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16.02.2021 EndSARS Watch Nigeria Police Force Area C Command: A Death Squad in Surulere, Lagos

Published 16th Feb, 2021

By Socrates Mbamalu

Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour ~1 Peter 5:8

Why should those who died before their time be forgotten? ~Pablo Neruda, The Chosen Ones

Kareem Rasheed, popularly called Experience, was shot by the police of Area C Command on the one-year anniversary of his wedding engagement.


On October 21, 2020, barely 24 hours after the Nigerian Army and Nigeria Police Force had fired live bullets on #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate in what has come to be known as the Lekki Massacre, the Nigeria Police prowled the streets of Surulere, Lagos.

A curfew had been announced by the Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, on October 20, a date that has come to bear more if not equal significance to June 12 Democracy Day, leaving the streets of Lagos mostly empty. Videos circulated all over social media showing what looked like a civil war simulation. Men of the Nigeria Police Force from Area C Command at Surulere hunted down residents who lived around Barracks, and patted one another on the back when they shot down a young man.

THE FOOD THEY PROBABLY SHOULDN’T HAVE LOOKED FOR

In another video, a group of young boys, barely 16, were filmed crying as they carried their brother who had been shot by the police. They had all gone to eat and the police had chased them. What had started as a quiet morning had degenerated into chaos. Gunshots rented the air. Blood flowed. Families lost loved ones. And communities were traumatized. It was as if the whole country was undergoing a forced exorcism and was forced to watch it.

That day, few people walked down their streets looking for food, or catching up with friends. Some met to discuss the political climate of the country. Others debated whether Bola Ahmed Tinubu, a former Lagos State governor and political godfather, had really fled the country. Tinubu would later surface up the media, asserting himself, “I am still a Jagaban.”

It was in the midst of all these that Kareem Rasheed, also known as Experience, a former footballer whose dreams to play professionally were cut short not due to lack of talent but as a result of the country he was born into, left his house to meet up with some of his friends. He was popular in the community and had grown up there.

It was past 7am and the streets were filled with curious bystanders who had sighted the Nigeria Police in full gear at Area C, Barracks, in Surulere. The gathered residents wondered why the police had blocked the expressway and created a barricade. There was no reason for the power display. No violence had erupted and no one had attacked the police.

Kunle had seen his friend Experience, and crossed the road to meet him. Both men had known each other since childhood. They played football together as young boys and while Kunle retired because of injuries, Experience retired when age was no longer on his side, eventually becoming a driver and selling cars. As the two men chit-chatted, they started hearing gunshots and decided to go further inside the streets where they would be safer. Other friends joined them and they all decided to go in search of food. They reasoned that they were not near the expressway and there was no way the police would go hunting down peaceful people who resided in the community.

“We were like 13 that day that went to eat,” Kunle told FIJ.

INSTANT DEATH

The gunshots had by this time become more frequent, prompting those who had hoped to make brisk business to shut down their shops. After eating, the friends sat in front of Experience’s house, still buoyed by further conversation. Hamdalat, Experience’s fiancée, was inside the house and helped charge the phones of those with low batteries. She was a month pregnant and was marking a year of wedding engagement. Due to lack of money, she and Experience were unable perform a full Islamic wedding and instead opted for a small version.

After a while, Experience left with Kunle to meet with a friend whom they ended up not seeing. With people just eating, drinking and chatting to while away time, the two friends joined in with some others close to a shop. Kunle was leaning on a wall in front of Experience who was leaning on a pole. Both men were talking when a gunshot rang out.

When I met Kunle he showed me where he was and how he and Experience were positioned. Contrary to what I’d heard, the bullet did not hit Experience on the forehead. It pierced the side of his head and went out into the pole he was leaning on. Blood oozed from his head as he lay lifeless. It was an instant death.

Everyone first ran away before they regrouped to make sense of what had happened. They became unconsolable as they debated on what to do with his body. For a while, the only response they had was disbelief. No one touched his body.

DEFENCELESS RIGHT BEFORE THE PUBLIC DEFENDER

Experience was 42 years old when he died. Close to where the police killed him was the Office of Public Defender (OPD) whose vision statement reads: to safeguard the fundamental human rights and freedom of the vulnerable and disadvantaged groups.

When I went to the street where he died wearing a purplish vest and shorts, some men were gathered, and naturally their attention turned to the bullet hole on the iron pole. And their conversation drifted to the day they were just eating, drinking and talking while observing the curfew. One of the men said he was walking towards Experience when he heard a gunshot and saw Experience’s body slide down the pole. “He didn’t hit the ground immediately.”

They had just been talking about Experience before I came. And when they remembered that day, they immediately sank into deep sadness. The question of justice had been quietened down. Nigeria is not a place where you got justice if the police killed you. What would justice even look like? All the anger they had from that day had dissipated into frustration and resignation. Mostly they would snigger at the phrase, “police is your friend”. It was a phrase that seemed to capture the constant state of contradiction the country was embedded in.

“I was here, he was there,” said one man pointing to where he was when Experience was killed. “We were not violent, we were not doing anything. Just talking. Some other people were at that other side drinking and everything was peaceful and calm.” The anger in his voice carries with it a mark of grief.

The distance between where Experience was shot and the Ikorodu express road was more than 200 metres. Kunle told me, “look at where we are standing, can you see how far it is from the Area C Command?”

Like the way many lives are lost in Nigeria, the death of Experience didn’t make sense. That morning, Experience had visited the mother of one of his friends who is the ward councillor of the area. She was like a mother to him. Because Experience was an orphan, she took Experience as her own son. It was barely five minutes after Experience had left her house that she heard he had died.

