Police reform not happening in Nigeria

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A year ago, Adebanjo Akinwunmi waved a Nigerian flag at Lekki Toll Gate, a stretch of tarmac at toll booths on a highway outside Lagos. Joined by thousands of his countrymen, he demanded an end to what demonstrators said was endemic police brutality.

The ebullient protests in cities across the nation of some 200 million ended in a hail of gunfire at the toll gate site.

Demonstrators said soldiers and police opened fire on October 20 last year, both denying firing live rounds. Rights group Amnesty International said 12 protesters were killed in two districts that night, triggering the worst street unrest since Nigeria returned to civilian rule in 1999.

Government never acknowledged the extent of the violence. It responded with promises to transform policing, including meeting demands to close the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit activists blame for extortion, violence, kidnapping and intimidation.

One year on, activists say government promises are hollow. SARS is largely reconstituted under another name and abuses are perpetrated by other units with impunity.

“It is disappointing,” Akinwunmi said, “There’s no account of anything, any human life or property.”

In a statement last week, a presidential advisory council said federal and state governments took a range of steps, including establishing judicial panels and states would indict police for crimes.

“These are commendable actions that ought to be taken to a logical conclusion in a peaceful atmosphere,” the advisory council said in a statement.

Rinu Oduala, who served on a panel investigating police brutality in Lagos, quit in February in frustration.

“While these panels were sitting, there were ongoing cases of police violence,” she said. “Government turned a blind eye.”

Far from becoming a more open society, Nigeria slipped two points, to 45 out of 100, on the Freedom House index of world freedom. The watchdog cited extrajudicial killings, torture and other abuses by military and law enforcement agencies. Human Rights Watch said hopes for accountability “remain inconclusive and bleak”.

In June, Nigeria banned Twitter after it deleted tweets by President Muhammadu Buhari. Activists say it is harder to organise.

Akinwunmi is hopeful the anniversary of the protests can again unite the nation.

“We will be able to remember the time when there was a time like this and we had one goal, one voice,” he said.