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Police should have protected #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Toll Plaza – Amnesty

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Image Credits: LASG, Lagos Daily News.

Over the past two weeks, Nigeria has been embroiled in #EndSARS protests over the arbitrariness of police brutality and killings against Nigerian youths by a now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Things went awry when on Tuesday, uniformed men were reported to have shot at the hitherto peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Plaza, resulting in seven persons on the spot. Country Director, Ms. Osai Ojigho, spoke with Nkanu Egbe of Lagos Metropolitan. Below is the text of the interview.

Osai Ojigho, Country Director, Amnesty International Nigeria

LM: What is going on in Nigeria? Do you have an idea?

Osai Ojigho: I think what we are seeing right now is a lot of repressed emotions, anger, disappointment, disillusionment, and people are just letting it all out and sadly, government has not been responsive. They say things like “Oh we hear you, we are going to do this” but it ends there and then they do whatever they like. I think COVID-19 also tipped the pressure a bit. A lot of people got to stay home and assess their situations. I think some people made life changing decisions and it turns out that we are celebrating the 60th anniversary of Nigeria’s independence. So, I think everything is beginning to come together, things are beginning to make sense now and the country is boiling. It is boiling with a lot of people disappointed, thinking about their lot in life and where they should be, and they are able to compare themselves to other people elsewhere and they ask “why am I in Nigeria? Why is this happening?” In two weeks, we got to see community. So, people got to see that there could be a better world and a better existence and sadly, the government is killing that dream.

An injured protester hit by a bullet fired by security agents trying to disperse the #EndSARS protesting crowd on Tuesday.

LM: To the event of the 20th, we had EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll plaza and there was this confusion about the curfew and then at about 7pm, security agents came to the toll plaza and shots rang out and there were injuries. Amnesty reports casualties. The army says they were not there. Even General John Eneche says the army was not there. What do you say to that?

Osai Ojigho: I think the army should be very concerned if people were in military fatigue and they were not there. I think that’s a cause for concern. In fact, it is even alarming now. Are they saying there is another non-state unidentified factor that is causing this kind of damage? It also begs the question, “who are these people and why are they doing what they are doing?” They just disappeared into thin air after everything.

LM: During the live transmission of one of the eye witnesses through her Instagram account, she said that people were taking away dead bodies. Did you get that account?

Osai Ojigho: Yes.

LM: So, do you have a record of casualties?  How would you know who had been shot and who had been felled and taken away?

Osai Ojigho: It is complicated to get this information when the state is not known to be open and transparent about this thing. It has happened in the past before with allegations of security agents moving bodies away. If you look at the Shi’ites killings in 2015, they were always disputing the number of people that died until when the Kaduna panel investigated and said they uncovered mass graves of 350 people. The Shi’ites insisted that there were hundreds more and still missing but nobody has found them. Then if you look at other incidents that have happened in other communities like the 2018 IPOB clash where they said that Nnamdi Kanu was captured or escaped, but people couldn’t really tell how many people had died because bodies were taken away after the operation. So, I think for me, we need to first know these people in military fatigues, how they got there in the first place? Because I don’t think they walked there, they used a vehicle to get there and they did what they did.  We also need to look at the fact that Lagos is a big city with a lot of people, and the rate at which people are calling their loved ones, they may not know that some of them are missing.

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LM: At this point in time, how many have you been able to verify that are missing? Do you have names?

Osai Ojigho: We don’t have all the names but the ones we have, I cannot share that with you for security and privacy concerns. As at yesterday, we were able to confirm 12 deaths in Lagos, 7 in Lekki and some in other parts of Lagos. I mean, the numbers keep changing as we get more verified information. So, we hope that we get more details on the next few days.

LM: So, will you say that the Lagos State government’s response has been adequate, and are they not culpable in their responsibility in this particular situation? The governor has made a broadcast and tried to give a situation report. Is there any measure of culpability of the Lagos State government or has their response been adequate so far?

Osai Ojigho: I think that the Lagos State government’s response did not take into cognisance the fact that for those videos to be out there means that perhaps, a bit more investigation is required and he needs to explain the steps he is taking to get that information. I know how sensitive the security situation is, that if they come forward to speak to him, they too won’t disappear and there won’t be reprisal attacks. We recognise that it is a federal police, federal security agents, but we also recognise that as the chief security officer of the state, he would have more access than we would have. So, my plea really will be that whatever investigation that they are carrying out are thorough and independent, and you can’t be investigating yourself. For instance, you can’t have a police panel investigating the police. It must have other representatives of government and representatives of the people. So that when it comes out, we can all see it in an impartial way. We don’t want that situation of “oh, you know he is one of us so we need to support.” For us to move on from this, the government needs to build back the trust with its people and show that they are committed to getting to the bottom of this.

LM: Alright. So, Article 6.1 of the International Covenant of the Civil and Political Rights, talks about the Right to Life. This particular clause has been domesticated in the Nigerian constitution but there are ouster clauses in the Nigerian constitution. Do you think that those ouster clauses should be amended because they do not reflect the true democratic dispensation? If you look at the Nigerian constitution, Section 33, it does mirror the sanctity of life but in the ouster clauses in subsection 2, it says that this sanctity of life is not covered by the use of force when you have to put down riot, mutiny or insurrection. Do you think that the whole section needs to be reworked or is it adequate for our Nigerian constitution?

