Nigeria: Is the Nigerian Government Trying to #EndSARS or End Protests?

#EndSARS protesters at the State House in Alausa, Ikeja (file photo).
20 October 2020
analysis

This is our regular update on national protests against police brutality, a global touchpoint, in Nigeria.

Amid protests against police brutality in Nigeria, the government has made some concessions. In a televised speech on 12 October, President Muhammadu Buhari said that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) will be disbanded as demanded by protesters. He admitted that the unit had exercised "excessive use of force and in some cases, extra-judicial killings" and said that abolishing it was "only the first step" in reforming the police.

While these words seemed reassuring, however, many of the government's actions this past week have sent the opposite message.

1. A thinly veiled army warning

On 15 October, the Nigerian army released a statement declaring its loyalty to the president and sending a message to "subversive elements and trouble makers to desist". This warning came on the ninth day of the growing protests that have seen demonstrators shut down major roads in Lagos, camp in front of the National Assembly and block routes to the airport in Abuja, and march to the state governor's office in Port Harcourt.

"In my opinion, the abiding fear of all Nigerian presidents - particularly President Buhari who has overthrown and been overthrown - is a coup, and all security threats are seen through that prism," says Chidi Nwaonu, a former soldier who now runs security consulting firm Vox Peccavi. "Thus, the COAS [Chief of Army Staff] is reassuring him that he is not part of any plot."

"Secondly, it is a warning to the protestors that the army is ready to crack down on them," he continues. "For a professional military, it would be studiously trying to steer clear of these demonstrations, particularly an army overstretched on operations across the country. However, for Nigeria, this is fairly predictable."

As well as the army alluding to the protesters as "anti-democratic forces and agents of disunity" and suggesting it could intervene, many senior political figures have been similarly disparaging. The likes of Information Minister Lai Mohammed and leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) Bola Tinubu, for instance, have accused the protests of having been hijacked and of posing a violent threat to other citizens. Even Segun Awosanya, an early campaigner in the #ENDSARS movement, has echoed these accusations, leading to speculation that he is now working for the government.

2. Armed proxies?

In what appeared to be a coordinated attack, armed bandits in Lagos and Abuja set on peaceful protesters on 14 October. They carried cutlasses, daggers, clubs and an assortment of other weapons. The next day, they attacked protesters in Lagos again. Protesters in these major cities had been chanting in front of government buildings that have heavy police protection. Yet when they were attacked, the police were either absent or looked on without intervening.

Since then, the trend of armed bandits attacking peaceful protesters seems to have spread across the country. About three people have reportedly been killed in these assaults but the total could end up higher. In Abuja yesterday, bandits attacked protesters seemingly at will. In one video, verified by BBC journalist Bertram Hill, thugs set on demonstrators a mere 500 metres from the Police Headquarters. As this pattern of attacks has increased, the police have reduced - but not stopped - their own offensives against demonstrators, in contrast to the first week of the protests.

Location is verified. This was filmed less than 500m away from Police HQ in Abuja. Men seen carrying melee weapons mounting a vehicle on Yakubu Gowon Crescent amid #EndSARS #AbujaProtests today. Shot at: 9.0519998,7.5109454. See Street View: https://t.co/DLeVm865fi pic.twitter.com/ppUMN92O9H - Bertram Hill (@bertram_hill1) October 19, 2020

Those familiar with Nigerian politics will know that violent groups showing up - seemingly randomly - in moments of political tension is nothing new. Around elections, for instance, armed bandits are a recurring feature as they intimidate voters and even steal ballot boxes, actions that are often funded by the ruling party.

3. On whose orders are Nigerian banks restricting accounts perceived to be supporting #ENDSARS protests?

Last week, several individuals supporting the movement reported that their banks - which include some of Nigeria's biggest such as Zenith Bank and GTBank - have restricted their accounts.

Young people should be able to exercise their constitutional rights. Why are fundraising efforts to protect the lives & welfare of the Nigerian youth being blocked? #EndSARS (1) pic.twitter.com/ry7NLNr6lQ - feministcoalition (@feminist_co) October 16, 2020

Public strategy and media group Gatefield had an account it was using to support journalists' reporting on the protests restricted by Access Bank, Nigeria's second largest bank. The action reportedly followed a "random review". Gatefield is now required to submit certain legal documents that will take 30 days to process in order to keep using that account. The organisation's other accounts with Access Bank have not been subjected to the same requirements.

Adewunmi Emoruwa, lead strategist at Gatefield, believes the government is behind these restrictions and claims the bank's demands are illegal.

"According to regulations, the banking cannot arbitrarily restrict your account on the basis of any extra requirements that was not required when you opened the account, without requesting an update," he says.

Emoruwa told African Arguments that Gatefield is therefore preparing to sue Access Bank for financial damages.

"We need to prove that they cannot do this to people unchallenged," he adds.

*This piece has been written anonymously by Our Nigerian Correspondent who has done so as not to become a target of the Nigerian government. Writing about the #ENDSARS protests at this specific moment is potentially dangerous for journalists as it can be interpreted as opposing the government. So far journalists have been attacked and brutalized by policemen and soldiers for doing their job.

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