Lagos, Nigeria – It was 1pm on October 20 – just hours before the now-infamous Lekki tollgate shooting left 15 people dead – when another police shooting took place in Mushin, a bustling, lower-income neighbourhood some 20km (12.4 miles) away.
That morning, protesters in Mushin had joined nationwide calls demanding an end to the rogue police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), known for its brutality and extrajudicial tactics. Hundreds gathered at Agege Motor Road, shutting down a major intersection that passes through Mushin from Ikeja, the state capital; while smaller protests broke out in the arteries of the neighbourhood’s streets.© People walk around Mushin’s Ojuwoye market in Lagos, in March 2020 [File: AFP] People walk around Mushin’s Ojuwoye market in Lagos, in March 2020 [File: AFP]
Everything was festive among the crowd, who had their fists raised, chanting “End SARS” and singing along to lyrics by Fela Kuti, witnesses told Al Jazeera, when suddenly the atmosphere turned at a protest site closest to the Olosan Police Station, and an altercation occurred. It is unclear what sparked the clash, but residents said police opened fire, dozens were left wounded, and at least 10 people died, according to witnesses and local news reports.
MushinToTheWorld Foundation, a community-based NGO that works for social change in the area, issued a news release five days later saying there were 67 casualties, including 15 deaths. Babatunde Enitan, the executive director, told Al Jazeera they arrived at their figures by sending a field agent to the hospitals where the victims had been taken. However, the Nigerian government has not released any official statement related to the Mushin incident, and the Lagos state police’s public relations officer, Muyiwa Akinjobi, categorically denied the shooting took place. “We are not aware of such [shooting],” he told Al Jazeera on the phone on November 4, adding that social media posts and local news reports were false.
Some witnesses to the incident said that after the shooting, police tried to disperse protesters and clear the street, likely in anticipation of a curfew that had been announced earlier. But the gunshots caught the attention of local “area boys” – typically unemployed young men, some of whom live on the streets in lower-income neighbourhoods in Lagos. The area boys then got involved in a confrontation with some officers, and proceeded to attack the police station with knives and broken bottles, in a failed attempt to raze the building, witnesses said.
Patrick*, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retribution, runs a printing shop in Mushin. He watched the clash from a relatively safe distance, outside his shop at the other end of the street. Although he could not see the police station directly, he said he saw area boys throwing bottles at the policemen who responded by shooting directly at them. When the clash moved closer to him, to a nearby street corner, he stood on the pavement and watched, while other residents observed from balconies. Many shop owners closed early and went home for the day, he said.
Mushin has a long history of tensions between the Olosan Police Station and residents, who allege that officers there had a notorious record of arbitrary arrests and brutality.
The incident on October 20 was not the first time the police station was attacked. In April 2017, a similar attempt was made when SARS officers attached to Olosan Police Station allegedly tried to extort money from young men accused of being “yahoo boys”, a term used for cyber-fraudsters.
Witnesses at the scene recounted that the young men refused to submit themselves to an unwarranted search and it led to a chase that eventually ended in the death of a bystander, a woman selling snacks by the roadside, after one of the officers fired a bullet.
Immediately, the community was besieged by a large group of area boys who attempted to burn down the station, but they were eventually overwhelmed by the police. The police in the area are seen as a “common enemy” regardless of one’s status, and while regular residents do not partake in the area boys’ confrontations with officers, they generally do not voice their displeasure.
“Personally, I would not expect the people to empathise with a police force that has already been brutalising them,” said Anthony Obayomi, a 26-year-old documentary photographer who grew up in Mushin but has since moved away.
“It all boils down to the relationship between the police and people, area boys or not … On a personal basis, I will say the [police-resident] relationship is non-existent in any positive light. Even people that have not committed any crimes have [reasons] to be afraid of the police because they know they don’t have to commit any crime before they are unnecessarily detained or extorted.”
A group of nurses, wearing white Edwardian-era clothing and sashes reading “Votes for Women,” demonstrate in New York City, New York, U.S., in 1913.
Mushin is ever buzzing; an area where the sound of traffic and people on crowded pavements dominates. According to the last available census from 2006, more than 600,000 people lived there, in an area about 17sq km (6.6sq miles) in size – and the population is thought to have spiralled upward since then.
The area is home to mostly lower-income earners working informal or blue-collar jobs, such as pavement vendors, in nearby markets, or at small artisanal businesses like printing shops and tailors; there are also some mid-level earners. Many people move to Mushin for the relatively cheap cost of living in the city, especially housing. The community boasts mostly tenement houses, popularly known as “face-me-as-I-face-you” houses with single rooms and shared toilets and kitchens. A room for rent usually costs between 3,000-6,000 naira ($8.1 – $16.2) a month.
