Nigeria’s Lekki Massacre: An Unsolved Case of Police Brutality

Eyewitness accounts and videos circulating on social media show the police responsible for the brutal slayings. The victims have yet to receive justice

Nigeria’s Lekki Massacre: An Unsolved Case of Police Brutality
A man displays a placard during a protest to commemorate one year anniversary of EndSars, a protest movement against police brutality at the Unity Fountain in Abuja, on Oct. 20, 2021 / Kola Sulaimon / AFP via Getty Images

On Oct. 3, 2020, near Wetland Hotel at Ughelli, a city in the oil-rich Delta State, a young man in a yellow T-shirt was shot by officers of the Nigeria Police Force. The police officers took the man’s white Lexus SUV and drove off with it, leaving him behind for dead. He survived the attack, but the incident — caught on video — triggered a protest movement that has grown more contentious as the authorities have moved to ban further public discord while ignoring the people’s demands for accountability.

Nicholas Makolomi, who was among the first to post a video of the incident, saw his go viral, sparking what has come to be known as the EndSARS protests, which demand an end to a unit in the Nigeria Police Force called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS.

As the people’s ire grew, a few days later, on Oct. 7, many gathered to protest at the police headquarters in Ikeja, the capital of Lagos. The organizers had initially allotted three days for the peaceful demonstration, but this stretched into two weeks. The protesters then moved to the Lagos State House of Assembly at Alausa, the seat of the Lagos state government. The Nigerian government was facing a challenge it didn’t know how to deal with. Unlike other protests, this one had no obvious leaders to be bullied into stopping the movement.

In a bid to be proactive in dealing with the protests, on Oct. 16, the Nigerian vice president, Yemi Osinbajo, announced that to investigate police brutality, each state would set up a Judicial Panel of Inquiry and Restitution for Victims of SARS Related Abuses. Three days later, the Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, announced the inauguration of a Judicial Panel of Inquiry. Petitions were submitted to the panel, but the distrust between the government and its citizens had permeated so much that many, out of fear of retribution from the government or police, didn’t approach the panel. The road to justice in Nigeria requires time and money; for many, they never have both.

Public outrage was growing, and protesters continued to pour into the streets. But the more momentum the EndSARS protest movement gained, the more vicious the police and Nigerian army became in suppressing it.

On Oct. 20, the authorities shot to death unarmed civilians in what has come to be known as the Lekki Massacre, named for the middle-class suburb of Lekki Toll Gate, the location of the killings. According to Amnesty International, the Nigerian army killed 12 protesters both at Alausa and at the Lekki Toll Gate.

Since then, on the 20th of every month, young Nigerians have gone on social media to remember the Lekki Massacre. Attempts to protest in public again have been met with stiff opposition by the police.

Now, more than a year later and despite repeated calls for justice and an investigation, the Nigerian authorities continue to deny that anyone died at Lekki.

But on Nov. 15, 2021, a leaked report from the Lagos State Judicial Panel of Inquiry stated: “The atrocious maiming and killing of unarmed, helpless and unresisting protesters, while sitting on the floor and waving their Nigerian flags, while singing the National Anthem, can be equated to a ‘massacre’ in context.” However, even outside the Lekki Massacre, little public information has been available about the police killings in less affluent parts of Lagos.

New Lines conducted interviews with survivors to reconstruct some of the events of the day of the massacre as well as the days after. Those interviewed are angry at the injustice meted out and the way the government treated them. And they still live with the physical and emotional scars from that day.

One such survivor, Taiwo Saheed, stood in the market just beside the Agbara-Badagry Expressway, where he was recovering debts from market women for a microfinance bank. He directed me to the top of a shopping plaza with a bukateria — a casual restaurant – where we talked.

“Who directed you to me?” he said, looking around as if searching for the threat. In this part of town, where an unknown number of people were killed, conversations about the EndSARS protests still sparked fear and silence, even a year after.

“Why did you come here? Have you gone to Ajegunle?” he asked, referring to another place where the EndSARS protests — the largest protests ever held in the country with the exception of organized labor gatherings — also met with violence. Then, as if suddenly determined to tell his story, he tapped my shoulder and asked me to follow him.

