A Federal High Court in Abuja has ordered Nigeria’s Central Bank to unfreeze the bank accounts of  twenty #EndSARS supporters, who had been protesting nationwide police brutality.  

The freeze on bank accounts was one of several measures employed by authorities to suppress protests, which began in October 2020, calling for the disbandment of an abusive police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) as well as  general police reform. Security forces also responded with excessive force by firing teargas, water cannons, and live ammunition at protesters

People hold banners and flags as they protest against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, Monday Oct. 19, 2020. © AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

Days after the protests began the Central Bank of Nigeria instructed private banks to freeze the accounts of several organizations and individuals to stop the flow of funds used to provide water, food, medical care and other essentials for protesters.

Although Nigerian law requires the Central Bank governor to obtain a court order stating that an account’s transactions may involve criminal activity before freezing it, this process was not followed. Instead, the Central Bank arbitrarily froze the accounts in the heat of the protests in October and belatedly obtained a court order to justify its actions in November.

During the court hearing this week, the lawyer representing the Central Bank did not provide further information on why it had frozen the accounts, and simply stated that the Central Bank Governor had decided not to apply to extend the orderin the spirit of reconciliation.

By freezing bank accounts during the protests, the Central Bank prevented many of the protesters  from supporting themselves for over three months. Some of them told Human Rights Watch about the difficulties they faced in trying to sustain themselves, their families and their businesses during this period.

While the unfreezing of the bank accounts is a welcome step, the actions of the Central Bank during the #EndSARS protests indicates a wider problem of impunity which threaten citizens’ rights. An investigation into the decision to freeze the accounts should be carried out and any officials found responsible for abusing power and infringing due process  should be held accountable.