Osai Ojigho: The right to life is absolute and I think it’s something we need to emphasize. Our constitution has some limitations, yes, but under the International Law, the Vienna convention is clear, a country cannot plead its law even though it is in the constitution to abdicate its obligation under international law. Even if it’s there, Nigeria must still operate under the international law standards and this goes further to the provisions we have seen that the police abide by, but the UN standards on the use of force are very clear. Force or lethal force can only be used as a last resort and in those cases where there is threat to life or loss of life. I don’t think those situations presented themselves in Lekki that night.

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LM: Yes, exactly. The use of live ammunition as a deterrent. Let’s say they shot in the air for the sake of argument. But live bullets are calculated to cause grievous harm and could sometimes cause fatalities. This has been going on where they use live ammunition to quell demonstrations at schools. What’s the advocacy against the use of such deterrents to prevent protests and demonstrations.

Osai Ojigho: In the first instance, the right to protest is a human right, covered by freedom of association and freedom of expression, so we shouldn’t be having a conversation about people using force to control a protest. However, when these protesters are on the streets, it is the responsibility of these law enforcement officials to keep people safe. Once the protesters are safe, you can define the parameters and engage. There will always be cases where people might be unruly and disturb the peace. In those cases, there are procedures that the officers are supposed to act. There is no principle that permits you to use live ammunition if people are unarmed, there are other tools you can use. And I think globally now, everybody is moving away from this aggressive and violent management of assemblies. The police needs to find another method and one of it is engaging with the protesters, another is finding a way for the protesters to leave safely and they don’t give room to hoodlums and thugs to take advantage of the situation and wreak havoc on everyone.

LM: So, in essence, the police should have been on ground during this protest. And even though there was a curfew, they should have been there to provide cover.

Osai Ojigho: They were protesting against them. (Laughs)

LM: No, just in case their presence incensed the protesters, but the protesters had given their word that the protest is peaceful. In some instances, the police officials they encountered, they exchanged food and drinks, so it was peaceful. Even one of the demands of the protesters was that the police salaries should be raised and all of that, so there should have been some kind of cover to protect them as it were, so the event where military people come in and cause bedlam should not have arisen.

Osai Ojigho: Exactly. I think the police had an excellent opportunity to show that yes, they know their community, they can take charge of the streets and you had protesters that were peaceful. You’re not dealing with agitators, you’re not dealing with bandits but you’re dealing with ordinary people like yourself, particularly young people and what they are asking for is accountability and justice. I think everybody can relate to that. It’s a shame that the police had to resort to force in some areas and when thugs were sighted and the police were alerted, they were not proactive in preventing the mayhem. So, we heard stories of how thugs were mobilised and some were doing their own demonstrations with the intent of disrupting people who were exercising their right to freedom of expression. The police should have come out to say, yes they have their right to protest and you have your right to protest too on this side but you cannot inflict violence on anyone in the presence of law enforcement. That should not have happened, and this idea that we have in Nigeria where you must use violence to explain a message is abuse of power. There are better ways to have a conversation in terms of what you want to achieve. You can even explain yourself and say “Guys, we are here to keep you safe and hear your voice. We hope the government can listen to you but stay here, don’t stay here”. But this idea that you want to take them off without addressing them and it’s even more shocking because the government promised law reform so it should have started from day one. They shouldn’t have waited for the panel to complete the task. That re-orientation should have started from day one. They would have said the world is watching and we need to be on our best behaviour. So, the things we have learned, we need to unlearn them, so we become better protectors of the people. Sadly, the message that has come across is that they want us to continue business as usual.

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LM: What should be the best practice of rules of engagement between security agents and protesters?

Osai Ojigho: I think there are lots of standards already so no need reinventing the wheel. It will be good to look at the materials provided already. Amnesty International has a website dedicated to policing and human rights, where there are excellent resources about policing assemblies, about what the UN’s minimum standard on the use of force is. Also, there have been a lot of training and exchange from other countries about how they have been able to manage this same situation. Most importantly, I think there needs to be a sit-down with the police, the community and with the victims’ families so that they can better understand what the gap is. But it’s going to take some time because trust has been broken and needs to be rebuilt.

LM: I just want to confirm, the people that were felled in Lekki, was is just at the toll plaza or in different parts of Lekki?

Osai Ojigho: Lekki toll plaza.

LM: Okay. Will you be making a presentation to the judicial panel set up by Lagos State? Will you be presenting any paper to them?

Osai Ojigho: Actually, we have seen that there are several panels that have been set up across the country, so we will consider making a memo and sending to all the panels, including the one at the federal set up by the Human Right Commission. It will probably be the same document, but we will just be giving out documents on relevant laws and policies that we should be looking at. But, despite that, we still will be looking at the 2018 presidential panel on SARS. That will be a good place to start. We haven’t seen the reports. It would be good for it to be publicised and we see the recommendations that government needs to take at all levels.

LM: Thank you so much for your time.

Osai Ojigho: Thank you.

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