SARS was first established in 1992 to combat armed robbery in Lagos State. The unit was set up to support three existing anti-robbery units in the state. Since 1984, anti-robbery units have existed within the Nigeria Police Force across the country. But the formation of SARS was different. The unit started with 15 armed men and two station wagons. They wore civilian clothing, drove in unmarked cars and did not use walkie-talkies. Their strength was their facelessness. Until 2002, SARS was restricted to Lagos State. With time, the unit spread across the country and lost focus of its mission. Since 2015, the government on five separate occasions has promised to disband SARS, yet the unit has continued its operations unabated.

Since 2016, the hashtag #EndSARS has turned into a rallying call on social media against police brutality. In 2017, the hashtag trended for a week while young Nigerians shared stories of their run-ins with SARS officials. In 2018, Nigerians wore protest T-shirts with the motto: “SARS, Am I Next?”

The police targeted young men and women and kept them in detention across the country, demanding huge bribes for their release. In some cases, the police would march young men at gunpoint to cash withdrawal points and demand they take huge amounts of money from their bank accounts. In other cases, young men were killed and buried in shallow graves never to be seen again. After the protests kicked off in Lagos, they spread to other cities across the country, highlighting the ubiquity of police brutality.

The day after the Lekki Massacre, Saheed saw a large crowd of protesters threatening to burn down a police station at Agbara in the outskirts of Lagos. From his house he could see what was happening on the Agbara-Badagry Expressway, a major artery that leads to Benin Republic, a neighboring country. There was no vehicular movement on either side of the road. That morning, the atmosphere was tense. Shopkeepers were told to shut down. Young men with menacing faces occupied the streets.

But before that day, the protests at Agbara were filled with singing and chants. Protesters held placards and danced to Afrobeats, shouting “EndSARS Now” at the top of their voices. The protesters demanded that the Badagry-Lagos Expressway be fixed and that the multiple police checkpoints that had become centers for extorting motorists be removed.

Then when the government sent soldiers to the Lekki Toll Gate, everything changed. Lekki, about 45 miles from Agbara and almost a four-hour drive, had been the epicenter of the EndSARS protests. The Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, had issued a curfew at noon, sending the city of 21 million people into a frenzy. The curfew was to start at 4 p.m.; then it was shifted to 7 p.m. But in Alausa and Lekki, the protesters refused to budge. That evening, pictures and videos of men removing the closed-circuit TV at the Lekki Toll Gate circulated on social media. Warnings that the government was planning something sinister started to spread, yet protesters sat down on the tarmac of the expressway singing the national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag. Days earlier, hoodlums had been bused to Alausa to attack protesters, but they were repelled.

As the crowd gathered, the police stood outside their station with their guns and tear gas.

On the other side of the road was a crowd of protesters whose sole intent was to burn the station to the ground. Saheed interviewed some of the young men and asked them what their grievance was. No coherent answer was given. He tried to calm them down and dissuade them from burning the station, but they warned him to keep away or they’d kill him. As he crossed the road to meet the police commander in a bid to reduce tension, one of the police officers pointed a pump action shotgun at his belly as a threatening gesture. Saheed, an indigene of Agbara, thought about his family. “I have four children; I can’t just leave. Where would I go? So, I had to play the devil’s advocate. I would go to both sides, listen to what they said and think of how to find a solution,” he told me.

The role he had chosen to play was a dangerous one. When the police fired tear gas into the crowd, he didn’t run with the crowd. If he appeared to be against the police, they would not trust him. The police had been surrounded and all escape routes including shortcuts were blocked. The police, fearing that the crowd would overwhelm, started to shoot in the air and called the army for help.

“Immediately they shot; I ran home. The boys shot back at the police. They exchanged gunfire for almost two hours. Do you see those bottles? They were throwing them from here into the station. The bottles were so many it took almost a week to clean it up. This place was [tense],” Saheed said, pointing to old green beer bottles that were still on rooftops of surrounding buildings and remained as evidence of what happened that day. A few hours later the Nigerian army arrived and restored calm.

That evening Saheed witnessed a police officer almost beaten to death. The police officer was riding his motorcycle returning home and had removed his jacket but not his uniform trousers. The police officer’s motorcycle was burned. Saheed rescued the police officer, who had lost a lot of blood.

