Simon Ateba is Chief White House Correspondent for Today News Africa. Simon covers the U.S. government, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other financial and international institutions in Washington D.C. He can be reached on [email protected]
Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari on Thursday blamed protesters for the violence unleashed by security forces that left many dead, even as outrage and condemnation came from around the world, including from Delaware, where Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden condemned the use of force against peaceful demonstrators.
Mr. Buhari said his promptness to disband the brutal police force that triggered the wide spread protests was “misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests.”
“I must warn those who have hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine and well – intended protest of some of our youths in parts of the country, against the excesses of some members of the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS),” Buhari said.
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He added: “Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests.
“The result of this is clear to all observers: human lives have been lost; acts of sexual violence have been reported; two major correctional facilities were attacked and convicts freed; public and private properties completely destroyed or vandalised.
“The sanctity of the palace of a peace-maker, the Oba of Lagos has been violated. So-called protesters have invaded an international airport and in the process disrupted the travel plans of fellow Nigerians and our visitors.
“All these executed in the name of the ENDSARS protests. I am indeed deeply pained that innocent lives have been lost. These tragedies are uncalled for and unnecessary.”
On Wednesday, the United States House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa sent a letter to President Muhammadu Buhari condemning the killing of peaceful protesters by security forces this week.
Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, and the Congressional Black Caucus, who signed the letter sent to Mr. Buhari on the state sanctioned violence against peaceful non-violent protesters in Nigeria, called for dialogue with the CBC and the Nigerian Ambassador to the United States, Mr. Sylvanus Nsofor.
In the letter, the Congressmember expressed particular concern with the documented force used by the Nigerian police and military, which has resulted in the loss of lives and injury of dozens of protestors like the recent events at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20, 2020.
She urged President Buhari to “release all the protesters who were arrested for taking part in the #EndSARS protests over the last few weeks; uphold the rights to non-violent protest and ensure the safety of protestors in accordance with the International Bill of Rights, the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended).”
She said Mr. Buhari should also “publicly commit to allow an independent investigation into human rights abuses committed by the SARS unit and the police in general and include youth representatives voted on by the public on the Judicial Panels of Inquiry; allow an independent investigation of the actions the led to the killings at the Lekki Toll gate; provide justice for the families of the victims of recent protests against police brutality; and initiate comprehensive overall reform of the security sector, including incorporating accountability structures and the recommendations from the 5for5 made by Nigerian youth.”
On Thursday, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden said the United States “must stand with” peaceful protesters in Nigeria who are demanding police reforms and good governance.
Biden was reacting to reports security forces in Nigeria opened fire on protesters killing several of them.
“I urge President Buhari and the Nigerian military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths. My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one in the violence,” Biden said.
“The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy. I encourage the government to engage in a good-faith dialogue with civil society to address these long-standing grievances and work together for a more just and inclusive Nigeria,” he added.
Buhari’s national broadcast came on the same day Nigerians in the United States announced they would hold the ‘mother of all protests’ on Saturday against police brutality and bad governance in their home country.
The peaceful protest, to last at least three hours, would begin at 3 p.m. in Randallstown, Baltimore County, Maryland, United States.
“We want our brothers and sisters in Nigeria to know we are with them in this struggle. We are tired of seeing the blood of innocent citizens on the streets of Nigeria,” some of the organizers said in a joint statement to Today News Africa in Washington D.C. on Thursday morning.
“We are tired of police brutality, bad governance, corruption and joblessness,” they said, adding that it would likely be the “mother of all protests” against police brutality and bad leadership across Africa’s most populous nation.
The attendance is likely to be massive, the organizers said, citing the overwhelming number of phone calls they have been receiving since Monday.
The protest would kick off in front of Randallstown Library on Liberty Road, Baltimore, Maryland.
Protesters were advised to wear face masks and would social distance to keep everyone safe amid the raging coronavirus pandemic around the world.
Anger has been rising across the United States after images surfaced early this week showing security forces in Nigeria responding to peaceful protests against police brutality with more violence.
On Thursday, the Trump administration strongly condemned “the use of excessive force by military forces who fired on unarmed demonstrators in Lagos, causing death and injury.”
“We welcome an immediate investigation into any use of excessive force by members of the security forces. Those involved should be held to account in accordance with Nigerian law,” Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said in a statement.
Pompeo said the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression are essential human rights and core democratic principles.
