Nigeria: What Led to #EndSARS Protests?

EndSARS protests began as a call to end police brutality and extrajudicial killings that have become endemic in Nigeria. Harassment and unfair treatment by the police are rife, and it dates back to the military era when soldiers unlawfully arrested citizens and violated their rights. But how exactly did it start?

On May 4, 2020, a 27-year-old 500 level Law student of Nnamdi Azikiwe University was shot dead in a beer parlour by police officers. A similar incident occurred on May 21, when a boy, an only son of his parents, met his untimely death in the cruel hands of the police. He was heading home from work at around a few minutes past 8 pm when cops from the Nimo unit chased him until he was knocked down by a moving vehicle. He was said to have died from his injuries.

Seventeen-year-old Tina Ezekwe, who was preparing to take her WAEC exams, was hit by a bullet from a reportedly drunk police officer, who shot to disperse a crowd gathered after he opened fire at a bus driver who had refused to bribe him on May 26, 2020. Tina died two days after the incident sparked a wave of social media campaigns for justice.

On June 2, 2020, a policeman shot and killed a 20-year-old motorcycle rider in Adamawa for not paying a bribe of N100. A policeman killed a 27-year-old man in Imo for not wearing his face mask on July 9, 2020. Samson John was killed by the bullets of a police officer on October 3, 2020, who unleashed bullets on the people at a beer parlour in Abuja. On October 8, 2020, a young lady was shot in the mouth by a cop in Lagos for protesting against SARS and police brutality.

These and more were some of the cases of police brutality in the country, which culminated in the widespread #EndSARS protests that took place last year. SARS was notorious for its warped profiling of criminals. A young man with dreadlocks or a full beard was easily targeted as a criminal. They were harassed, arrested and sometimes left to rot in jail. Take the case of Ndukwe Ekekwe, who SARS officers arrested on February 16, 2018. He was accused of selling stolen goods at his shop at Alaba International Market by officers led by Haruna Hamisu, a police inspector.

Appearing before the Lagos State judicial panel of inquiry on the #EndSARS protest, Ndukwe revealed that he was earlier detained and brutalised by policemen before the February 16 incident. He narrated how officers took him back to the store and pushed him from a second-floor balcony, leaving him paralysed from the waist down and struggling to make ends meet.

For many victims, compensation is not enough for the horrors they faced in the hands of corrupt and notorious cops. Although the panel awarded him N7.5 million, Ndukwe protested that it was not enough. “I sold my land, all my property, my goods!” he shouted.

During the hearings, the officer who led the operation disputed Ekekwe’s account of the balcony incident, saying he jumped while trying to escape. The police command in Lagos did not respond to requests for comment on the case. After the months-long process concluded on May 11, a friend pushed Ekekwe’s wheelchair out of the hearing room as his lawyer yelled after him to calm down and be grateful. His mother followed, clutching a pack of adult diapers for her 35-year-old son and sobbing over what she considered a paltry sum.

“Is it for treatment? Is it for food? Is it for taking care of him?”


Reiterating their demands, the protesters charged the presidency and police hierarchy to not just #EndSARS, but to also end police brutality and then institute police reforms from lower cadre policemen to the highest cadre.

They also called for transparent prosecution of all the officers involved in the menace, both past and present, as well as ensure compensation of victims of police brutality.

In their demands as articulated by Citizens Gavel Foundation against Social Justice, they lamented that despite several reforms announced by the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, cases of abuse of citizens by SARS have increased without any steps taken by the police hierarchy to address the fundamental problem of impunity of the operatives.

They further stated that SARS operatives promote extortion for self-enrichment and lawlessness, of which their non-adherence to the prescription of the law poses greater consequences for citizens.

In their demands, the protesters first called for the total disbandment of SARS as a unit (which has been granted), just as they called for a list of all officers that have been found culpable in the past and transparent prosecution of such officers.

They also demanded for justice for all victims who have suffered injustice in the past and a public enquiry on the activities of the unit in the past. In the long term, they also suggested the police hierarchy apply digital medium for tracking such cases with the police.

Concessions by Government

Some of the demands made like the disbandment of SARS have been fulfilled but some others have not been fully met like the prosecution of killer cops, the release of all protesters in detention and the total overhaul of the police force. The government further resolved to set up a judicial panel of inquiry as a follow up to dissolving SARS, just as each state government is to set up a Victims’ Support Fund, which the federal government will support. This they have done and while some states have paid claims to victims, others have not.

Widespread Violence

By the next day after the Lekki shooting, gangsters went berserk on the streets of Lagos, looting and attacking government and private institutions and facilities with impunity. It took the intervention of security agents to restore order.

Following the alleged Lekki shooting, states were directed to set up a judicial panel to look into the matters that arose from the protests. A year after the alleged Lekki shooting, many questions still linger. Has there been any change in the attitude of the police? Was there a massacre at Lekki tollgate? What about arrested protesters? Are they still held in police cells and prisons? Have the landmark properties destroyed during the protests been rebuilt? What solutions have been put in place to forestall a recurrence?

Was there a Massacre?

One of the lingering questions that continue to trail the #EndSARS protest is whether soldiers killed protesters. The popular term bandied around to describe the incident was a ‘massacre’, which by Merriam Webster dictionary means the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings under circumstances of atrocity or cruelty; a cruel or wanton murder, a wholesale slaughter of animals; and an act of complete destruction.

DJ Switch has insisted she counted seven dead bodies carted away by the soldiers that stormed the tollgate. Appearing before the Lagos judicial panel, Chief Pathologist of the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital (LASUTH), John Obafunwa, said out of the 99 bodies deposited at Lagos morgue during the #EndSARS, three were from the Lekki tollgate.

A forensic report by United Kingdom-based forensic expert, Dieye Willie-Harry, debunked claims that Nigerian soldiers shot at #EndSARS protesters with live high-velocity projectiles. The soldiers had on many occasions insisted they only fired blank bullets. Willie-Harry’s forensic study showed that no live high-velocity projectiles were fired at the tollgate protesters on the specified day between the hours of 18.30 and 20.43 when the soldiers were on the ground. He, however, did not dismiss the possibility that military-grade ammunition might have been fired by gunmen yet to be identified.


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