Scars: Reflecting on the physical and emotional effects of police brutality in Nigeria


COLORS showcases exceptional talent from all around the globe, focused on the most distinctive new artists and original sounds.


Scars: Reflecting on the physical and emotional effects of police brutality in Nigeria

Ozzy Etomi is a writer and brand consultant, and founding member of Feminist Coalition, a Nigerian organization that was at the forefront of the End SARS movement. In this article, she reflects on Nigeria’s history of police brutality, spotlights the stories of survivors who have been left with physical and emotional scars, and questions what the future holds for the people of Nigeria in line with the country’s upcoming presidential elections.

One of the most well-known Landmarks in Lagos is the Lekki-Ikoyi bridge. A cable-stayed bridge connecting the affluent area of Ikoyi to Lekki over an expanse of the Lagos lagoon, it is popularly featured in the opening b-roll sequence of numerous Nollywood films. On either end of the bridge there are police check-points where, at night, policemen on duty create barricades and stand menacingly with rifles and torchlights. Supposedly, they check each car that passes for safety measures. In reality, each time a car crosses these checkpoints, or any of the others—both legal and illegal—that are scattered arbitrarily around the city, the driver endures a breath-holding, heart pounding moment as their mind races, unsure of what to expect. Will the officers be drunk? Belligerent? Aggressive? Unreasonable? Impatient as they try to squeeze money out of you? Or will this be one of the lucky days that you get to pass by without incident?

The bridge was also the setting for another landmark moment in Nigerian history, the infamous night of October 20th 2020. It was a night of untold and unspeakable horrors, when Nigerian soldiers attacked young civilians during the EndSARS protest, and angry protesters set fire to both the VI and Ikoyi toll gates in retaliation.

The historic protest, which began about 2 weeks prior to that night, was a mass decentralized youth protest across Nigeria against the rising onslaught of police brutality against civilians.  It was an urgent call to disband the notorious “SARS” unit, a special anti-robbery squad notorious for injustice. Even before this protest, the Nigerian people have had a long and acrimonious relationship with the police force. For years, the police have acted with impunity, arrested citizens at whim, imposed illegal fines,extorted money, raped women, profiled young people for how they looked, and, if they were suspected to belong to the LGBTQ+ community, assaulted, beat, and maimed citizens, leaving them with irreparable emotional and sometimes physical scars.

Temi Shonekan** is a survivor of police brutality. Ten years ago, he was caught in the crossfire between police shooting at unarmed vehicle drivers from the neighboring country of Cotonou. “It’s something I don’t really like to remember,” he says. The incident left him with a scarred leg.“When I look at my right leg, everything is the way God created it, but when I look at how badly scarred my left leg is, I feel so unhappy. I no longer wear shorts, I don’t feel relaxed, I can’t cross my legs. Anyone who walks behind me always wants to know: ‘what happened to this person?’ It didn’t happen because I got into trouble, it happened because I live in a country where the police don’t know their job.”

“This didn’t happen not because I got into trouble, it happened because I live in a country where the police don’t know their job.”

One night when Lolu**, another survivor, a student, left a lecture at a university campus in Edo state and was profiled by the police, “I was young, naïve, and carefree at the time. I didn’t take the situation seriously”. He and a few other male students were accosted by a group of policemen who had been hanging around outside the campus grounds. “They began questioning us. I showed them my ID as proof that I was a student. They searched all of us. One of the guys had weed on him. They immediately tried to arrest us all and take us to the station. That’s when things got physical. They beat us with their bats, guns, and fists. I was bleeding on my chest. They took us to the station and I was there for 2 days before I was released. I still have the scar on my chest. My only crime was being a student and leaving my lecture at night.”

As chilling as it sounds, Temi and Lolu are two of the lucky few to encounter police brutality and make it out alive. At the recent Lekki protest, family and friends of deceased victims came forward to recount the stories of those they had lost and the horrors of police wards such as the unit in Awkwuzu Anambra, one of the most notorious SARS offices. Many young men have entered the unit to never be seen again. It’s even rumored that their bodies get dumped in the river.

Women are not exempt from experiencing a similar fate at the hands of the police. In 2019, there were reports of policemen carrying out raids at nightclubs in Abuja and arresting women on fabricated allegations of prostitution. Some of these victims later accused the police of physically assaulting and raping them while in detainment, and extorting money from them before they were released.

Mariam’s* run in with the police changed her entire life. She was caught in the crossfire between the police and an angry mob, and fell off a motorbike after her driver collided with an incoming car due to being blinded by teargas. “I saw my shattered bones on the floor. It took a bit over 2 years of my life before I could walk again. I had to stop school. My entire life was on pause during this period.” In Nigeria, people are accustomed to these sorts of occurrences happening with no responsibility being assumed by any party, even one in public office. “My mum and I struggled to get together the money to afford the treatments and surgeries. No one ever helped us, there was no one to hold accountable for my accident. Today I have one curved leg and one straight leg. Just the fact I can stand and walk is a miracle.”

“We thought something would be done about this, but despite the judicial hearings, nothing ever happened.”