Open gutters separate houses from the road, and there is ceaseless movement along the neighbourhood’s streets and alleyways. The roads are often riddled with potholes and puddles. On the sides of the streets are kiosks where one can buy everyday necessities from snacks to clothes. At night, the community comes alive with its increasing number of nightclubs, roadside beer parlours, and small kiosks selling locally brewed gin.
Mushin’s population is a majority young demographic, between 20 and 29 years old according to the latest census, and the big presence of area boys has earned it a reputation for violence and poverty.
“Growing up in Mushin myself, I know the neighbourhood is associated with violence and poverty, so when I tell people I am from Mushin they expect violent behaviour from me,” Obayomi told Al Jazeera.
He said there have only been some “minute changes” in social development in the area across the years, noting that there are roads that are still as bad today as they were when he was born in the 1990s.
“Mushin is a reflection of the rest of the country, basically. Take one step forward, take a few steps backward,” he said.
Obayomi feels the mental attitude other Lagosians have towards Mushin, one that has associated it with violence for decades, is also a reason why incidents there do not get as much attention – like the shooting on October 20 that was largely unreported compared with the shooting in Lekki on the same day.
“When people have become desensitised to hear violent news from this place, even when it became a matter that affected everyone outside of there, it has become second nature to accept violence and death just because their neighbourhood is regarded as ghetto. This is the mental attitude that contributed to the lack of priority in the media like in other places,” Obayomi said.
Enitan from MushinToTheWorld Foundation said, “We want to change the perception of our community because it should not only be known for its bad side.”
“There are so many good things here also. An average boy or girl in Mushin is a legendary hustler; they also make efforts towards their career development, skills acquisition, arts and crafts, digital UI/UX, music and many more,” he added.
According to Enitan, unlawful arrest or fear of the police is the common denominator among most people who live there. For many in Mushin, he said, the dream is to leave for more affluent areas, but only a few eventually get there in reality.
Fear of the police
When the #EndSARS protests kicked off in Nigeria in early October, it took more than a week for the demonstrations to reach Mushin. The major fear, residents told Al Jazeera, was that the police might come and round them up for protesting. Some residents said people feared it could get ugly because the historic tensions between the police and the residents, combined with the energy coursing through the country during that period, meant that a protest in Mushin was a recipe for disaster.
However, consciousness began spreading across the community and people started organising small protests which gradually garnered pace as the days went by. The protests peaked on October 20, a day that has now been etched in the memory of the community.
Lekki, where the more publicised police shooting took place that same evening and left more than a dozen people dead, was known as the protest hub of the #EndSARS movement in the city. Lekki is a more affluent district, adjoining other upper-class areas of Lagos including Ikoyi, the former settlement for colonial rulers, and Victoria Island, an exclusive area that has some of the most expensive real estates in Lagos.
By blocking the Lekki toll gate, a significant revenue-generating enterprise which is said to garner an estimated 10 million naira ($27,027) daily, the protesters brought financial strain and higher-than-normal traffic congestion down on the government. It was also a strategic move to bring the voices of protest to the residents of upper-class areas who do not experience the daily brutality of the police the way that residents of poorer areas, like Mushin, do.
And in Mushin, most people who experience police brutality do not have the means nor the social status to extricate themselves from unlawful actions that are used against them.
A traumatic encounter
Olawale*, who prefers that his real name not be used for fear of retribution from the police, is a father of three who owns a chair, table and canopy rental business in Mushin, where he also lives.
He uses the open space in front of his tenement house as a shop to keep the supplies he rents out. In April 2014, he was arrested there during a police raid in the area. This was on a Thursday following the Easter period, when the mood was still celebratory.
At about 11am, Olawale went out to move some canopies. Afterwards, he decided to sit and have a meal with his colleagues. That was when policemen from Olosan Police Station arrived and rounded them up. “They came in five vans,” Olawale said, although he could not recall how many policemen there were.
Unbeknownst to him, a factional clash between two different gangs had broken out in the area that Monday, so the police were there to conduct a raid against local gang members. Clashes between gangs are common in Mushin; however, groups are usually not organised into sophisticated associations, but loosely related by being in the same community, street, or political party.
“I did not pay attention to them (the police) because I had done nothing wrong,” Olawale said. “I was with my colleagues and they just came to harass us, asking us to enter their vans even when we had done nothing wrong.”
