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Nigeria commissions panels of inquiry into Police Brutality

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Nigeria’s leaders have made a show of responding to the demands of a massive youth-led uprising over police brutality that recently brought the country to a standstill and captured global attention.

The government has commissioned panels of inquiry into police brutality, and the president promised to disband the notoriously abusive police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS.

But at the same time, protesters say that the government is conducting a targeted campaign against people associated with the uprising in order to harass, impede and break up the movement — destroying any good faith the government had hoped to build.

“They are persecuting peaceful, and actually quite patriotic young people,” said Chidi Odinkalu, senior manager for Africa at the Open Society Justice Initiative.

Nigeria — Africa’s most populous nation — was turned upside down last month by an uprising that grew into the largest popular resistance the government has faced in years. The demonstrations began as an outcry against the SARS police unit but evolved into a larger protest over bad governance.

The government has adopted a two-pronged strategy to try to put a stop to the uproar. It has tried to persuade people that it is listening to the protesters — commissioning panels of inquiry and announcing that SARS is being disbanded. But it is simultaneously using its power to repress and intimidate activists by throwing many people in jail and harassing others in ways large and small.

One example of the government’s two-faced approach was on display last week in a packed hearing room in Lagos overlooking the ocean, where a panel was supposed to be holding a hearing on police brutality.

Two young activists had been invited to join the panel to represent the protesters. But the youth panellists boycotted the hearing because Nigeria’s Central Bank had just frozen a bank account belonging to one of them, claiming it was linked to terrorists. In recent weeks, at least 20 activists and organizations have had their accounts frozen by the Central Bank.

“How can I be asking as a citizen of my country for better government, for an end to police brutality,” said Bolatito Olorunrinu, one of the youth panellists, a 22-year-old student at Lagos State University, “and my government turns around to tag me a terrorist? It’s saddening.”

Warned of threats to their safety, some high-profile activists with the movement, known by the hashtag #EndSARS, have gone into hiding or left the country. There was a public outcry when Modupe Odele, a lawyer helping the protesters, said that her passport was confiscated at the airport. She says was prevented from travelling, but recently was given her passport back.

The country’s top police official said earlier this month that his officers had arrested over 1,500 people during and after the protests suspected of taking part in violence.

The government has moved to use its authority to shut down the movement. Lagos, Nigeria’s biggest city, banned demonstrations. Powerful state governors in the country’s north last week called for censorship of social media, which had played a decisive role in mobilizing the marches.

Like the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, #EndSARS was triggered by viral videos of police brutality that documented a decades-long pattern of violence. And similar to the protesters behind the Arab Spring, young people used social media to coordinate protests on a scale that frightened authorities accustomed to being in control.

These days, Muhammadu Buhari is Nigeria’s democratically elected civilian president. But in the 1980s, he was the country’s military ruler, with a fondness for discipline — famously forcing civil servants late to work to perform frog jumps.

Despite trying to reassure young people last month that their voices had been heard “loud and clear,” his pronouncements have come across as highhanded and disingenuous. Nigerians are wary that his authoritarian tendencies, his General Buhari side, is showing through.

On Oct. 20, the military was deployed to the site of a long-running peaceful #EndSARS protest in Lekki, an affluent area of Lagos, shortly after sunset. Floodlights were turned off. Then the soldiers began to shoot.

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Source – nytimes