Nigerian protesters stay on the streets defying armed thugs as army begins 2-month-long exercise

Reports of armed thugs being on the prowl and even attacking protesters have come from many cities. The protests in Nigeria began on October 8 demanding the abolition of the infamous SARS police units

October 20, 2020 by Pavan Kulkarni
Nigerian protesters being chased by the police. File Photo (Business Day)

The popular protests in Nigeria, which began earlier this month, face a fresh set of challenges as armed thugs have been roaming the streets and attacking them in some provinces, and the army launches a country-wide exercise on Tuesday, October 20.

The governor of the southern State, Edo, Godwin Obaseki, imposed a 24-hour curfew and outlawed the ongoing protests against police brutality after a prison break in Benin city on the morning of Monday. Video clips show thugs on a rampage breaking into a prison and freeing the inmates.

A section of protesters has expressed the doubt that the jail break was orchestrated to create an excuse to stop the EndSARS protests which have been ongoing since October 8. Protesters across Nigeria have been demanding police reforms and the dismantling of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which is accused murder, torture, extortion and other atrocities.

Soon after the jailbreak, announcing that a 24-hour curfew will be in effect starting from 4:00pm on Monday, Osarodion Ogie, Secretary of Edo state government said in a statement, “This decision has become necessary because of the very disturbing incidents of vandalism and attacks on private individuals and institutions by hoodlums in the guise of the #ENDSARS protests.”

Leo, a protester from Abuja, told Peoples Dispatch said the incident took place at maximum security prison which hasn’t had an incident of jail break since 1989. He strongly believes “that the jailbreak was planned.. They are trying to make it look like the EndSARS protesters made it happen.”

Thugs attack protesters

 Earlier, around 4 in the morning, protesters who had camped at the demonstration outside the Central Bank of Nigeria in the capital city Abuja were dispersed by thugs, armed with sharp weapons and guns.

30 to 40 policemen were present in the area. They “could have repelled or engaged these armed people, but no.They stood by, watching,” said Leo. There have once again been concerns expressed that the thugs did so with backing from the establishment.

Once the protesters ran for safety from bullets, the “hired goons”, he claims, burnt the truck on which protesters had mounted their speakers. The camp they had set up to weather the night was also torched. One woman protester was physically beaten up, and was hospitalized with injuries to her leg. Another protester was grazed by a bullet.

Later in the day, scheduled demonstrations in Abuja had to be called off because more armed thugs were seen roaming the city in private jeeps, Leo said. But not all had withdrawn. In the evening, thugs attacked the protesters and torched their cars “simultaneously while the police were also dispersing the protesters with teargas and live ammunition,” according to Sahara Reporters.

Similar attacks by thugs were previously faced by protesters in Osun state on Thursday and again on Saturday. On Friday, another attack by armed thugs on a demonstration outside the Edo state’s legislature in Benin had left two protesters dead and many injured.

Peoples Gazette reported that the same “thugs deployed against #EndSARS protesters unleashed violence across Benin, setting a police station alight before taking over a correctional facility to free inmates” on Monday.

These developments have taken place in the build-up to the two month-long military exercise announced by the army on Saturday, two days after releasing a statement construed by many as a veiled threat to the protesters.

The exercise, named Operation Crocodile Smile, will begin across the country from October 20 and continue till December 31. Sagir Musa, the army’s spokesperson, said in a statement that “the exercise has nothing to do with EndSARS protest, but (is) a yearly event set out by the (army) in its efforts to ensuring safety and security of Nigeria and her citizens.”

Few protesters believe this to be true.The annual exercise had so far been limited mostly to Delta state, where insurgent groups, including Boko Haram, have been active. “This is the first time in my life that the exercise will be conducted across the country,” 29 year-old Ayeta Jonathan said.

She fears clashes will be almost inevitable if the army hits the streets, many of which are currently blockaded by the protesters. “Clashes with security forces are already happening every day,” she said, adding the situation is bound to get worse.

This is also the first time the exercise will include cyber-warfare. “The exercise is deliberately intended to be all- encompassing to include cyber warfare exercises designed to identify, track and counter negative propaganda in the social media and across cyberspace,” Musa’s statement adds.

Social media in Nigeria is currently flooded with clips and pictures of protests and of police brutality, shared with the #EndSARS. This has played an important role in spreading the protest into a country-wide mass movement with international solidarity, demanding thorough reforms to the police, starting with the dissolution of the SARS.

“Changing SARS to SWAT was a foolish move”

On October 11, the Inspector-General of Police had announced the “dissolution of SARS.. in response to the yearnings of the Nigerian people.” His statement added however that “all officers and men of the now defunct Special Anti-robbery Squad are being redeployed with immediate effect.” Two days later, the formation of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit was announced.

“Changing SARS to SWAT was a foolish move on the part of the government, which believes what SARS has is (merely) an image problem. So they want to give it another name,” said Leo. “Interestingly, SWAT has been in existence since 2017. There are images of SWAT vehicles from 2019. So what new SWAT are they talking about?”

Ayeta told Peoples Dispatch that even this repackaging in the name of SWAT has not been executed. “Government’s claim that SARS has been dissolved is a plain lie. If it has been dissolved, why are personnel dressed in SARS uniform, carrying SARS ID cards, attacking peaceful protesters on streets? We have videos proving it,” she said.

The government claims that the former SARS personnel will be redeployed to SWAT only after a psychological evaluation. Leo insists that this psychological evaluation must come after the known human-rights violators are first dismissed. It cannot be a substitute for investigating violations by SARS personnel and arresting them for it.

The commander of SARS in Anambra state from 2012 and early 2016, James Nwafor, was dismissed from his latest post as the senior special assistant on security by the Anambra state governor, Willie Obiano, on October 15.

Social media users shared the traumatizing experience of themselves or their family members tortured by him. He is accused of killing over a 100 people, whose bodies were dumped in the Ezu river on the border of Enugu and Anambra in 2012.

Despite his dismissal, “he has not been tried in any court”, complains Leo. “We are trying to sue him but he has gone into hiding. And the government is doing everything it can to shield him”

Protesters in Abuja are also demanding that the armoury log books of the police – containing information on which police officer is carrying what gun with how many bullets at which point of time – must be made public. This, Leo argues, will serve as a deterrent against gratuitous violence because it will be easier to identify who fired.

In cases of the attacks on protesters by armed thugs, the bullets collected from the scene of shooting can be traced back, through ballistic analysis, to the weapon from which it was fired. With the log book at hand, Leo believes they will be able to identify which policemen supplied the weapon to the thugs.

“Until these demands are met, I think the government will not be seeing any of us get off the streets,” he says. When the army takes to streets with its massive “fire power” on October 20, Leo says they will be faced with protesters “whose only weapon” is their refusal to be killed on the streets anymore.