“We call on the security services to show maximum restraint and respect fundamental rights and for demonstrators to remain peaceful. We extend our condolences to the victims of the violence and their families,” he added.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton on Wednesday also condemned the use of force against peaceful protesters in Nigeria on Tuesday, saying the government should engage in peaceful dialogue.
“I am deeply concerned over reports of violence in Lagos and urge the Nigerian government to engage in peaceful dialogue with the #EndSARS protestors for police reform and an end to corruption,” Bill Clinton tweeted.
Former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had also on Tuesday called on President Muhammadu Buhari and the Nigerian army to “stop killing young #ENDSARS protesters.”
A former president of Chile, who is now the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, on Wednesday, also strongly condemned the use of excessive and disproportionate force by Nigerian armed forces in Lagos on Tuesday evening. She called on the Nigerian authorities to take urgent steps to deal decisively with the underlying problem of persistent violations committed by the security forces, and make a far stronger effort to bring police and army personnel guilty of crimes against civilians to justice.
Verónica Michelle Bachelet Jeria served as President of Chile from 2006 to 2010 and again from 2014 to 2018 for the Socialist Party of Chile, the first woman to occupy the position.
“While the number of casualties of yesterday’s shooting at the Lekki toll plaza in Lagos is still not clear, there is little doubt that this was a case of excessive use of force, resulting in unlawful killings with live ammunition, by Nigerian armed forces,” Bachelet said. “Reports that CCTV cameras and lighting were deliberately disabled prior to the shooting are even more disturbing as, if confirmed, they suggest this deplorable attack on peaceful protestors was premeditated, planned and coordinated.”
“Nigeria was already at boiling point before this shooting because of the revelations about years of unchecked violence, including alleged killings, rape, extortion and other violations, by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS),” the UN Human Rights Chief continued. “While the authorities have now dissolved SARS and announced a series of inquiries at both Federal and State levels, there have still been few if any charges levelled against its members despite abundant evidence against various members of the squad, as well as members of other security forces and the army.”
At least 12 Nigerian protesters were killed on Tuesday in two locations in the commercial city of Lagos, Amnesty International said on Wednesday following an investigation. About 38 people were killed nationwide on Tuesday, the group added.
“An on-the-ground investigation by Amnesty International has confirmed that the Nigerian army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters yesterday at two locations in Lagos. The killings took place in Lekki and Alausa, where thousands were protesting police brutality as part of the #EndSars movement,” Amnesty International said.
The rights group, which has been monitoring developments across Nigeria since the #EndSars protest began on October 8, 2020, said at least 56 people have died across the country since the protest began, with about 38 killed on Tuesday alone.
Victims include protesters and thugs who were allegedly hired by the authorities to confront the protesters. In many cases the security forces had used excessive force in an attempt to control or stop the protests, Amnesty International added.
It said “evidence gathered from eyewitnesses, video footage and hospital reports confirm that between 6:45pm and 9:00pm on Tuesday 20 October, the Nigerian military opened fire on thousands of people who were peacefully calling for good governance and an end to police brutality.”
“Witnesses at the Lekki protest grounds told Amnesty international that solders arrived at about 6:45pm local time on Tuesday evening, and opened fire on #EndSars protesters without warning. Eyewitnesses at Alausa protest ground said they were attacked by a team of soldiers and policemen from the Rapid Response Squad (RRS) Unit at about 8:00 pm, leaving at least two people dead and one critically injured.”
Osai Ojigho, Country Director of Amnesty International Nigeria condemned the killings, saying “opening fire on peaceful protesters is a blatant violation of people’s rights to life, dignity, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Soldiers clearly had one intention – to kill without consequences.”
Amnesty International said it received reports that shortly before the shootings, CCTV cameras at the Lekki toll gate, where #EndSARS protesters had been camped for two weeks, were removed by government officials and the electricity was cut – a clear attempt to hide evidence.
As in previous cases documented by Amnesty International, some of those killed and injured at both grounds were allegedly taken away by the military.
“These shootings clearly amount to extrajudicial executions. There must be an immediate investigation and suspected perpetrators must be held accountable through fair trials. Authorities must ensure access to justice and effective remedies for the victims and their families,” said Osai Ojigho.
Africa’s most populous country with more than 200 million people has been slipping into chaos in the past one week. In the commercial city of Lagos on Tuesday, heavily armed security officers were said to have shot dead dozens of protesters who have been demanding an end to police brutality.
Local reports said there was heavy shooting at the Lekki Toll Gate area in Lagos on Tuesday evening as the protesters defied a government curfew.
Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday that Nigerian authorities on Tuesday “turned a peaceful protest against police brutality into a shooting spree.”
