Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

Nigeria SARS Protests: Chaos Erupts Under Police Aggression

The Nigerian government created the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992 as an extension of their police force in order to combat rising rates of robbery, kidnapping and firearm use. However, rather than preventing crime, the SARS unit has been systematically violating human rights. Since 2016, its abuse of power has been met with increasing dissatisfaction from the Nigerian people. In response to police brutality, blackmail and torture, citizens have created the #EndSARS social media campaign.

The movement reignited this October after a trending video on social media showed a SARS officer shooting and killing a young Nigerian man before speeding off in the victim’s white Lexus SUV. In response, many Nigerian celebrities joined the social media campaign to condemn these actions and call for the abolition of the unit. Young Nigerian activists took to the streets in nationwide protests, sparking other demonstrations against President Muhammadu Buhari's government. These protests have continued throughout October.

News sites and social media activists have reported that SARS has committed arbitrary arrests, demanding outrageous amounts of “bail” money for release. If citizens don't pay, they risk being unjustly apprehended, tortured or murdered. Citizens condemned President Buhari for not carrying through on his promises of disbanding SARS years ago and for his aloofness regarding recent murders. Protesters have been particularly critical of the President’s poor leadership during this time. They claim Buhari is uninterested in civilian needs under the duress of SARS. Tensions are made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, which is causing social, economic and political strain. In the face of these criticisms, Buhari has demanded that the youth stop protesting and instead “engage the government to find solutions.” 

Reports of the protests describe the demonstrators’ peaceful behavior in contrast with the military’s repeated acts of violence. Those wishing to end SARS have committed to avoiding central leadership by remaining in a space without government abuse and working to keep the focus on the movement’s primary value: civilian safety. Without central leadership, the organization of these protests is attributed to young Nigerians who have gathered domestic and global support. The Feminist Coalition, established by Nigerian feminists, has been working around the government to funnel donations into the movement by raising money for legal aid, security and food for protesters. 

In the second wave of protests, social media campaigns have gained attention and momentum this month as young Nigerians began sharing photos and videos exposing the abuses they’ve faced under SARS. The evidence of police brutality, harassment and extortion began to take a foothold on platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as the Nigerian Police Force broke up protests in major cities across the country. 

On Oct. 11,  Nigerian youth used the hashtags "5for5" and "EndSARS" to present Five Demands they stated would be necessary for the government to complete to end the protests. Activists called for the immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families, an independent body for oversight of the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (within 10 days), psychological evaluation and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before redeployment and increased police salaries so they will be adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of citizens. On the same day, police killed three more protesters in Ogbomoso, Oyo State.

In response to the demands, the State and Federal governments said they were officially disbanding SARS, but protesters were wary of these promises as similar ones had not been kept in years past. Instead of fully disbanding the unit, the Inspector General of the Nigerian Police Force, Ibrahim K. Idris, ordered the reform and reorganization of SARS. Protesters pushed for their Five Demands through the week of Oct. 12 and expressed their grievances with the failed leadership of Nigeria. On Oct. 13, they brought their demonstration to the National Assembly. There, the Governor of Lagos State promised to create a fund for Lagos citizens who were victims of police brutality. He has not yet fulfilled this promise. 

After curfews were enacted across Nigerian states on Oct. 20, Twitter users reported that the government turned off street lights before sending the Nigerian army to the scene of a protest. The soldiers opened fire on peaceful, unarmed protestors, killing at least 12 and injuring hundreds. Nigerians are calling the event the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre. The Country Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ohigho, commented on the massacre.

 “Opening fire on peaceful protestors is a blatant violation of people’s rights to life, dignity, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Ohigho. “Soldiers clearly had one intention —to kill without consequences.” 

With at least 56 people dead and protests becoming increasingly deadly ends as October rolls on, concerns for Nigeria are hitting the headlines of international news.

The #EndSARS movement echoes the sentiments of this year’s Black Lives Matter protests, calling for action against police brutality. In the United States and Nigeria, the issues and demands are similar despite the protests looking different. In both countries, protesters are frustrated that their democratically elected governments—officials they believed would govern with the public’s best interests in mind—are failing to uphold the basic rights of citizens under the law. Activists refuse to accept state-sanctioned abuse in any form and are demanding concrete reforms for justice. 

The movement has called international attention to issues of police brutality and political leadership in Nigeria. Young protesters must be commended for their skilled use of social media campaigns to maximize the reach of the ideas, values and goals of #EndSARS. Despite these successes, the movement has been relatively unsuccessful in motivating the government to discipline or dismiss SARS officers, let alone respond directly to the Five Demands created by protestors. COVID-19 conditions have made it difficult for money and supplies to be given to protest efforts. Under a failing political leadership and decreasing legitimacy, Nigeria’s fight against a corrupt justice system isn’t over yet.

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