Another police officer, known for having harassed and extorted one of the boys who was protesting, was severely beaten.

“They nearly killed the policeman,” Saheed said, explaining how he dragged the police officer by his collar and pulled him out of the crowd, taking him to safety. This further angered the crowd.

Part of Saheed’s confidence was his social standing in the locale. He was the go-to man when issues arose in the vicinity. It was why the police had also given him access, hoping he would be able to control the crowd.

In Lagos and other parts of Nigeria, politicians have created a system in which they pay thugs to control certain territories that would be of political importance during elections. These thugs maintain peace or spark violence depending on the needs of the politician, and often oversee the collection of money from buses that pay an informal tax.

Across Lagos, as the EndSARS protests continued, such thugs were “activated” and sent to disrupt protests. It was a tactic to discredit the protests and label them violent. Saheed was offered the “position” of a thug by the police commander, who has now been transferred.

“At my age I can’t be doing that kind of work,” he told me. “I am too old for that. I used to ride motorcycles. When the government banned motorcycles, I had to find something else to do. Right now, I collect debts from market women on behalf of a microfinance bank.”

For close to two weeks Saheed didn’t leave his home. The death threats he received forced his mother to keep guard. She was not going to allow him to go anywhere, not even to the outhouse. For 17 days he didn’t leave the house, relying on the food his mother brought him and the chamber pot in his room.

“What did I do? Simply because I didn’t want them to burn the police station, they wanted to kill me,” he said, looking at me in disbelief, unable to fathom the fate his good actions almost led to. He sighed.

“I too have been a victim of police brutality,” he added, then recalled his own run-in with police corruption.

It happened years ago, he said. He was picked up by SARS and taken to the police station, where he was asked to bring money in exchange for his freedom. He had done nothing wrong, but the police were ready to frame him for murder. He said he paid the equivalent of $500 to be released.

Further down the road from Agbara is Badagry, a coastal town and port in Lagos. Ajibola Akinyemi, 32, a money transfer agent, was confronted by the Nigerian army in Badagry. He had just left a meeting of the Oodua People’s Congress (OPC), a Yoruba nationalist organization, and was heading home. As he arrived at the roundabout in Badagry, two officers — a lieutenant and a second lieutenant — accompanied by the men in their units were confronting the protesters, trying to quell them. Akinyemi was not part of the protests and had not participated in the two weeks of protest. One of the officers accosted him, leading to a heated argument in which Akinyemi demanded to know why he could not be allowed to walk freely. The soldiers, around eight of them, seeing their superior in a heated conversation, cocked their guns and aimed it at Akinyemi. He fled for his life.

New Lines sat down with Akinyemi in his shop, where he was charging phones. He explained that the Nigerian navy and army as well as the Nigerian Police Force were deployed to disperse protesters in Badagry. But this did not make the news, just as in many other places across Lagos where EndSARS protests had taken place.

Before the curfew was announced, the residents of Mushin, one of the inner cities in Lagos, were in a festive mood, singing and dancing to the tunes of protest songs. The sun was high in the sky, the morning was calm, and protesters had gathered near the old post office not too far from Olosan police station. Many had blocked the streets, while others had blocked the Agege Motor Road. A DJ played a series of protest songs, mostly Fela’s afrobeat, which captured their anger toward the government. The division police officer at the Olosan police station was Ayodele Arogbo, also known as Gbakoje — “a nickname he acquired due to his penchant for extrajudicial, unlawful brutality of residents,” according to Babatunde Enitan, the cofounder of a local nonprofit, Mushin to the World. Arogbo joined protesters, mingled with them and took pictures. Most of those in the crowd were street urchins who had come from other states outside Lagos to eke out a living in Mushin. They had left their families in the villages and were hustling their way by helping to carry heavy loads for market women or doing other menial jobs.

In Mushin, a man who goes by the name Osharay to protect his identity against reprisals recalled how he joined the EndSARS protest. Osharay is a barber who worked at a salon on Damingoro Street, not far from the Olosan police station. He said he had joined the protests to demand justice and had waited for such a time when he could take a stand against police brutality. The police had constantly harassed him and at one point arrested him.

