October 20th, 2020 has become a date in our history as a nation that reminds us a lot of unsavoury events that shook the very foundation of our national cohesion. However, the events of October 20 was a direct consequence of a near-nationwide protest triggered by a false news posted on the social media by Malcolm Nicholas from Ughelli in Delta State.
In the video posted by Malcolm Nicholas, he falsely stated that operatives of the then Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) dragged a man named Joshua Ambrose from a moving SUV, shot and killed him, which according to him led to people around the area in Ughelli where the incident occurred attempting to mob the security operatives.
The outrage generated by the Malcolm video narrative sparked an almost instantaneous protest across many parts of southern Nigeria with Lagos quickly becoming the epicentre. The protest gained widespread and non-partisan support at the beginning because of the experience of many Nigerians with the brutality of the Nigerian police especially the SARS unit.
The #EndSARS protests then gained a life of its own and became a rallying call to end police brutality and extrajudicial killings that had become endemic in Nigeria. The primary demand was the disbanding of the SARS unit many have come to see as synonymous with brutality. Many emergency police reform activists sprung up in the wake of the protests. Celebrities soon joined the movement and others who maintained silence were bullied to join too.
However, before I continue it is necessary to quickly point out how the #ENDSARS protest of October 8, 2020 all started with a single fake news from Malcolm Nicholas.
Operatives of a Delta State government sponsored joint security taskforce known as Operation Delta Safe comprising the military, police and other security agencies were on a routine patrol around Ughelli when they came across a Lexus SUV. On the sighting the approaching patrol team, the occupants of the SUV quickly engaged the reverse gear in an attempt to escape and evade the joint security team’s scrutiny.
This aroused the suspicion of the patrol team as the incident occurred in an area that had witnessed a series of kidnapping, which necessitated the setting up of the joint security patrols in the first place. Unknown to the driver of the Lexus SUV, Operation Delta Safe patrol teams move in pairs because of the volatility of the area.
The patrol team coming from behind subsequently intercepted the escaping vehicle and arrested the two male occupants. The suspects were then moved into the patrol vehicle while a police officer drove the suspects’ vehicle to the Ughelli Police Station to commence investigation.
However, on their way to the police station, one of the suspects, Joshua Ambrose jumped out of the moving patrol vehicle and sustained bruises on his head and body. The patrol team stopped to attend to the situation, but the incidence of someone jumping out of a moving patrol vehicle attracted angry residents to the scene immediately and the patrol team were about to be mobbed and had to tactically retreat to prevent possible violence.
It was during this encounter that Malcolm Nicholas who was at the scene recorded the incident and uploaded it on social media with a false tag that SARS operatives had just shot someone dead at Ughelli, Delta state. The false news soon went viral and inflamed national passion, which eventually formed the rallying point for the protest.
As the protests to end police brutality and disband SARS gained a fierce momentum due to the widespread support it enjoyed especially from the Southern part of the country where SARS activities were more pronounced, the federal government moved to find a solution by first disbanding the SARS unit, which was the primary demand of the protesters.
FG in addition moved to engage the activists at the forefront of the protest to a dialogue to chart the way forward for a comprehensive reforms with a passionate plea by the government for protesters to get off the streets and allow for a return to normalcy so that true reforms can begin. Alas the protests had metamorphosed into a different phase with a new agenda of “ending bad governance” and for some, “ending the APC government”.
It soon became glaring that unpatriotic elements had hijacked the protests clandestinely and wanted to use the pretext of mass anger over perennial police brutality to effect a total breakdown of law and order, target perceived political opponents and possibly effect a change of government. Ironically, Lagos, a state with relatively low record of police brutality and certainly no record of extrajudicial killing by the SARS unit or the police force, became the center of anger of the protesters.
The most notorious SARS units, the Awkuzu SARS and Neni SARS units in Anambra State was not getting enough outrage. Fake news started flying around on a massive scale that fueled more deadly protests. Police stations, prisons and government properties became targets of arson. Protesters mobbed any police officer they could lay their hands on. Some roasted and ate police officers.
A systematic curfew imposed by many state governments were obeyed to a greater degree. However, in Lagos the epicenter, many protesters defied the imposed curfew and instead continued their blockade of the Lekki tollgate and the Lagos-Ibadan expressway. The military’s attempt to enforce the curfew at the Lekki tollgate through firing of empty shells of ammunition led to a bizarre accusation of massacre against the military in a well-orchestrated plan to bring Lagos and Nigeria to its knees.
For a moment, it appeared as if the unseen hands were succeeding. Lagos was literally burnt to ground by irate mob who believed that tens of protesters were killed by soldiers at the Lekki tollgate courtesy of a video by DJ Switch which never showed any single incident of death. Some other hired agents were equally unleashed on Lagos with the sinister intention to cripple Lagos. Assets they feel belonged to Asiwaju Bola Ahmed Tinubu or his allies were targeted specifically. An insurrection was well on its way. However, the resilience of Lagos and Nigeria withstood the attempts.
Three years down the line, it is sad to see that fake news, which was the immediate cause of an event that nearly crippled Nigeria is still a growing monster. Fake news was nurtured to an imaginable proportion in the build up to the 2023 general elections and the aftermath. Merchants of fake news, misinformation and disinformation are increasingly regarded by many as bearers of truth and sometimes, heroes.
If the events of 2020 #ENDSARS has taught us a lesson, it should be the fact that one man, Malcolm Nicholas, through a click of fingers on his smartphone brought Nigeria to a halt momentarily and threatened the existence of the country because of the spillon effect of a clear fake news. This fact needs to be properly ingrained into the psyche of Nigerians as what fake news and the spontaneous reaction to fake news can lead to.