The rights group said “on the evening of October 20, 2020, Nigerian army soldiers opened fire at a crowd of protesters in Lagos who were calling for an end to police brutality.”
“Nigerian authorities turned a peaceful protest against police brutality into a shooting spree, showing the ugly depths they are willing to go to suppress the voices of citizens,” wrote Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Ewang called on Nigerian authorities to “immediately withdraw the military from the streets, and identify and prosecute officers responsible for or complicit in any excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.”
For more than a week, peaceful protesters in Nigeria have been demanding that the government steps in and ends police brutality. But the government responded with force, triggering more protests and new demands.
Also on Wednesday, Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) sent a petition to Mrs Fatou Bensouda, Prosecutor, International Criminal Court (ICC), urging her to “promptly investigate reports that Nigerian authorities, military, and some politicians have used/ and are using thugs, soldiers and security agents to intimidate, harass, attack and kill #EndSARS peaceful protesters in several parts of Nigeria, including Abuja, Lagos, Edo, Osun, Plateau, and Kano states.”
SERAP urged Mrs Bensouda to “push for those suspected to be responsible for these crimes, mostly security officials, soldiers, some politicians and other actors who directly or indirectly have individually and/or collectively contributed to the attacks, deaths and injuries, and are therefore complicit in the crimes, to be tried by the ICC.”
In another statement on Tuesday, SERAP condemned “reports that security agents are shooting at #EndSARS peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll gate in Lagos.”
“This must stop immediately,” the group said as videos emerged that the country was slipping into chaos.
SERAP said: “Under the Nigerian constitution, 1999 [as amended] and human rights treaties to which Nigeria is a state party, the authorities are obligated to respect and protect the right to life and security of the person, the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly of everyone, including peaceful protesters.”
“We call on the Nigeria authorities to order a prompt, independent and impartial inquiry into the reports of shooting of #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll gate by security agents, identify suspected perpetrators and ensure that they are brought to justice without delay.”
“All the victims must be allowed access to justice and effective remedies, including adequate compensation, satisfaction and guarantee of non-repetition.”
“SERAP calls on the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open investigations into cases of attacks on peaceful protesters in Nigeria in the context of #EndSARS.”
“SERAP believes that substantial grounds exist to warrant the intervention of the Prosecutor in this case. Pursuant to the Rome Statute, the Prosecutor has power to intervene in a situation under the jurisdiction of the Court if the Security Council or states parties refer a situation or if information is provided from other sources such as the information that is now publicly available in the country.”
On Friday, Human Rights Watch expressed outrage as security forces continued to respond to overwhelmingly peaceful protests against police brutality with more violence and abuse.
Nationwide protests began on October 8, 2020, calling on the authorities to abolish an abusive police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). In response, the police have shot tear gas, water cannons, and live rounds at protesters, killing at least four people and wounding many others. Armed thugs have also disrupted protests and attacked protesters.
“People exercising their right to protest and calling for an end to police brutality are themselves being brutalized and harassed by those who should protect them,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch. “This underscores the importance of the protesters’ demands and the culture of impunity across the policing system, which is in dire need of reform.”
The protests were sparked by a video that surfaced online on October 3, allegedly showing a SARS officer shooting a young man in Delta state. This generated an outcry on social media, especially Twitter, where the hashtag #EndSARS began trending globally, and led to protests across Nigeria and in other cities around the world.
Responding in part to the protesters’ demands, the government announced on October 11 that the SARS unit would be disbanded. Yet its members will be integrated into other police units following “psychological tests,” and SARS is to be replaced by a Special Weapons and Tactical Team that is to begin training next week. No steps have been taken to hold SARS officers to account for past abuses, or to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the recent crackdown on protesters.
SARS was formed in 1992 to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes. Yet since its inception, the unit has allegedly been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and extortion. Many Nigerians feel that the unit has deliberately profiled and targeted young people, especially those with tattoos, dreadlocks, and visible possessions such as phones and laptops. Over the years, Nigerian authorities have repeatedly promised to reform SARS and ensure accountability for abuses by its officers, but with few results.
Although the authorities have now agreed to abolish SARS and take measures to end police brutality, the protests led by young Nigerians have continued. Protesters are calling for more far-reaching reforms and critical action to address police brutality, especially in the wake of attacks against protesters.