During the COVID-19 lockdown and curfew imposed in Lagos State, the meager wages Osharay earned were further reduced. He could no longer work, and customers no longer came as they used to. The lockdown had adversely affected those in low-income areas who depended on daily wages. In the middle of the pandemic, while at his salon, the police arrested him and carted away his generator. They took him to the police station, where he found many others whom the police had picked up and who were trying to pay their way out. Nothing incriminating was found on him, he said. He paid the equivalent of about $12 to secure his release and have his generator returned to him.

The injustice bit so much into him that when the EndSARS protests started, he was ready to sleep at the police station to fight for his rights. “I didn’t make it to the police station,” Osharay said. “I was shot directly by Gbakoje, but he has been transferred.”

Around 1:30 p.m., shortly after the curfew was announced, the police officers from Olosan police station rolled out into the streets and started firing into the crowd of protesters under the guise of enforcing the curfew. When the first gunshots rang out, some ran away, others stood, waiting, wondering why protesters were confronted by live bullets. As the firing continued and bodies began to fall to the ground, in the background voices shouted, “It is Gbakoje that is shooting!”

“The bullet hit my leg and got out and killed the person behind me. What pained me most was that there was a girl on the balcony who was videoing the killings so she could send them to others, they shot and killed her. The bodies of those they killed, we haven’t seen the bodies till today. They took away the bodies,” Osharay said.

Osharay was taken to a hospital in Oliyide, where he was given a drip. The bullet had pierced his upper left thigh and left a scar. When he regained consciousness, his friends moved him out of the hospital minutes later, afraid that the police might trace him and kill him. “This leg is weak, but I thank God I don’t use crutches,” he said. “My business has collapsed; I don’t have a shop again. I sleep on the streets. One thing I must say is this, I am not a thug and I don’t steal. I just wanted to protest for my rights.”

The police didn’t use tear gas or water to disperse the protesters. “Those who live in Victoria Island and Lekki, they are living things. But we at Mushin, Agege, Shomolu, Bariga — we are not living things,” Osharay said, comparing how the lives of those in middle-class suburbs were considered more valuable than the lives of those in low-income areas.

A press release by Mushin to the World, written four days after the massacres, stated, “We are pained that our people in Mushin whose lives have been lost and whose properties have been destroyed have not been dignified with a mention by any of the authorities as if they do not matter.” According to the release, there were 67 casualties, including 15 deaths.

Force Order 237, the rule guiding the police on the use of firearms, was reviewed in 2019 to replace firearms with taser and stun guns. The rule also stated that before the use of firearms, a proclamation must be read and that 12 or more people must remain riotously assembled beyond a reasonable time. No proclamation was read to the protesters at Mushin or in many other parts of the country.

At the point when Gbakoje and his men began to shoot at protesters, Yusuf (not his real name) was working as a videographer and had been covering the protests. Yusuf tried to capture Gbakoje shooting at protesters and tried to get closer to the police station. “I wanted to take his picture and capture him clearly so as to put it on social media and show people what’s happening,” he said.

As he was making the video, his phone died. He borrowed another phone from a friend and continued recording. Then Gbakoje saw him and said, “You again?” To which Yusuf replied, “Can’t we have peaceful protests again?” Gbakoje shot at him. The bullet grazed the side of his stomach and killed the man behind him.

“When he shot, I turned my body at an angle. The bullet was directed at the middle of my stomach. He wanted to kill me,” Yusuf said.

Because of the paramilitary training he had once received, he survived.

The police shot again and killed the man behind the one they had just killed. Bodies dropped and piled up with each shot. It was no accidental discharge, a defense the Nigeria police had used time and time again when explaining why one of their men had killed someone. Neither were these stray bullets, another defense in the police playbook of excuses. Residents called these bullets “straight bullets”: They were meant to kill. Most of those who died had no families that lived nearby. They came from other states to hustle a living.

