October 2020 will be remembered in history as the month in which the true scale of the moral bankruptcy, institutional decay and lack of accountability in Nigerian politics and governance was revealed.
Mobilising under the EndSARS umbrella movement, peaceful Nigerians who took to the streets of Lagos to stage demonstrations against police brutality were slaughtered by Nigerian security forces in an episode which came to be known as the Lekki massacre.
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These Nigerians were calling for the abolition of the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which had long engaged in the unlawful arrests, torture and extrajudicial killings of youth.
Initially, the government responded to the demands of the growing movement by disbanding SARS. But as it became clear that this move was of little significance and the protests persisted, the Nigerian government decided to resort to its tried and tested tactic of violently repressing political activism.
On October 20, security forces opened fire on protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos and killed at least 12 peaceful protesters. The world watched as the slow and agonising death of a young Nigerian was livestreamed on Instagram.
Subsequent videos of the massacre shared online and investigations by various media organisations have provided evidence that the massacre was indeed committed by government forces.
It is not the first time the state has used such brutal force against ordinary citizens with deadly consequences. This is because those in charge have enjoyed wide-ranging impunity both at home and abroad. This has to change.
Tyranny on display
Just two days after the massacre, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari issued a chilling televised statement. In his junta-style address, vividly reminiscent of his tenure as a military dictator in the 1980s, Buhari showed no sympathy for the slain protesters and did not even acknowledge that the massacre had taken place. Instead, he made it clear that the government’s “restraint” was not a “sign of weakness”, and that the international community had no business “rushing to judgement and making hasty pronouncements”.
The eventual proliferation of digital evidence of the massacre attracted unprecedented levels of global scrutiny. The Nigerian government, however, maintained its denial and proceeded to issue a series of statements, branding any media coverage of the massacre as “fake news”.
Individuals involved in the EndSARS protests have also been targeted and detained. There have even been reports of EndSARS supporters in the diaspora, being placed on no-fly lists and financial platforms used to support protests being deactivated.
Investigative reports from reputable international news outlets such as CNN have corroborated and verified witness accounts of the Lekki massacre. They have highlighted the presence of spent ammunition at the scene of the crime.
Traced to be of mixed origin, these ammunitions proved to be a match with those registered in Nigerian government stockpiles. In response, the Nigerian government has threatened CNN with sanctions without providing any evidence that the Lekki investigation was inaccurate.
Global condemnation of the massacre by international organisations, eminent politicians and notable celebrities have followed Buhari’s address, with many intimating that prosecution from the International Criminal Court (ICC) was likely, and desirable. The ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, even said that she was “keeping a close eye on developments”, and the ICC is now analysing material received.
Yet, the Nigerian government’s confident and global display of dismissal and impunity clearly demonstrates an entrenched belief that its behaviour cannot be constrained by international law, and it is not hard to see why.
The failure of international law
We are living in an era characterised by the sustained desecration of the rules-based international system, the crippling of international institutions and the rise of authoritarianism. But that does not fully explain the negative trajectory of Nigeria’s behaviour in recent times. To understand Nigeria, one also has to consider the failure of the international community to respond decisively to the government’s increasingly reckless and tyrannical behaviour.
In the past, the ICC has consistently failed to demonstrate the culpability of the Nigerian government in previous instances where crimes covered by the Rome Statute had clearly been committed. The ICC has carried out preliminary examinations of situations in Nigeria on numerous occasions, and for almost every year between 2011 and 2018. However, the court has been unable to establish a case against the government for numerous reasons.
The ICC has officially noted that Nigerian authorities have hindered the prosecution of crimes when their own security forces were involved, and it is clear that the government has been consistently unable or unwilling to prosecute those responsible.
Take the Nigerian government’s shooting of peaceful protesters in October 2018, for example. In this instance, Nigerian security forces opened fire on peaceful protesters belonging to the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in Abuja, killing 39 and injuring more than 100 people.
Even though the entirety of the shooting was caught on camera, and a subsequent New York Times visual investigation corroborated the victims’ accounts, not a single individual was held responsible for the massacre. This is because by 2018, the government had mastered the strategy of evading ICC jurisdiction – open an internal investigation into an incident, suppress its findings and everyone walks scot-free.
The so-called judicial inquiry set up to investigate the Lekki massacre was meant to repeat this trend, but protests by invited panellists against the signing of non-disclosure agreements as a prerequisite to participation, seem to have botched this gambit. The internal investigation is now under way in a more transparent manner, but the public needs to keep up the pressure to ensure that its findings are not suppressed and the judicial process is carried out in full.
Pot calling the kettle black
Nigeria’s ruling elite have been encouraged in their denial of the Lekki massacre by the failure of their closest allies to – at the very least – caution them in light of its consistent excesses over the years.
Take the United Kingdom for example. In light of the Lekki massacre, concerned citizens in the UK demanded some form of reprimand from their government.
An electronic petition calling on the UK government to unilaterally impose Magnitsky-type sanctions on those responsible for the Lekki massacre was signed by more than 220,000 people. Unsurprisingly, however, the UK government failed to issue any more than feeble statements. Perhaps it was heeding Buhari’s “advice” not to make hasty pronouncements?
While the use of British weaponry or ammunition in the Lekki massacre has not been proven yet, the UK, as a state party to the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), still has an obligation to stop arms exports to actors that may use them in ways that breach international humanitarian law – like Nigeria.
Article 6.3 of the ATT explicitly states that “a State Party shall not authorize any transfer of conventional arms … if it has knowledge at the time of authorization that the arms or items would be used in the commission of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, attacks directed against civilian objects or civilians protected as such, or other war crimes as defined by international agreements to which it is a Party”.
Yet, in light of the numerous excesses of the Nigerian government the UK has provided at least $57m worth of export licences to Nigeria since 2015, which covers the provision of arms and ammunition. The UK government has even engaged in training activities for the Nigerian police force, and provided equipment and supplies to SARS units from 2016 to 2020, as evidenced by the admission of the UK’s minister for Africa.
The revelation that UK assistance was channelled to these deadly SARS units is deeply disturbing and raises fundamental questions about moral accountability. Entertaining the ideas that the UK deliberately assisted SARS units when they were known to have committed extra-judicial killings, or that it was unaware of the end use of its assistance, are equally disturbing. However, searching for moral currency in a government that has consistently aided Saudi repression in Yemen would be a rather spurious exercise.
The Nigerian government’s display of dismissal and impunity in light of the Lekki massacre should serve as a wake-up call to the international community. The idea that Nigeria’s behaviour cannot be constrained by international law and norms, is sustained by the moral bankruptcy of its allies and their blatant disregard for the same. The government continues to push the envelope in determining what is permissible or circumscribed, and those responsible for the massacre must be held accountable this time around. Otherwise, we are likely to witness even more brutal public assaults on personal and political freedoms, regardless of the intensity of international scrutiny.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.