Year after Nigeria's deadly protests, police still accused

Joshua Samuel painfully recalls the day, one year ago, that Nigerian soldiers opened fire in Lagos while he and thousands of others were protesting police brutality

LAGOS, Nigeria -- Joshua Samuel painfully recalls the day, one year ago, when Nigerian soldiers opened fire in Lagos while he and thousands of others were protesting police brutality.

“People were running and some were falling,” the 23-year-old said of the Oct. 20, 2020, shootings at the Lekki toll gate plaza in Lagos. “I was shot in the back.”

Still recuperating from his injuries, he's out of work and homeless and has not received any help from the government.

“I am not OK. Every single word I am speaking, I am feeling pain,” he told The Associated Press.

Samuel is among more than 100 Nigerians awaiting rulings on their petitions seeking compensation and justice for what they allege are abuses by police. They made their applications to a government panel reviewing both the Oct. 20, 2020, shootings and earlier allegations of police brutality that inspired the protests.

The protests erupted in Lagos against a police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, which faced widespread accusations of brutality, unwarranted arrests and bribery. Dubbed the #EndSARS movement, they climaxed a year ago Wednesday, when 38 protesters were killed nationwide, according to Amnesty International's Nigerian office.

Another 69 protesters and police were killed in the more than weeklong unrest that preceded the Oct. 20, 2020, killings, with many government facilities and police stations set ablaze, according to President Muhammadu Buhari.

Buhari vowed his government would not allow such a breakdown of order again, and police deployment was heavy on Wednesday's anniversary, with hundreds turning out to demonstrate and police firing tear gas. At least four people were arrested and others picked up during the chaotic situation.

The anti-robbery squad was accused of illegally arresting, torturing and extorting mostly young Nigerians, according to court hearings and victims' testimonies. From 2017 to 2020, Amnesty International said it uncovered 82 cases of torture and killings of suspects by anti-robbery squad personnel, with little or no action from authorities.

In response, Nigerian authorities scrapped the police unit and announced they would pursue police reforms and ensure justice for victims.

However, Damian Ugwu of Amnesty International’s Nigerian office, said he believes authorities have no “intention of fulfilling those promises.”

In Nigeria, court actions seeking justice for victims of alleged police brutality are usually slow, while many officers accused of abuse are not prosecuted or face any other repercussions.

And while the SARS unit has been disbanded, many Nigerians say police brutality continues.

Ayobami Adesina, 29, was sleeping in his house in southwest Oyo state when police stormed in last November and arrested him. For two weeks his family searched for him thinking he had been kidnapped, said his sister Kemi Adesina.

They eventually learned that he was in police custody along with 10 others accused of killing police officers during the anti-SARS protests. Adesina spent six months in prison before he was even taken to court, his sister said, and his trial is proceeding slowly.

“(There is) no proper evidence and nothing to point that he did this," she said.

More than 200 #EndSARS protesters are still in prison in Lagos and some have not been charged with any crime or even had a court appearance, according to Nicholas Mba, who was released on bail after spending eight months in prison accused of arson during the October 2020 protests. He still faces trial.

“The first night of being in prison was the worst day of my life,” he said. “We were more than 1,000 arrested over #EndSARS and some have not been taken to court, while some do not even know how to communicate with their families,” the 33-year-old said.

Oke Ridwan, a lawyer who offered legal services to arrested protesters, said he helped win the release of at least 70 people whose charges were later dropped.

After the protests, Nigerian authorities set up judicial panels in every state and the capital, Abuja, to address the widespread allegations of police brutality and calls for compensation for those shot or arrested during the demonstrations.

In Lagos, the panel has considered over 235 grievance petitions, according to Tony Eze, who represents the Nigerian Bar Association at the hearings.

At least $637,470 has been awarded to 47 petitioners, but many, including 39-year-old Nicholas Okpe, are still awaiting the panel’s decision.

He told the AP he was shot in the chest and a year later still has an open sore from the bullet wound, but he can't afford medical treatment. He said he hasn't received any assistance from the government.

“I just thank God I am alive. I have not worked since that day,” said Okpe, who was a bus driver before he was shot, grimacing in pain.

Dozens of petitions still remain unanswered and at least nine states have indefinitely postponed their proceedings, Amnesty International and petitioners told the AP.

One of those whose petition has been delayed is Chijioke Iloanya, who was arrested by SARS operatives in 2012 in southeast Anambra state. The family later learned he had died in police custody, his sister Obianuju Iloanya said. The AP could not independently confirm what led to his death.

Ugwu with Amnesty International said challenges include secretive panel hearings in some states, lack of funds, the failure of police officers to appear and the incessant adjournment of the panels hearing petitions.

“We need a special tribunal that will look at issues of fundamental human rights cases in Nigeria,” lawyer Ridwan said. “And they will also be empowered to actually punish officers."