Blessing** had her face permanently scarred after a brief encounter with the police. She woke up in hospital after pleading with the police to let her and her fiancée go when they were stopped on their way to church. “All our documents were in order, but they were insisting they weren’t,” she says. “I begged them to let us go. My next memory was waking up in the hospital. Every time I see the scar, I feel very emotional. I wish I never got out of the car, but I feared something worse could have happened if I didn’t, and that they could have killed my fiancée. I wish something could be done about fishing out the bad eggs in the police force.”

That wish was echoed by the hopeful youth participating in the peaceful End SARS protests. On October 11, 2020, the Nigerian government ordered an immediate dissolution of the unit. For a brief euphoric moment, it felt like a triumph. But reports continued to flood in on SARS sightings, and as the protests demanding police reform carried on, protesters continued to be assaulted and illegally arrested at various protest sites.

“We attended the End SARS protest in Allen, Ikeja,” says one of our sources. “The area was getting rowdy and there was a lot of traffic. The policemen were yelling at us and saying that we were causing a disruption. The protesters continued to stand their ground. The police got aggressive: they started pushing and hitting us. One policeman I was standing close to cut me deeply when he hit me with the rusty mouth of his gun. I was bleeding and he simply looked away. The wound took a long time to heal. They showed absolutely no concern. Since then, I can’t be convinced that any policeman in the Nigerian force is good.”

That sentiment was felt very strongly on the fateful night of the Lekki massacre. Eye witness accounts spoke of that evening being like every other; the youth peacefully standing their ground at the toll gate that separated Lekki from VI, the central hub of the protests in Lagos, when all of a sudden soldiers began shooting at innocent protesters.  Civilians who lived in the area spoke of what seemed like the endless sound of bullets in the air and accompanying screams. The incident was infamously live streamed on Instagram, where many of us watched in disbelief. Of all the expected outcomes, it was one most of us never saw coming, despite the dire warnings of the older generation who had tried and failed before us.

“The Nigerian people are making it clear that we are ready to back any candidate who is listening and taking real action.”

“I was at the protest grounds with my brothers and his friends, we were vibing,” says Tunji Daniels*, recalling that terrifying night. “Suddenly we saw people running. My brother’s friend fell to the floor, he had been shot and was bleeding. We couldn’t stop to pick him up, we had to keep running. I kept looking back at him as we ran, hoping he would stand up, contemplating running back to pick him up. Then suddenly, I ran into a sharp object that pierced my tummy. We struggled to get it out and managed to run to our friend’s house where we explained everything to his mother. She still blames us for his death. I spent a week in the hospital. My injury has stopped me from doing many things I love, like playing football. I’m not allowed to do any strenuous activities. My brother is still traumatized. He witnessed his friend gunned down before his eyes. We thought something would be done about this, but despite the judicial hearings, nothing ever happened.”

Shortly after the protests, the Lagos state government set up a six-month long Judicial panel of inquiry to investigate individual cases of police brutality, and later extended it by 3 months to investigate the night of October 20, 2022, despite the government’s adamant denial of the incident occurring in the first place. While about 71 out of 255 cases were awarded monetary compensation after judgment, the report of the investigation of the shootings claimed that at least 46 unarmed protesters were either shot dead, injured with bullets, or assaulted by security forces at the Lekki Tollgate on October 20. The panel said it found the death toll to be 9, while 33 others were shot at, wounded, and assaulted on the night of the incident. Witness accounts claim that these numbers are much higher.

“My injury has stopped me from doing many things I love, like playing football. I’m not allowed to do any strenuous activities. My brother is still traumatized.”

The Federal Government shunned the report, and continues to act like that night never took place. They allegedly harass, threaten, and victimize anyone who attempts to publicly speak about it, including the judicial panel members.

Some would argue the entire End SARS movement was in vain, and that many lives were lost, people displaced, and survivors traumatized or put behind bars with no clear achievements to show for their efforts. Others claim we made the government sit up, that we showed them the collective power of the youth, and what’s possible when we are all united for the same cause. One year after October 20, 2020, the government announced the re-opening of the toll gates where shootings had taken place. Again, the youth marched peacefully, protesting the callousness of a government that had not yet acknowledged its wrongdoing. Despite threats and heavy police presence, the toll gates continue to be inoperative. Does this mean that the government has started to pay attention? That remains to be seen. As it stands today, there is no marked improvement on the behavior of the police. It’s even been rumored that the SARS officers were simply re-distributed into other sections of the force. As presidential elections loom in 2023, the Nigerian people are making it clear that we are ready to back any candidate who is listening and taking real action. Our fate is dependent on it.

This article was written as part of COLORS’ editorial coverage in line with a recent production period in Lagos, Nigeria in Spring 2022. Head over to our YouTube channel to watch the shows we produced with Nigerian artists, or to our editorial platform to read more articles about the Lagos skate scene, photojournalist Yagazie Emezi, or the founder of ART X Lagos, West Africa’s first contemporary art fair.

Text: Ozzy Etomi
Production: Dawasuya
Scouting: Ademola Eshinlokun


Open Player

This website uses cookies. By using this website and its content you accept these cookies.