“Rasheed that I just saw now? He just left me now. What is all these?” She questioned, agitated. She was 84 years old and she went into a shock. Few days later, she passed away. A banner with her picture was still on display in front of her house.

The #EndSARS protests, which took place nationwide and internationally, were focused on police brutality by men of the Nigeria Police, a specific squad called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) which had been banned over five times and has now been replaced with a new unit, SWAT.

The changing of wrappers and not the content, as a solution to social and economic problems, is one that the Nigerian government has perfected. When the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), the national power distributor, changed its name to Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), comedians joked that from Never Expect Power Always, the new acronym meant Problem Has Changed Name. The problem remained but the name was changed.

A FEW MINUTES JOURNEY, NOW FOREVER

A day before Christmas I found Hamdalat who had just finished plaiting the hair of a young girl in preparation for Christmas Day. She offered me a stool and sat opposite me. She met Experience through a mutual friend. They started chatting and talking and started dating. The morning that Experience died, she had asked him to stay indoors. She said the police that shot Experience were from Area C Command. Since his death, she had been indoors.

“They didn’t let me see his body,” she told FIJ.

When she speaks about Experience, it gets to a point where she buries her face into her hands. She doesn’t cry. She tries very hard not to cry. And she doesn’t maintain eye contact with me. I feel I have resurrected something she would wish to let go.

The community reacted with a lot of questions: Why did the police have to shoot into the streets when the confrontation that was taking place was on the expressway? What kind of policemen were these who shot despite knowing the people in the area?

“I am just managing. Life is not that easy. You know when the person you have been together with is no more, and it’s only you, you’ll just be thinking, your mind will be going up and down, stressing up,” Hamdalat says.

She hums a tune and a silence settles between us, interrupted by a crowing cock. “He went outside I told him to come inside and he said he’s coming I should give him some few minutes.”

From those I spoke to, they said she was one month pregnant, and now she had lost the baby. While searching for the victims of police brutality that happened on the 21st of October, it seemed one survivor knew another survivor. And the response from their representatives was the same: come around or make a call, and throw some petty cash while appearing concerned.

When I asked her if any government official paid her a visit Hamdalat said Desmond Elliot came to her house. “He by himself with some boys and he came to tell me that they are really sorry for what happened and I should take heart. And gave me some money.”

Desmond Elliot had earlier sent someone to come and give her money and on the day he paid a visit to her house he gave her N30,000. But since that day she has heard nothing.

The common trend established that replaces justice is giving out money. In a way it is meant to stop any further questions of justice and an act to appear to the people around that something was done.

Hamdalat explained that Experience never participated in protests or anything of those sorts. He would advise the boys outside to come inside whenever they were done protesting so as not to be shot with stray bullets by the police. The reaction to his advice was usually laughter and a general consensus that the police couldn’t shoot at them.

A CHOICE BETWEEN THE PARTY AND A FRIEND

The Ward Councillor who grew up with Experience, I sense, is caught between loyalty to party, and the loss of his mother and his friend. Both deaths, indirect consequences of a failed state governor and president. Both deaths, traumatizing. But still he tells me: “Our Right Honourable Speaker, he did a lot because he sent some delegates. You know from Abuja he can’t be everywhere. We know what he is going through there so he sent some delegates to the family. Even from the honorable assembly the Honourable Desmond Elliot, he showed his own impact as well. Likewise what the local government chairman also did, he is the one that gave us money for the burial because we bought a vault at Atan Cemetery.” An eighth day prayer was held for Experience.

Another witness told FIJ that Desmond Elliot’s visit came after three weeks. The first time Elliot had tried visiting Hamdalat, he had gone to the Area C police command to get police escorts but was told that his security could not be guaranteed.

Desmond Elliot called a stakeholders meeting at Surulere Local Government and invited the Area C Commander. The youths from the community attended the meeting and expressed their grievances.

“I believe our representative is aware of what is happening because he is the one that called the stakeholders meeting. I believe he would do the needful,” the councillor says.

“What should the needful be,” I ask him.

“Justice,” he says.

“What is justice to you?”

FINDING THE KILLER COP

Beneath the loyalty is a pain he doesn’t much express. He agrees that the community is traumatized. And he misses his mother. When I ask him what justice means to him in this case where his friend was killed by the police, he refers to the judicial panel of inquiry that was set up in Lagos State. I push him again to define what justice means to him devoid of political loyalty.

“Can the policeman who shot your friend be found out? Is that not part of justice?” I ask him.

“Yes if they wanted to do it they can find him out.”

When I spoke to Kunle in December, it had been a bit over two months since he witnessed his friend’s death. He is still traumatized. He tells me he can’t stay outside past 8pm and he is just getting better. He didn’t want to see the video of his friend and he couldn’t keep the video on his phone. He would breakdown if he saw the video.

“I am just trying to cope,” he says. “After then if you see me, I wasn’t able to sleep. If I hear the sound of anything I’ll be shaking. Even when I am in the mosque praying I would be thinking that maybe someone wants to shoot me on my head. I can’t lie to you. All my friends were telling me to take heart. The incident happened in my presence.”

Any loud sound that sounds like a gunshot startles him. Immediately he is done praying from the mosque around 8pm or 9pm, he stays indoors. He tells FIJ that when he hears the sound of firecrackers he sometimes thinks it’s a gunshot. The festive season which came with loud banging sounds of firecrackers put him on edge.

Still, justice is yet to be defined in a country where the police kill protesters who try to hold them accountable for their actions. It points to a larger problem of accountability the country has been battling with.

Editor’s Note: Some names have been changed or unmentioned for safety concerns

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Published 16th Feb, 2021

By Socrates Mbamalu

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