Videos of the Nigeria police running from street to street hunting down protesters circulated on social media. In Surulere, the Area C Police blocked the expressway and shot at protesters a day after the Lekki Massacre. Because of the fear of the government, families of those who died moved on. The violence had spread elsewhere by the next day. Messages across WhatsApp were shared among many groups. Videos of an attempted jail breakout in Lagos State and another in Edo State circulated as well. The tension was palpable. Streets that were once filled were now empty. A TV station belonging to a popular politician and former governor of Lagos State as well as public transport vehicles were set on fire by hoodlums, mostly hired by politicians as a way of discrediting the protests and labeling them violent. Other videos — verified by eyewitnesses — showed police officers hunting down young men on the streets and executing them.

In one video, when a police officer shot once and the victim didn’t die, he took a gun from a colleague, cocked it and shot into the head of the helpless victim.

National express roads were empty. The Lagos University Teaching Hospital was filled with young men and women ready to donate blood to protesters who had been shot by security forces. And Lagos State felt like a war zone. While giving his testimony at the Lagos State Judicial Panel, Brig. Gen. A. I. Taiwo, the commander of Military Intelligence Brigade 81, said that the state of affairs in Lagos reminded him of the Liberian civil war, in which buildings were torched, gunshots filled the air and an unknown number of civilians were killed. The then-inspector general of police, Mohammed Adamu, had told police officers to defend themselves but only when they were certain they were in danger. The definition of danger, however, seemed to be flexible.

When Yusuf was shot, his friend took him away. “If I had fallen, they would have killed me there,” he said. A bullet wound on the side of his stomach is a reminder that it has been a year since what was a peaceful protest turned into a bloodbath.

Months after the Lekki Massacre, on June 10, 2021, in an interview with a TV local station, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said of the protests, “When there was EndSARS … you remember the young people who wanted to march here and remove me?” His interpretation that the protests were an attempt at regime change meant that the government would clamp down more.

A week before the interview, the Nigerian government banned Twitter, the major platform used to mobilize the EndSARS protests. It was part of the strategies used to control social media. The government denied that anyone had died at the Lekki Massacre. Before the Lagos State Judicial Panel, the Nigerian army denied being at the Lekki Toll Gate despite video evidence. It later admitted that soldiers were present at the Lekki Toll Gate but denied that they shot at protesters. When the army admitted shooting at protesters, it claimed it fired blank bullets. Joseph Kayode, a forensic expert with Sentinel Forensics Ltd, presented a ballistic report that showed that the bullet shells from the Lekki Toll Gate and the ammunition presented by the Nigerian army were the same. As the judicial process went on, the army’s story kept changing. Eventually it dropped out of the inquiry. The police adopted a similar attitude, receiving adjournments and thus delaying the process of justice. The lack of accountability in Nigeria’s security forces has contributed to the large distrust the public holds of it.

On Nov. 15 this year, following the leaked report of the Lagos Judiciary Panel, Gen. Lucky Irabor, the chief of defense staff, said that the armed forces of Nigeria remain committed to constitutional mandates. “We do not at this point think that Nigerians should make disparaging remarks regarding the armed forces of Nigeria in the sense that we are a professional armed force. … The armed forces of Nigeria are disciplined, well disciplined, and we do not engage in any ignoble act. … When the armed forces are called out, it’s because there is a need for the armed forces.”

This is not the first time the military has committed a massacre. In December 2015, the Nigerian army massacred more than 300 civilian Shiite Muslims in Zaria. In 2018 in Abuja, the country’s capital, the presidential guard opened fire from .50-caliber weapons into a religious procession of unarmed Shiite Muslims, killing dozens.

While an inquiry was set up to investigate the Zaria Massacre, the Abuja massacre was ignored.

The fear that the government could commit another massacre and get away with it is not lost on people. Nigerian political economy researcher Oluwatosin Adeshokan told New Lines, “The Lekki massacre and the subsequent address by the president has made sure that there will be no more protests. An example is in the remembrance procession that was done one year later. Except for the leaked report, nobody expected that there would be any official recognition of what had happened and any justice served. The bigger question is where justice will come from. Justice is supposed to begin from the office of the governor who called the military to a peaceful civilian protest in his state.”

To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the Lekki Massacre, a memorial was organized in which participants drove through the Lekki Toll Gate as a new strategy to avoid being arrested.

But justice remains elusive, and many wonder what it will look like if and when it comes.

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