“We were three who were arrested on that spot but a lot of people were arrested. These people were just doing their work – welders, mechanics, tailors, printers. They did not even pick [up] the boys who had clashed,” he continued. The police, according to him, stopped people at their workplaces, or passersby, and dumped them in their vans.
“I told them I was the secretary of the chair rentals association [in that area] and I showed them my ID card. They collected it and threw it in the gutter and forced us into the vehicle.”
Olawale had no idea the incident would lead to him being shuttled between the police station, the court, and then the prison during the next four days. He was charged with being part of rioters, and faced the prospect of not being with his family for a long time.
“They drove us to their station and we were kept there. My wife who could run around to get people who could help secure my release, was not around that day. The next day, we were taken outside the station and they packed us into their vans again and drove us to a court,” he lamented.
“My family lawyer and another lawyer [for the rental association] tried to secure my bail that day because it was already a Friday and if the bail was not granted, I would have to spend the weekend in prison. But the judge who was on seat that day said she had a party to attend and was in a rush, so she could not sign the document.”
“The next thing, we were taken to Kirikiri prison (a maximum-security prison in Lagos) since the police could not hold us in their cell for the weekend,” he said, fidgeting and trying to push the memories of the prison from his mind. It was an ordeal for Olawale. But he said he knows routine arrests like this are part of the daily experience for many in Mushin.
Impact on vulnerable people
Omolara Oriye, a human right lawyer in Lagos, told Al Jazeera that such policing in lower-income areas like Mushin is expected.
“It is important to note when social issues like police brutality or any other major issue is wrecking a society, it has a higher impact on people who are most vulnerable,” she said in a phone interview.
“It is only normal they have a higher level of police brutality because they (the people) are not equipped” in terms of seeking justice, as they are unable to afford lawyers. Sometimes, they do not even know there is a solution, and many people have accepted police brutality as part of their lives, she said.
“This contributes to police concentrating their efforts in such areas because they know accountability is lower and they will not be held responsible [for their actions]. The conditions of low-income areas definitely lead to inability to resist such police behaviours.”
Even though Olawale is accustomed to the nature of policing in the area, he said he could not face the horror of going to prison for doing nothing. The incident was close to the most traumatic experience he had ever had, he said.
“[When we got to Kirikiri,] we shared our experiences on how we got there and that was where I knew that half the people in prison [in Nigeria] are innocent. There were people who were just picked off the road and they are suffering for nothing in the prison. Some of them just went to a viewing centre to watch a football match and they landed there,” he said.
“One of us that was arrested in that raid had his Nikkah (Islamic wedding ceremony) coming up the Sunday of that week. He had only gone out to look for a belt when he was picked up. He spent the day of his Nikkah in prison while his to-be pregnant wife did not know his whereabouts.”
Flawed justice system
“Interestingly, the issue of people awaiting trial in prison is much more than a policing issue, it is a failure of the entire system which is interrelated,” Omolara noted.
“If the policing is bad and the judicial system is clogged up with frivolous charges and other things that slow down the system, then it becomes a vicious cycle where innocent people are picked up on the street and the judicial system is unable to clear them.”
After that weekend, Olawale appeared in court on Monday with some others who could afford lawyers to represent them. He was hopeful the judge would let him leave, because of the unfair arrest and the “torture” he said he had seen in prison, which included beatings from other inmates.
“There was a secret phone among the prisoners where you [would] call your family to send a lot of airtime to avoid torture by the guards and other inmates who have been in prison for a long time,” he explained, saying that the airtime was currency in the prison and a way to bribe those who had more power so that you did not become a target.
“The first day we got there, we were beaten. So my wife kept sending a lot of airtime many times a day. That way, I got a VIP section,” he said, referring to the slightly more comfortable part of the large hall-like prison floor where prisoners who were given preferential treatment slept.
The phone, he said, belonged to a lifer who ruled the prison cells. “The airtime was sent to the number and the airtime is sold to the warders. I don’t know how their transaction goes,” he said. “In the prison, there is a hierarchy. There are people who have been there for a long time and they rule.”
In court that Monday, the judge struck out the charge against those present, citing gross misconduct from policemen from Olosan Police Station, according to Olawale.
“When the judge asked what happened, we told him that we were arrested on Thursday in a raid for a fight that happened on Monday. He got angry, banged the gavel and dismissed the case against us,” he said, motioning his fist to mimic the judge.
Six years later, those four days spent in confinement have stayed permanently with Olawale, who said he still has trauma from the experience. He said he does not allow his children outside, especially at night, because he fears any of them could be arrested for trumped-up charges.
“What they (the police) are doing is a very terrible thing,” he said.
Arrested multiple times
At his printing shop in Mushin, Patrick, who is in his late forties, said he is in support of the protests as long as they are organised. This despite his fear of things turning violent or of some area boys using the momentum as an excuse to commit crimes.
Like many in the area, he has his own stories about the police.
He recalled one night in March, shortly before the coronavirus lockdown began. Patrick was working a night shift at his old printing shop – a long rectangular-shaped outbuilding in front of a tenement house, with a caved-in roof and furniture in disrepair – which he lost because he was unable to cover the rent at the time.
At about 11pm, he said, he needed to urinate so closed his shop and went outside to a gutter in the adjacent street, to relieve himself. The neon glow of street lights illuminated the road and the nightclub nearby was still roaring, a typical feature of Mushin life. Then, a bus approached.
“[I was urinating when] I saw a bus approach where I was standing and before I knew it I saw two officers stand behind me and pushed me into their bus,” he told Al Jazeera. It was not the last time he would be arrested.
“They took me round [the streets] and arrested many other people. I remember that they tried to arrest two men who were walking down their street but one of them ran off and escaped. The other was picked up and [while struggling with them was] stabbed by one of the policemen.”
“That night also, they picked [up] a mentally ill person. When his family came in the morning and told the policemen that he has mental issues, one of the policemen said they should be happy because he has corrected his illness with a good slap,” he said.
Patrick said such arrests are common at night. It could be for anything: just walking down the street to get food, being at your workplace, or standing in front of your house, he said, an angry expression on his face as he sat on a long wooden bench in his new shop, one he shares on the benevolence of another printer.
After he and others were taken to the police station that night, they were put in a make-shift cell that was small and not appropriate for the number of people in it. “They kept us outside the cell in a place called the Surveillance Unit, we were packed like sardines. They switched off the light, it was blackout,” he said.
“They handcuffed us together, they handcuffed about three people together. If you complained that you want to ease yourself, they would not respond to you. If you complained too much, you would be beaten. They went out [on patrols] and brought people, they just kept bringing more people.”
Interview requests Al Jazeera sent to Lagos state’s Ministry of Justice requesting to speak with both the head of the Directorate for Citizens’ Rights and the local government chairman were declined.
The next morning, Patrick was allowed to make a call. He called the pastor of his church and at about 8am, the pastor arrived at the police station to secure his release.
“He (the pastor) came and negotiated with them for my bail. When he introduced himself as a pastor, one of the policemen quoted the Bible, he said settle your adversary before the adversary hands you over to the judge,” Patrick said. “At the end of the negotiation, he paid 4,000 naira ($10.81) for my bail.”
Section 27 of the Police Act stipulates that any person arrested without a warrant must be offered bail within a reasonable amount of time, usually 24 hours. A suspect will have to abide by certain conditions before they are released, but this “administrative bail” is free of charge under Nigerian law.
However, despite this, many say the police do not always follow that specification and some try and extort money from suspects. In Mushin, bail is usually between 3,000 naira ($8.1) and 10,000 naira ($27) depending on the location of the arrest and what the person was doing at the time, residents told Al Jazeera. This amount is far more than many people there earn in a single day.
Recalibrate the police
On October 11, nine days before the shooting, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the total disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. However, the announcement has met cynicism on the streets, where protesters remained.
In response, protesters came up with a list of five demands that should be met before they left the streets. Similar announcements had been used by the government four times in the past four years to quell the growing call for police reform.
With the trust between the government and the people broken, Omolara believes only a rethinking of the way the police force works can solve the problem, especially for people on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.
“There is a need to recalibrate the police. We all know that the police [force] in Nigeria is as a result of colonial rule and they used the police to suppress the people. Now, there is a need to recalibrate what policing really means in a society that is supposed to be free and equal,” she told Al Jazeera.
“These policemen are the products of the society where they are born – their training and the way they work. We have to empower the people and change the way policing is done. This must be done if we are to change the way police behave in low-income areas.”
Patrick witnessed the shooting in Mushin. As he watched the confrontation between the area boys and the police, anger filled up inside him.
He, like most of the residents whom Al Jazeera spoke to, condemned the confrontation and blamed the police for not defusing the situation.
The incident also left a worse mark on the community, as the area boys later visited their anger on a police outpost and a building owned by a senator who represents Mushin at the Senate.
The days that followed reeked of tension. The streets leading to the station were blocked off to repel another attack and residents who needed to pass through the area were forced to take longer routes to where they were heading.
“Their response was a disgrace, it did not portray [the police force in the] country well. It was a show of shame,” Patrick says about the police.