Nigeria’s #EndSARS mass action in October 2020 and the subsequent security force crackdown led to promises that those affected would see justice. But events since then question the government’s commitment to genuine police reform.
The Nigeria Police Force continues to inflict extortion and brutality on innocent citizens, and recent decisions on the report of the judicial panel set up by the Lagos State government to investigate police abuses have dampened public expectations.
The #EndSARS protests called for a ban on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of Nigeria’s police. Set up in the mid-1990s to combat armed robbery, SARS morphed into a force associated with harassment, extortion and extrajudicial killings of suspects.
The protesters demanded that the federal government abolish SARS, provide justice to victims of police brutality and reform the police. Following additional pressure from human rights groups and local and global media, President Muhammadu Buhari dissolved SARS on 11 October 2020. Marches continued until 20 October when state security forces shot and killed peaceful protesters at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos.
The federal government quickly set up state-based judicial panels to investigate police brutality and extrajudicial killings. Their scope covered all SARS victims, other police units, and the army’s role in the Lekki Toll Gate shootings. The panels would include representatives of youths, students and civil society organisations and be chaired by a respected retired state high court judge.
While 29 states and the Federal Capital Territory make up the panels, only Lagos State has publicised a report. And recent action by the Lagos State and federal government on a victim restitution panel report undermines public confidence in the prospects for police reform.
In a white paper released after the judicial panel report, Lagos State accepted only 11 of the panel’s 32 recommendations. More importantly, the state government said it was ‘unable to accept the finding that nine people died of gunshot wounds at Lekki Toll Gate on 20 October 2020.’
The number of deaths arising from violence unleashed on protesters is contested. Through the Attorney General, the federal government supported the controversial white paper even though the judicial panel confirmed that at least 46 unarmed protesters were either shot dead, injured by bullets, or assaulted by security forces in the Lekki incident.
So it’s probably not surprising that one year after the #EndSARS protests, accountability for police brutality remains elusive. But the problem is not just about a lack of clear, high-level political support. Ensuring justice for victims, engendering deterrence and preventing future transgressions requires that accused police officers be tried – and experts have reiterated their calls for such action to be taken.
The process of ensuring accountability must start from within the Nigeria Police Force. Measures should go beyond the usual rhetoric without undermining ongoing reform efforts by external stakeholders.
The Nigeria Police Force has various internal accountability systems. Chief among these is the Complaint Response Unit set up in 2015 to enable citizens to report police misconduct. Clear channels are provided for receiving citizens’ reports, including through social media. During the #EndSARS protests, the unit opened complaint lines and called on Nigerians to report erring officers. Though the system is commendable, continuing police brutality shows that it isn’t enough and must be bolstered by more proactive measures.
The Complaint Response Unit has also not published any reports on the action taken to hold officers accountable. Doing so could boost Nigerians’ trust in the ability and willingness of the police to reform. The Nigeria Police Act of 2020 provides for the establishment of the unit across state commands but implementation has been slow, largely due to the lack of institutional will and capacity. The lengthy process – from registering a complaint to investigation and prosecution – also leads to complainants losing interest. For justice to be served, the process must be quicker.
Police reform starts with the government and requires political will from the top. But the Nigeria Police Force must also take responsibility for making changes. Nigeria’s police urgently need leadership that reflects a change of policing philosophy as captured in a landmark 2012 civil society panel on police reform report.
This leadership should position the Nigeria Police Force as a service delivery organisation that respects human rights and works in partnership with the community. This foundational change is key to tackling police brutality and building an organisation that is impartial before the law and able to detect and investigate offences effectively.
Oluwole Ojewale, ENACT Regional Organised Crime Observatory Coordinator – Central Africa, ISS Dakar and Ruth Olofin, Acting Executive Director, CLEEN Foundation, Abuja, Nigeria
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Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei