Updated: Mar 29
While the #EndSars movement dates back to 2017, the protests of last month broke out on the 3rd of October after a viral social media post alleged that a SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) had shot an unarmed Nigerian youth and sped off with his car. Nigeria’s youth took to Twitter to voice their altercations with the SARS unit and the notorious Nigerian Police. In the aftermath of the Twitter storm that hit Nigerian authorities, the Inspector General of Police announced a ban on all SARS members effective immediately. Other than members of the SARS unit, any other tactical units of the Nigerian police and military police were not allowed to engage in routine patrols, conventional low-risk duties, stop and search duties, checkpoints, mounting of roadblocks, traffic checks, etc. On the 7th of October, the youth of the state of Lagos began what was to be a three-day protest demanding an end to the extra-judicial activities of the Nigerian Police. The protest would later culminate into a nationwide movement united by the slogan #EndSARS; the Nigerian government which was initially dismissive of the protests, labelled them as yet another instance of young miscreants causing unwanted trouble. By the 10th the movement had assumed a pan national form, but while the Nigerian youth marched on for change with the government finally being forced to listen the 10th also became a dark day as a protester Jimoh Isiaka was killed by the FARS (Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad). By the 11th of October protesters had gathered at Lekki toll gate, and photos of men and women from this congregation became icons that defined the protests globally. On the same day Amnesty International released a report that stated Nigerian police forces had killed at least 10 protestors since the protests became mainstream. As the protests went on in the following fortnight they grew in size and turned violent; the protests were overrun by hoodlums detached from the main cause. The already abusive Nigerian police found reason in this change, and on 20th October the police forces sent in to maintain order fired on a group of peaceful protesters killing 12. The alleged number of lives lost to police brutality against the protestors now stands north of 50.
SARS was established in 1992 to fight armed robbery and other crimes related to firearms. Before the establishment of this special unit, crimes such as anti-robbery were handled by the Nigerian Police Force however, over a period of time separate anti-robbery units were established in different states as a part of their criminal investigation division. Such special units had different names in different areas which included the Intelligence Response team, special tactical squad, counterterrorism unit and force intelligence unit. These crime units were established following the end of the Nigerian Civil War. There was a steep rise in cases from the 1970’s of armed robbery as a result of the Nigerian Civil War. The loss of lives, property, jobs (many soldiers involved in the civil war were demobilized) and extreme poverty created situations to cross the line of the law
and steal many items. A police officer by the name of Simeon Danladi Minenda was in charge of an anti-robbery unit in Southern Nigeria and was successful in combating armed robbery in his respective territory. As a result of the rise in crime he was transferred to Lagos where he decided to form a unified unit and named it the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992.
SARS operatives initially operated undercover in plain clothes and plain vehicles without any government crest or badge. On top of that, they did not carry any arms in public. Essentially their primary tasks were to monitor radio communications and arrest criminals. SARS till 2002 solely operated in Lagos; however, after 2002, its jurisdiction extended to all 36 states of Nigeria. It was now counted as one of the 14 units under the Nigerian Police Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department. This meant that they had the ability to arrest, investigate and prosecute suspected armed robbers, kidnappers and murders. As a result of these new powers, the SARS unit deviated from its initial cause and abused their power by setting up roadblocks, extorting money from citizens and carrying firearms in public. This led to a rise in extrajudicial killings, arbitrary and borderline unlawful detention and extortion.
All of this leads to one simple question: Why? SARS may just seem as a corrupt police unit but in fact SARS is a symptom of a much larger epidemic in Nigeria. The main causes of these heinous acts are corruption and economic inequality. Almost 40 percent of Nigeria’s population lives in poverty. The main cause of this income inequality is corruption. The public administration is extremely susceptible to bribery and extortion. The upper-class benefits from tax waivers and legislators receive one of the highest earnings in the world. According to the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project (SERAP) a bribe is paid in roughly 54 percent of police interactions and there is a 63 percent probability that an average Nigerian has been asked to pay a bribe each time an individual interacted with the police. The level of corruption in the Nigerian Police Force is cataclysmic to say the least and this is because of the poor compensation for the officers. A new recruit in the Nigerian Police Force makes roughly $400 a year. To put things into perspective, in Nigeria an individual is considered poor when they make less than $361 per year. Even though President Buhari had released a new pay structure (which remains unavailable to the public) for the police officers, it seems to have had no effect to combat corruption. All of the issues have worsened over a period of time and as a result of this large-scale corruption and oppression of the normal citizens, there has been an uprising against the government.
This sudden uproar in Nigeria isn’t the result of a few incidents of police brutality but instead of a populous dissenting after years of suppression at the hands of the authorities. The tales of woe aren’t new; in fact, for Nigerians, they are the latest addition in a list that stretches through their nation’s history. In a report titled ‘Time
to End Impunity’, Amnesty International brought to light 82 instances of torture, ill-treatment of prisoners and extra-judicial killings by SARS officers. The 2017 Anti-Torture Act did little to change the status-quo. Research conducted by multiple organizations has shown that not a single SARS officer has been held accountable for human rights violations. The situation isn’t dissimilar to a set up where armed extensions of the government are provided with official impunity; the only difference in this analogue being the fact that the government turns a blind eye towards atrocities committed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
The gruesome acts committed by the people who had sworn to protect is a proof of the need for immediate reform in Nigeria. Proper compensation, transparency and internal oversight is a must in law enforcement and other parts of the political system of Nigeria. As the youth of Nigeria continue to dissent, they must choose- despite every fathomable hinderance in their way- what is unfortunately the path less trodden, one of reform, inclusion, and progress.