On October 10, a young man, Jimoh Isiaka, was allegedly killed when police opened fire to disperse protesters in Ogbomosho, Oyo state, media reports and Amnesty International have said. At least two other people – a man and a teenage boy – were killed the following day in protests against Isiaka’s death, based on a Premium Times investigation that included a video purporting to show police officers dragging bodies into an armored personnel carrier after the shooting.
The Oyo state governor confirmed that three people were killed and at least six others injured during protests in the state. The police said in a statement that they only used tear gas to disperse the protesters and denied allegations of any shooting on October 10.
In Abuja, police dispersed protesters on October 11 with tear gas and water cannons. Human Rights Watch interviewed three people who participated in or were in the vicinity of the protests and were badly beaten by officers.
One, a 30-year-old woman, said that at least four police officers beat her with big sticks and batons soon after the police fired tear gas and water cannons on protesters.
“When we saw officers down the road from us had formed a line facing us, we stopped moving and we sat on the ground or knelt down to show them that we were not aggressive,” she said. “But before we knew it, tear gas started flying all over the place and a strong force of water followed for about 10 to 15 minutes nonstop. I had a mask on and with the water hitting my face, I found it very difficult to breathe. They soon started running in our direction. I didn’t run because I shouldn’t have to; I was not doing anything wrong.”
The woman said that one officer began beating her with a stick, and when she tried to ward him off, two others joined in, with a stick and baton. She lay flat on the ground as they continued beating her. Eventually someone who had been observing and filming on the other side of the road came by in his car and shouted at her to get in. As she tried to get in the car, another officer hit her back with a big stick. She said that the beating fractured her skull and she has had dizzy spells since. She has been hospitalized.
Another, a 28-year-old woman, said that she was on her way home from work on October 11 around the Federal Secretariat in Abuja when she saw a crowd of people running in her direction. She also started running but soon stopped to figure out where she was going.
“As soon as the police arrived there and saw me, one asked me what I was doing there, and when I replied that I was on my way back from work, he asked, ‘Which work?’” she said. “I didn’t even get a chance to explain or show identification before others came and started beating me with big sticks. About six officers gathered around me, beating me as I lay on the ground. One even threatened me with a knife; they emptied the contents of my bag all over the floor and smashed my phone before they let me go.”
On October 12, police officers in Surulere, Lagos, opened gunfire to disperse protesters, killing 55-year-old Ikechukwu Ilohamauzo, media reported. Human Rights Watch interviewed two protesters and one journalist at the scene. One protester said that the police arrived and opened fire to disperse the protesters when they were close to a police station around Western Avenue. As he and others were running, they realized that a man had been hit by a bullet and went back to where he was. The protesters watched and filmed as a medical team tried to give the man emergency care, but he died. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage and has it on file.
Media reports said that Ilohamauzo was a driver stuck in traffic in the vicinity of the protests who came out of his vehicle to urinate when he was struck by a stray bullet.
Police in Surulere claim that Ilohamauzo was killed by a stray bullet from protesters who they say also shot and killed a police officer during an attack on the police station. They arrested three protesters whom they claim were responsible. Videos have since surfaced online, however, that purport to show that the officer fell to the ground after a burst of fire from his colleagues. The protesters were eventually released. Human Rights Watch has not seen any evidence indicating that protesters were armed or firing on the crowd.
The police arrested dozens of protesters, refused some of them access to their lawyers, and only released them following the intervention of senior government officials, including the state governors and the Senate President. There have been reports of police damaging and confiscating the cameras of protesters and journalists. Alleged pro-government thugs have also injured protesters and destroyed property, media reported.
On October 15, the Nigerian army warned “subversive elements and troublemakers” to desist and offered to “support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order.” The Nigerian army has also been implicated in human rights abuses, including the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters.
The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by the Nigerian constitution and international human rights law. Unnecessary use of force to disperse protesters is unlawful. Protesters should instead be protected by the authorities.
Human Rights Watch has documented human rights abuses by the Nigerian police force for years. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch cautioned that the long-term failure of the authorities to address abuses by the police would reinforce impunity and lead to more systemic abuses.
“Nigerian authorities can no longer evade the need for serious reform and accountability in the police system,” Ewang said. “They should go beyond words and send a signal that it is no longer business as usual by investigating the attacks on protesters and taking immediate steps to hold officers and others accountable.”
Read President Muhammadu Buhari’s full address to the nation below
It has become necessary for me to address you having heard from many concerned Nigerians and having concluded a meeting with all the Security Chiefs.
2. I must warn those who have hijacked and misdirected the initial, genuine and well – intended protest of some of our youths in parts of the country, against the excesses of some members of the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
3. On Monday 12th October, I acknowledged the genuine concerns and agitations of members of the public regarding the excessive use of force by some members of SARS.
