Nigeria continues to convulse in angry protests over allegations that at least 12 people were killed by security forces at a toll gate in Lagos on October 20. They were taking part in the EndSARS protests against Nigeria’s notoriously violent Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
Countless videos of the Lekki massacre have been uploaded online. More than 100,000 people witnessed the slow, agonising death of a young Nigerian in real-time on Instagram. Subsequent footage of young Nigerians suffering from gunshot wounds inflicted by the armed forces have reinforced the message of the EndSARS protesters – that Nigeria is a country where people are killed for peacefully protesting the killing of protesters. A tragic irony.
The day after the shootings, Nigeria’s Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to conduct a prompt investigation into reports of the Nigerian government’s intimidation and killings of EndSARS protesters. The ICC’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, said she was “keeping a close eye on developments”.
In light of the overwhelming global response to the Lekki massacre, and because of the wealth of digital evidence, the Nigerian government is at serious risk of being investigated internationally for what happened.
History of violence
It’s relatively common for armed forces to open fire on peaceful protesters in Nigeria. Only two years ago, the Guards Brigade opened fire on protesters belonging to the Islamic Movement in Nigeria (IMN) in Abuja. The US State Department reported that 39 people were killed, and at least 100 were injured as a result of the shooting.
There are many similarities between the shootings of October 2018 and those of October 2020. Peaceful protesters were barricaded, armed forces fired live rounds into crowds of civilians indiscriminately, continuing to do so even as civilians retreated.
But reactions to both massacres have been markedly different. The IMN was portrayed by the government as violent, with its goals equated to those of the militant Boko Haram sect. The government justified the hard-handed response of Nigeria’s armed forces within the overarching narrative of a war against a distant, terrible and uncompromising enemy of the state.
The government controlled the flow of information regarding the 2018 incident, and as a result, the popular narrative. It opened an internal investigation into the incident but did not publish its findings, and no military or police were held accountable.
In contrast, the Lekki massacre was carried out in one of the most affluent, densely populated neighbourhoods in the country. This time, the victims could not be labelled as “terrorists”. They were young city-dwellers. Lagos is a commercial hub populated with tech-savvy, enterprising individuals. So it comes as no surprise that the user-generated coverage of the massacre was unprecedented in Nigeria’s history.
The nature of the alleged actions of the Nigerian security forces fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC. There are substantive reasons to investigate whether crimes against humanity were committed under the court’s Rome Statute, including crimes of murder, outrages upon personal dignity and intentional attacks against civilians.
The ICC has previously noted that Nigerian authorities have hindered the prosecution of crimes when their own security forces are involved. Under the terms of the ICC, because the Nigerian government is alleged to be complicit in what happened at Lekki and would arguably be unable or unwilling to prosecute those responsible, the international court would have grounds to investigate.
Digital evidence could be damning
Until now, the Nigerian government has relied on a three-part strategy of oppression: stifling information flows about its repressive acts against citizens, a crippled judicial system and a monopoly of the use of armed violence to maintain control. This could explain the past confidence of Nigerian armed forces to threaten, kill and even fail to dispose of the physical evidence of their actions.
But that’s where the government made a critical error of judgement at the Lekki toll gate. Violently engaging a peaceful movement which relied on a real-time uninterrupted flow of information about its goals and activities was at odds with the three-part strategy. It should have been apparent to the government that it would not be possible to stifle what took place.
It’s increasingly common for international criminal investigations to rely on open-source intelligence to identify, document and verify human rights atrocities by using publicly available social media content. Any investigation would also need to look for physical evidence and first-hand testimonies to corroborate digital evidence.
Taken together, these factors not only neutralise Nigeria’s three-part strategy of oppression, but minimise its leeway to evade ICC jurisdiction.
The Lekki massacre was conducted in view of a global ecosystem of credible digital forensic experts, and at a time when the ICC has already demonstrated its willingness to rely on open-source information. The admissibility of digital evidence emerging from the scenes of the Lekki massacre at the ICC is more probable than ever before. If these videos satisfy the three tests of relevance, probative value and absence of prejudicial effect, they could be used to prosecute a case against government officials.
The government is slowly coming to terms with this realisation. The Nigerian army has been frantically trying to regain control of the narrative. The day before the violence in Lagos, it had launched operation Crocodile Smile, an annual exercise to, “Identify, track and counter negative propaganda in the social media and across the cyberspace”.
Although the Lagos State government has promised to investigate the Lekki shootings, the accusatory denial by the army shows a realisation it might not get away with a massacre in the age of desktop sleuths.