On Monday, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation, promising comprehensive police reforms and reasserting the rights of all Nigerians to peacefully assemble in protest. At the same time, police officers were shooting at anti police-brutality demonstrators in Lagos.
Activists had taken to the streets for a fourth day of peaceful demonstrations against Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – a unit of the Nigerian police force that was originally tasked with fighting robberies, kidnappings and violent crime, but in recent years has drawn nationwide anger for alleged extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests and the indiscriminate extortion of young people.
Graphic videos posted on social media appear to show at least one person being shot dead by a police officer, another shot in the leg, and at least four protesters being arrested by armed officers. A similar incident played out in the capital Abuja on Sunday, where footage shows kneeling protesters being hit with water canons and tear-gas as police cars rammed into groups of protesters.
"Everything was peaceful,” says Iyesogie Ogiehariki, a photographer who had been at protests in Surulere, a town in Lagos. “We were just sitting and chanting. Then the next thing, we heard a gunshot…then we heard another and people were running towards us, [saying] that they just killed a man.”
Ogiehariki continues: “We decided to run towards it at first because they can't kill all of us. Next thing sporadic shooting from everywhere. They literally chased us off the road. This was even like random shooting; they were trying to kill us, straight into the crowds. They don't care, man. They know nothing will happen to them."
Several protesters were arrested and dragged away, with video showing Ojahbee, the manager of Nigerian musician Oxlade, being forcefully dragged across the street by multiple officers. Ojahbee and dozens of other protesters were eventually released close to midnight thanks to the combined efforts of volunteer lawyers and local officials, largely co-ordinated by popular podcaster Feyikemi Abudu, and the Feminist Coalition – a group of young women working to raise funds in support of the demonstrations.
In a series of now deleted tweets, a spokesperson for the Lagos police claimed that no protesters were shot or injured during Monday’s demonstrations. However, the Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, acknowledged in a statement reports of protesters being attacked in Surulere.
As more and more law enforcement officers have taken to the streets in recent months to enforce national lockdown mandates in response to COVID-19, a number of cities have seen a significant rise in reported cases of police brutality, especially against young people, who are stopped and questioned for a wide range of reasons, from “looking gay” to driving expensive cars. In response to this surge, young people have turned to creating social media accounts and apps that are dedicated to protecting people from violent SARS units.
Social media accounts such as SARS Watch, AntiSars and Anti Sars Geng tweet out “SARS alerts” that help young Nigerians steer clear of areas where officials have set up checkpoints. These accounts also share vital resources such as contacts for lawyers offering free legal services to anyone who has been arrested. And as the #EndSARS protests gained momentum in recent days, these accounts have provided updates on the demonstrations, where they are taking place and where people can contribute donations.
‘‘Every day, every week, every month we hear of how these operatives use their power to oppress people,” the owner of SARS Watch tells VICE News. ‘‘Initially, we thought it was only ‘Yahoo boys’, online fraudsters. But now it cuts across everyone. Whether you are legit or not, you're exposed to being oppressed. I've always hoped that there'd be a way young Nigerians would alert each other of where they are – like a neighbourhood watch-type thing. And the oppressions became incessant for some reason after lockdown, so I took it upon myself to open a Twitter account for that purpose.’’
Away from social media, apps like Sety, created by Nigerian developer Adetiwa Olumide, are also helping Nigerians steer clear of SARS checkpoints. The app runs on community-generated information and shares the timestamps of where and when officers were last seen, as well how dangerous they appear to be. The app also notifies users of when other users are in danger nearby and how to get to them help.
‘‘The fundamental core of Sety was to create an app that amplifies your cry for help,’’ Olumide explained. ‘‘The SARS hate it when you call for help or pull out your phone to record them. Sety doesn’t just send your danger to your circle [of friends and family] but they also go to anyone within a specific mile radius, as well as any available direct responders.’’ Two days after launching Sety in September, the app had over 10,000 users, while @sarswatch picked up 40,000 followers in its first week.
In recent days, President Buhari has committed to abolishing SARS, but activists have promised to keep protesting until they see a comprehensive plan to tackle police brutality across the country. Apps like Sety will remain vital as young people come up with more and more unconventional ways to fight a system of abuse deeply entrenched in Africa’s most populous country.