra state suspended its sittings in November 2020 and has not resumed since citing logistical problems. It has yet to publish its recommendations on Iloanya’s case and Ada says she has not seen any case filed against Nwafor. Youth representatives have withdrawn from the process, describing it as inefficient and poorly organised.
“I have neither faith nor hope in the panel to give my family justice,” says Ada.
In Plateau state, there has been more progress or at least the appearance of it. In June 2021, the judicial panel there recommended that N153 million ($370,000) be paid out to 63 petitioners, including the family of Rinji Bala, who was killed by police in May 2020. Yet months later, the government has not taken action and there is no guarantee that it will.
“Recommendations of the panel are subject to the discretion of the state government,” says Pangdak Bawa, a lawyer in Plateau State. “Petitioners are, therefore, at the mercy of the government. But what kind of hope is available to people who have lost all faith in the same system that made victims of them?”
It is also the case that if a judicial panel were to find a police or army officer guilty, the verdict would not be binding as the discipline of security services falls under the remit of orderly room trials and court martials, as provided for under the Police Act and Armed Forces Act.
Other avenues for justice are hard to come by. Rinji Bala’s family are pinning their hopes on a criminal case against Ruya Auta, the officer that allegedly fired the fatal shot. But according to Bawa, one of the prosecuting counsels on the case, this route is not one readily available to many.
“In Nigeria, private persons cannot prosecute criminal offences, except upon application for a fiat given at the discretion of the Attorney-General of the state,” he says, explaining how the Bala family got to this point.
“Also, litigation is expensive and takes a long period of time to come to an end.”
On civic space
According to Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of Paradigm Initiative, one of #EndSARS’s biggest legacies is that it has accelerated the government’s efforts to clamp down on the ability of popular movements to mobilise.
“Even before the #EndSARS protests, there were bills sponsored by the Nigerian legislature aimed at restricting the civic space, and seeking control,” he says. “The current government used social media influence during its ascension to power. Naturally, they are scared of this powerful tool that they, themselves, have utilised. And a lot of policy decisions have been made on this premise and in a climate of fear.”
Sesan suggests that a straight line can be drawn from the #EndSARS protests to the government banning Twitter, one of the major platforms for organising demonstrations. The same can be said for the Central Bank’s ban on cryptocurrency, which was used to receive donations and fund legal and medical aid for protesters.
“It is almost as though the Nigerian government is taking proactive steps to ensure that there is no recurrence of October 2020. And that is why it is important that Nigerians push back on restrictive policies that seek to stifle our collective voices,” says Sesan.
After the Lekki massacre and the government’s initial denial and subsequent lack of remorse – even though a government report has now proven a massacre did occur – a lot of young Nigerians sought options to leave the country.
“After the #EndSARS protests and the Lekki massacre, I understood that Nigeria had nothing to offer me anymore,” says Charles Ndu-metu, a protester who moved from Abuja to Europe.
“Every one of us who came out to protest did so because we had hope in Nigeria. After 20 October, that hope died. And I realised that leaving Nigeria was the only way to avoid being pushed into madness.”
For Senilore, a protester in Lagos who says he has been a victim of police brutality more times than he can count and who cut his dreadlocks to avoid being profiled, leaving Nigeria is a way to escape the defeat he has felt since last year.
“In October 2020, we came as close to change as possible. Young people came together, decentralised as it was, to demand for that change,” he says. “It was the squashing of our dreams of a country free from police brutality and oppression in what can only be described as premeditated that was the breaking point. We heard the screams and saw the flag drenched in blood.”
Senilore says that even though the economic difficulties of starting over make migration impossible at the moment, he still plans to leave. “Living in Nigeria is sitting on a powder keg that just might explode.”
“It is important for us as individuals to remember that people died last October watching out for others, fighting for others. We owe the dead the debt of memory,” says Salako.
“There is no better way to commemorate our friends and siblings who lost their lives and freedom during the #EndSARS protests other than a definite end to police brutality,” says writer Ayodele Olufintuade. “The second best thing is a renaming of the Lekki toll gate, now a memorial ground, and putting an end to the collection of tolls.”
Anything less than these, Olufintuade says, is an indication that the government has no empathy, no intention of meeting its citizens halfway, and is instead committed to maintaining the status quo of violence.