/ 21 October 2022

Nigeria: Ensure accountability for attacks on peaceful protesters by security forces

Demonstration Against Police Brutality In Nigeria
Protester hold hands to barricade the protesters from the men of the Nigerian Police force as protesters march at Alausa Secretariat in Ikeja, Lagos State, during a peaceful demonstration against police brutality in Nigeria, on October 20, 2020. Authorities of Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sonwo-Olu has imposed a 24-hours curfew on the state effective 4pm on Tuesday, due to the violent attacks on police officers and innocent Nigerians. (Photo by Olukayode Jaiyeola/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It has been two years since young Nigerians protesting police brutality and corruption by the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) were violently attacked and killed by the police and military across the country, and yet there has been no accountability. 

This is despite the fact that there is ample and documented evidence of the gruesome brutality perpetrated on peaceful protesters by members of the security forces across the country. The brutal attack on protesters by the Nigerian authorities is part of a current trend of governments across the world attacking protesters in their bid to silence dissenting voices. 

Protesters in Cameroon, Senegal, and most recently, Iran, have been met with all sorts of violence and excessive force. Many have been killed as a direct result of the violence deployed by state actors. 

Noting this often bloody crackdown on protests in several countries across the world including Nigeria, Amnesty International recently launched a campaign to “Protect the Protest”, which recognises that “the right to protest is under unprecedented and growing threat across all regions of the world” and seeks “to confront states’ widening and intensifying efforts to erode this fundamental human right”.

The campaign reaffirms that there is an international human right to protest enshrined in most regional and international treaties. This right is not a separately given right, but one which is based on the exercise of multiple rights including the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. 

These rights are protected as fundamental human rights by the Nigerian Constitution and in various international treaties such as the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Nigeria is a state party. 

Nigeria’s continuing history of violence against protesters

Despite the constitutional protection of the right to protest, Nigeria has an abysmal record of violently repressing protests and silencing dissent. In its very recent history, the Nigerian security forces including the military have attacked and killed several protesters including more than 350 Shia Muslims who were shot at for blocking a road during their procession in Zaria in December 2015. 

Subsequent protests by members of the Islamic Movement of Nigeria, demanding the release of their leader, Ibraheem Yaqub El Zakzaky, who was unlawfully detained by the federal government in spite of a court-ordered release, led to the death of some protesters. 

Similarly, Nigerian security forces attacked and killed more than 150 members of the now-proscribed pro-Biafran organisation called the Indigenous People of Biafra during peaceful assemblies. Nigeria’s brutal and often fatal attack on individuals exercising the right to protest is concerning given the constitutional guarantee of the right.

When on 8 October 2020, young Nigerians starting from Lagos and eventually spreading to other parts of the country, took to the streets to peacefully call for immediate police reforms, and importantly, demand the disbandment of Sars, the Nigerian government reacted as it always had, with brute force. Rather than listen to the demands of the protesters and engage them in meaningful dialogue or at the very least, respect their constitutional right to protest, the Nigerian government chose to violently repress the protest. 

The government deployed thugs to stir up violence and attack the protesters. Security forces across the country were recorded to have utilised excessive force against protesters. Some protesters were arrested and detained unlawfully for long periods while being denied access to lawyers. And many were killed by security forces including the police and military. Amnesty International estimates that at least 56 people lost their lives during the protest. 

The climax of the Nigerian authorities’ brutality against protesters occurred on the night of 20 October 2020, when the military was deployed to the Lekki Toll gate in Lagos. Amnesty’s investigation determined that no less than 12 people were killed by the military that night in Lagos at two different locations. 

This determination by Amnesty is substantially corroborated by the report of the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of Sars Related Abuses and other Matters, which was authorised to investigate the events of that night in Lagos. 

The panel’s report found that of the 41 casualties that night, 11 were confirmed dead, another four were missing and presumed dead, and the rest suffered from gunshot injuries, stampede injuries and other forms of assault by the military and police. 

The report also concluded that the security forces picked up the bullets and cleaned the site in a bid to destroy evidence and cover up their crimes. The panel found that Nigerian security forces “injured and killed unarmed helpless and defenceless protesters, without provocation or justification, while they were waving the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem and the manner of assault and killing could in context be described as a massacre”. 

The very brutal clampdown on protesters did not happen only in Lagos. Amnesty International estimates that no less than 38 people lost their lives across the country on 20 October 2020 alone. 

A culture of government-backed impunity

Though the panel’s report provides conclusive confirmation that the Nigerian government violently attacked and killed peaceful protesters, there has been no effort to date by the Nigerian government to hold the perpetrators of the violence accountable for their actions and ensure justice for the protesters. There is no record of prosecutions carried out on the basis of the recommendations by the panel or any other independent investigation carried out by the government.

This is in tandem with Nigeria’s perverse culture of impunity for members of its security forces when they commit serious crimes, including attacking and killing peaceful protesters. 

Members of the Nigerian security forces who attacked and killed Indigenous People of Biafra protesters have not been made to face any kind of justice, despite overwhelming evidence that these crimes were committed. Also no member of the Nigerian security forces was held accountable for the killing of Shia Muslims in northern Nigeria. 

This culture of impunity is not only limited to when members of the security forces violently repress protests. In 2018 Amnesty International found that the Nigerian government was “willingly unable” to prosecute members of its military who are responsible for crimes under international law including crimes against humanity committed against civilians in northeast Nigeria. 

The Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court came to a similar conclusion in 2020 when it found that the Nigerian military was unwilling to hold its officers accountable for their crimes.

This guarantee of impunity for members of the Nigerian military and police forces seems set to continue unless the government ensures accountability for the perpetrators of violence against protesters during the recent protests to disband Sars in Nigeria. 

This kind of impunity puts all protesters at risk of suffering violence at the hands of security forces, as the members are essentially assured that there will be no consequence for violating the human rights of peaceful protesters. 

The consequence of this impunity is that the Nigerian security forces will continue to brutalise and kill protesters and other civilians with the guarantee that they would not be held accountable for their crimes. 

Just last year, on 5 April 2021, two protesters, Larry Emmanuel and Victor Anene Udoka, were tortured while protesting corruption and the poor state of human rights in Nigeria. They were unlawfully detained for 72 days before being granted bail. There have been other instances of the government barring protests and peaceful assemblies.

It is time for Nigeria to take the necessary steps to end impunity and demonstrate its willingness to protect the rights of its citizens, including the right to protest and express dissent. To this end, it is mandatory for the Nigerian government to ensure that members of its security forces who were involved in the brutal repression of the protests against Sars are held accountable for their actions.

Nigeria must show a commitment to preserving the right to peaceful protests by prosecuting military and police officers when they attack peaceful protesters. The government must also ensure that victims of government-sanctioned attempts to repress protests have access “to effective remedies, including adequate compensation, restitution, and guarantee of non-repetition.” 

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.