4. The choice to demonstrate peacefully is a fundamental right of citizens as enshrined in Section 40 of our Constitution and other enactments; but this right to protest also imposes on the demonstrators the responsibility to respect the rights of other citizens, and the necessity to operate within the law.
5. As a democratic government, we listened to, and carefully evaluated the five-point demands of the protesters. And, having accepted them, we immediately scrapped SARS, and put measures in place to address the other demands of our youth.
6. On approving the termination of SARS, I already made it clear that it was in line with our commitment to the implementation of extensive Police reforms.
7. Sadly, the promptness with which we have acted seemed to have been misconstrued as a sign of weakness and twisted by some for their selfish unpatriotic interests.
8. The result of this is clear to all observers: human lives have been lost; acts of sexual violence have been reported; two major correctional facilities were attacked and convicts freed; public and private properties completely destroyed or vandalised; the sanctity of the Palace of a Peace Maker, the Oba of Lagos has been violated. So-called protesters have invaded an International Airport and in the process disrupted the travel plans of fellow Nigerians and our visitors.
9. All these executed in the name of the ENDSARS protests. I am indeed deeply pained that innocent lives have been lost. These tragedies are uncalled for and unnecessary. Certainly, there is no way whatsoever to connect these bad acts to legitimate expression of grievance of the youth of our country.
10. The spreading of deliberate falsehood and misinformation through the social media in particular, that this government is oblivious to the pains and plight of its citizens is a ploy to mislead the unwary within and outside Nigeria into unfair judgement and disruptive behaviour.
11. On the contrary, both our deeds and words have shown how committed this administration has been to the wellbeing and welfare of citizens, even with the steadily dwindling revenues, and the added responsibilities and restrictions due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
12. Government has put in place measures and initiatives principally targeted at youths, women and the most vulnerable groups in our society. These included our broad plan to lift 100 million Nigerians out of poverty in the next 10 years; the creation of N75 billion National Youth Investment Fund to provide opportunities for the youths and the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) Survival Fund, through which government is:
a. paying three months salaries of the staff of 100,000 micro, small – and medium – enterprises,
b. paying for the registration of 250,000 businesses at the Corporate Affairs Commission,
c. giving a grant of N30,000 to 100,000 artisans; and
d. guaranteeing market for the products of traders.
13. These are in addition to many other initiatives such as;
e. N-Tech and
14. No Nigerian Government in the past has methodically and seriously approached poverty-alleviation like we have done.
15. With regard to the welfare of police personnel, the National Salaries, Income and Wages Commission has been directed to expedite action on the finalization of the new salary structure of members of the Nigeria Police Force. The emoluments of other paramilitary services are also being reviewed upwards.
16. In order to underscore the importance of education in preparing youths for the future, this administration has come up with a new salary structure and other incentives for our teachers.
17. Let me at this point reaffirm the Federal Government’s commitment to preserving the unity of this country.
18. We will continue to improve good governance and our democratic process, including through sustained engagement.
19. We shall continue to ensure that liberty and freedom, as well as the fundamental rights of all citizens are protected.
20. But remember that government also has the obligation to protect lives and properties, as well as the right of citizens to go about their daily businesses freely and protected from acts of violence.
21. To our neighbours in particular, and members of the international community, many of whom have expressed concern about the ongoing development in Nigeria, we thank you and urge you all to seek to know all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgment and making hasty pronouncements.
22. In the circumstances, I would like to appeal to protesters to note and take advantage of the various well-thought-out initiatives of this administration designed to make their lives better and more meaningful, and resist the temptation of being used by some subversive elements to cause chaos with the aim of truncating our nascent democracy.
23. For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated.
24. I therefore call on our youths to discontinue the street protests and constructively engage government in finding solutions. Your voice has been heard loud and clear and we are responding.
25. And I call on all Nigerians to go about their normal businesses, and enjoin security agencies to protect lives and properties of all law abiding citizens without doing harm to those they are meant to protect. Let me pay tribute to officers of the Nigeria Police Force who have tragically lost their lives in the line of duty.
26. I would like to thank those state Governors, traditional and religious leaders who have appealed for calm and restraint. I also thank youth leaders who have restrained their followers from taking the law into their hands.
27. This government respects and will continue to respect all the democratic rights and civil liberties of the people, but it will not allow anybody or groups to disrupt the peace of our nation.
Thank you all. God bless the Federal Republic of Nigeria.