Nigerian police use tear gas on protest against security force violence

Bodies of some Nigerians apprehended by security forces end up at medical classes

Nigerians marking one year since a spree of police violence ended weeks of protests were arrested and tear gassed on the same site on Wednesday.

Lagos police commissioner Hakeem Odumosu told local media that he ordered his forces to fire tear gas canisters because "miscreants had taken over" the commemorations, which involved hundreds of people driving through the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, the site of the brutal crackdown one year before.

October 2020 saw thousands of Nigerians across the country protest against police violence, and in particular a police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars). The unit was formed in 1992 to combat armed robbery and other violent crimes, but its own members ended up accused of extrajudicial killings, extortion, torture, sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention.

Many Nigerians apprehended by security forces have disappeared, with some bodies ending up in medical classes. In one reported case, a medical student recognised his missing friend as one of the corpses given to his class as part of their studies.


Nigeria’s wave of protests against police violence sparked an online campaign, with the hashtag EndSARS trending globally. Sars was disbanded on October 11th last year, but by that stage the calls for government accountability and wider reform had increased, and demonstrations continued.

“Nigerian youth made history,” wrote Nigerian journalist Makua Adimora about that time. “The movement was largely decentralised and particularly void of the ethno-religious tensions that usually plague the framing of Nigeria’s sociopolitical issues. We were one.”

On October 20th, 2020, protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, who were out in breach of a curfew imposed a short time before, were singing the national anthem when police and soldiers opened fire on them. The ensuing death toll has still not been ascertained, but witnesses said they saw around 15 bodies.

Amnesty International said at least 12 people were killed in Lekki and Alausa, another Lagos area – among at least 56 killed over the weeks of protests nationwide. Victims were reportedly removed from the site, along with CCTV cameras.

Bank accounts suspended

Detained protesters were denied medical care or access to lawyers, Amnesty said. Some protesters were later charged with financing terrorism and had their bank accounts suspended.

"A genocide happened! A crime against humanity!" tweeted Aisha Yesufu, a prominent activist with close to a million followers, on Wednesday. "We will not forget the massacre."

This week, Human Rights Watch joined calls for further attempts towards accountability.

"Nigerian authorities should clearly demonstrate that they are serious about holding those responsible for abuses against protesters to account," said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at HRW. "Failure to pursue justice will strengthen the culture of impunity and reinforce the perceptions that brought protesters to the streets in the first place."

Nigeria's minister of information, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, was defiant on Wednesday, using a press conference to call the incident a "phantom massacre", "the first massacre in the world without blood or bodies", and saying that security forces instead fired bullets into the air to disperse crowds.

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden

Sally Hayden, a contributor to The Irish Times, reports on Africa