Theophilus Blamoh and two of his friends were walking to buy items for their dinner in the central Nigerian city of Ilorin on the evening of September 6, when a black pick-up truck stopped beside them. One door opened and someone shouted at them to enter. It was a policeman.
When they didn’t reply, two policemen jumped out and cocked their guns. The trio, now scared, entered. Just before the vehicle drove on, a policeman recognised one of the young men as a fellow church member and let him go before driving off to the nearby police station.
“They searched our phones but they didn’t find anything incriminating,” Blamoh, a 23-year-old performing arts undergraduate at the University of Ilorin told Al Jazeera. “They checked my account balance and found I had just withdrawn my last 1,000 naira.”
One officer asked why they were not Yahoo-Yahoo boys [internet fraudsters], ostensibly so there could’ve been more money for the taking. When Blamoh asked why a police officer would ask that, they started hitting him with the butts of their guns.
Stories of police brutality are rampant in Nigeria, Africa’s largest democracy. Two-thirds of its estimated 200 million people are below the age of 30 and many, like Blamoh, say they have either had a personal experience with the police or know someone who has.
As decades of torture, maiming and killing by the country’s security forces stacked up, young people across the country took to the streets for days, beginning on October 8, 2020.
The target of their anger was the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a rogue police unit accused of extrajudicial killings, extortion and kidnapping among other nefarious crimes.
Called #EndSARS, the protests ballooned into a massive call for the abolition of the squad. It flickered out on October 20 that year after soldiers opened fire on unarmed protesters at a popular landmark – the Lekki tollgates – in the commercial capital Lagos.
At least 12 people died and hundreds of others were wounded, according to Amnesty International. A leaked report by a panel of inquiry launched by the Lagos state government found the Nigerian military culpable but the authorities rejected the report.
Two years on, experts and activists say justice has not been served and brutality by security agencies has continued, mostly away from the public eye.
On October 11, 2020, the Nigerian government announced the disbandment of SARS. But, citizens say, SARS officers are still in service as plainclothes policemen patrolling the streets, extorting, arresting and torturing citizens without reason.
Between January and September last year, there were 164 recorded extrajudicial killings by law enforcement agents according to Global Rights, a Washington, DC-based human rights group. This October 4, Dave Umahi, governor of Ebonyi in the southeast, reportedly marshalled soldiers to flog civil servants for coming late to work.
‘Justice is elusive’
Rinu Oduala, a Lagos-based activist who was vocal during the 2020 protests, said the Nigerian government is yet to actualise real police reforms. That makes young people “afraid to step out of their homes, in a bid to not become victims of torture, extortion, harassment and extrajudicial killings”, she said.
Moreover, many families of the victims are yet to receive compensation or justice, including those who died at the Lekki tollgates, said Osai Ojigho, country director of Amnesty International in Nigeria.
“Justice is still elusive and more so where representatives of the government continue to dispute the number of dead and injured people at the Lekki tollgate shooting,” she told Al Jazeera.
“This is very disappointing…the lack of punishment for erring police officers sends a message to young people that their lives do not matter,” Ojigho added.
‘A change in psyche’
The status quo has led to conflicting opinions – online and offline – about the success of the #EndSARS protests.
Kikelomo Shodeko, a senior analyst at Horizon West Africa, an Abuja-based security consultancy firm, said the demonstrations were a turning point.
“What it has brought about is a change in psyche,” she said. “It helped young people recognise their capacity to organise not only protests but also politically,” she said.
This change may influence political attitudes as the country heads towards general elections next February. In August, the country’s electoral commission announced that 10.5 million new voters had been registered, 84 percent are aged 34 and below.
A number of these youths seem to have been galvanized to vote by the emergence of Peter Obi, a former two-term governor of the southeastern state of Anambra, as a third option to the septuagenarian presidential candidates of the ruling party and leading opposition.
Obi, 61, is perceived as a breath of fresh air and analysts say this is because young people find him relatable and are desperate for change.
Ridwan Oke, a Lagos lawyer, is determined to vote against any contestant in 2023 with “no genuine commitment to ending police brutality”.
He was beaten by policemen outside his house in the Lagos suburb of Ebute Meta in July when he told them to stop driving against the flow of traffic.
“If young people are not taking the upcoming elections seriously, then how do they plan to answer those who shot their colleagues in 2020 and gaslighted them after?” she asked.
‘Erosion of public confidence’
Unchecked police brutality is an existential danger to young people who live in fear as the relationship between the people and security agencies deteriorates, activists say.
“[T]he morale of young people is constantly dampened, seeing that errant officers have not been brought to book,” Oduala said. “Citizen-police hostility has also been on the increase, where citizens are attacking police officers perceived to be a force of oppression.”
“The danger of continued police brutality in Nigeria is an erosion of public confidence in the force responsible for keeping them safe,” said Ojigho. “[T]he police are the most distrusted security agency in Nigeria.”
Analysts say the government must be ready to acknowledge the problem, enforce punishments, educate officers and tackle corruption within the police.
“What we have are officers that are mostly uneducated and are given guns,” Shodeko said. “They should attend training in crisis, risk and emergency management. That training in itself is critical to how the police handle situations and understand their roles.”
As citizens mark the two-year anniversary of the #EndSARS protests, some say it may be too late given a lack of political willpower to effect change.
“I fought and spoke against police brutality for months only to become a victim almost two years later because the government refused to listen to us,” said Oke who was a legal volunteer helping detained protesters in October 2020.
Blamoh, who was locked up in a cell for four days, said two officers drove him to his hostel when he became extremely weak and dumped him at the gates. A hostel porter who saw them came and rushed him to the hospital.
“That action made me know that I should be running away from them instead of running to them,” Blamoh said.
By Pelumi Salako
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