Scores of Nigerians took to the streets to demand the dissolution of the Special Anti Robbery Squad, commonly known by the acronym SARS.
What are the protests about?
SARS was formed in the 1990s to tackle rising violent crime. Though the squad has been plagued with scandal since its inception, with horrifying stories of extortion, kidnap, rape, torture and murder at the hands of this notorious unit.
SARS units are spread throughout Nigeria – heavily armed, often in plain clothes and unmarked cars. Random roadblocks and searches are the norm with scores of unarmed citizens killed at the hands of the unit’s officers.
SARS officers have targeted civilians for abduction, forcing them to make ATM withdrawals at gunpoint. Teenagers and young adults are at higher risk of being abused by SARS officers. In particular, those with dreadlocks, tattoos or expensive gadgets are targeted for accusations of fraud and/or robbery. Many are beaten, with their belongings stolen by officers. Those that are detained and unable to pay bribes to secure their release are often tortured for long periods without access to counsel or family contact. Female detainees often report being raped.
#EndSARS began in 2017. Though calls for reform led to very little change. A complaints hotline was set up and in 2018 Nigeria’s police chief called for restructuring of the unit. In 2019, a panel was established to provide President Muhammadu Buhari with recommendations for tackling SARS abuses. No recommendations were implemented.
The latest scandal which reignited the #EndSARS campaign, was the disturbing footage taken by guests at a Lagos hotel. The grisly video shows SARS officers dragging two men from the hotel grounds into the street where one of the men is shot by a SARS officer.
The #EndSARS campaign was reignited, calling for an end to the unit’s grisly reign of impunity. Given the previous lack of government action, there was greater support to look beyond reformation, with #EndSARS protests continuing to pressurise the Nigerian government to dissolve the unit altogether. This time, the campaign gained traction worldwide, with Drake, John Boyega and Trey Songz among public figures condemning the unit.
By the end of the weekend, Nigeria’s government had dissolved the formidable unit.
The campaigning continues.
For many, the dissolution of SARS does not resolve the wider issues of police violence in Nigeria.
The Nigerian government announced that former SARS officers are to be distributed to other police units. A new police unit to tackle robbery and violent crimes will be formed.
The long term outlook still appears bleak to many Nigerians, who remain doubtful of long term change. Activists fear that SARS is likely to reemerge with a new name and are continuing protests against the culture of police brutality in Nigeria. The culture of impunity is a key point of contention, with campaigners calling for consistent punishment of criminal officers. The consensus is that the end of SARS is not the end of police brutality. Without the establishment of a clear precedent, the abuse of citizens rights will likely continue.
How to get involved.
Donate to protestors on-the-ground:
Featured image by Tobi Oshinnaike via a Creative Commons license