The African country of Nigeria is facing one of its biggest protests with the End SARS – Special Anti-Robbery Squad – movement. For weeks, citizens of the country are bombarding the streets demanding the disbandment and total reformation of the police. Hundreds of people have been killed and wounded in the concurrent clash that has attracted international condemnation. Here’s what went down in Nigeria at the #EndSARS protest.
What is SARS
Created in 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of Nigeria were formed ‘to combat an epidemic of violent crime including robberies, carjackings and kidnappings.’ The SARS was deployed as a variant of Nigeria Police Force specifically to curb the high rate of rampant robberies occurring in the early 1990s in Lagos and Southern Nigeria.
With fifteen patrolling undercover officers and two unmarked station wagons, the SARS – under the leadership of Police officer Simeon Danladi Midenda, was initially successful in eradicating the armed robbers and bandits. After ten years, the SARS spread its operations in thirty-six other states including Nigeria’s Federal Capital Territory – Abuja, and continued to ‘arrest, investigate and prosecute suspected armed robbers, murderers, kidnappers, hired assassins and other suspected violent criminals.’
Years later when Nigerians were still neck-deep in poverty, thousands of unemployed youths were trying to make ends meet by indulging in internet fraud. Popularly known as the “Yahoo Boys”, the fraudsters conducted online scamming and phishing, looting thousands of dollars worth of money from Nigerians and foreigners who then bought expensive phones, cars, clothes etc. The SARS officers profiled rich youths donned in luxury as Yahoo Boys suspects.
As the economy of Nigeria escalated in the past decade, it invariantly increased the number of people who owned expensive gadgets, attires and cars. The officers of the SARS targetted these people based on past suspicions and are noted to harassed them with ‘extrajudicial executions, torture, and other ill-treatment, rape and extortion’ including More recently, the officers picked on well-to-do people wearing clothes or having hairstyles they didn’t approve of.
An activist in conversation with the BBC said, “If Sars see you as a young person who is successful with a nice car, they will harass you and extort money from you.”
The Start of #EndSARS and Why People Are Protesting
The #EndSARS movement gained huge traction on social media after a video of SARS officers allegedly killing a man in southern Delta State went viral on 3rd October. Soon, the online activism shifted to the streets of Nigeria as young protesters flooded Lagos and other regions demanding the disbandment of SARS altogether.
Tracing the origin, the online movement can be dated back to 2017 against the notorious and Nigeria’s most hated SARS. The hashtag was used to record appalling instances and experiences of the people which included “hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions, and sexual violence.” Amnesty International reports ‘82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS’ between January 2017 to May 2020.
“Even though many Nigerians know this reality, the Nigerian government has continued to turn a blind eye to the actions of SARS,” said Hassan Idayat, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD) and a Lagos Resident. Citizens have been voicing their culminating discontent and anger at the increasing human rights violation on the unduly targeted youths by the hands of SARS. The widespread demonstrations were held by people mostly between the ages of 18 – 24. With a decentralizing leadership, these youths have held consecutive demonstrations, vigils, blockades of roads and airports from October 8 to 16 at twenty-six out of the thirty-six states of the country.
The police retaliated to the protests by opening fires at the demonstrators leaving 102 people dead, including 37 policemen, and 196 seriously injured. According to witnesses, the police pulled up and started firing at peaceful, unarmed protestors. “They were firing and they were advancing straight at us. It was chaos. Somebody got hit straight beside me and he died on the spot,” reports the BBC.
President Muhammadu Buhari disbanded the SARS on October 12 citing it as the first step in their commitment to extensive police reforms ‘in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people.’
The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people. pic.twitter.com/XjQMSr3jlm
— Muhammadu Buhari (@MBuhari) October 12, 2020
An official police statement read, “IGP M.A Adamu… has today, 11th October 2020, dissolved the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) across the 36 State Police Commands and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT)”. “All SARS officers are being redeployed with immediate effect”, it added.
Despite the discontinuation of SARS, scores of people vehemently protested for thorough modeling of the police, their demand to end police brutality as well as Nigeria’s poor governance and large-scale corruption.
Additionally, they have five sets of demands – immediate release of all arrested protestors, justice for the victims and appropriate family compensation, setting up an independent body to oversee investigations of police misconduct, psychological evaluation and training of disbanded police officers before they are redeployed and adequate compensation for the police.
“We are determined to continue these protests until justice is served,” a protestor said to Al Jazeera.
The digital protest received an overwhelming response internationally calling out the Nigerian government and the rogue SARS. Several celebrities and politicians expressed their solitude to the growing issue, including Beyonce, Rihanna, WizKid, John Boyega, Hillary Clinton.
A message from Beyoncé. pic.twitter.com/5Ng7JF2stf
— BeyGOOD (@BeyGood) October 21, 2020
Amnesty International Nigeria’s Director Osai Ojigho said, “The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or to bring any SARS officer to justice is shocking and unacceptable. Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity.”
“The systemic use of torture and other ill treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”
The United Nations also slammed the police brutality against the protestors and called out the authorities urging them to “hold the perpetrators accountable.”