Updated: Oct 18, 2021
Nigeria assembled a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a heavily armed police unit, in 1992 to fight violent crime. Since its inception in 1992, SARS has been accused of abusing their power by harassing and exploiting the same citizens they are meant to protect. In 2017, activists decided to organize a Twitter campaign using the hashtag #EndSARS. They called on the Nigerian government to disband the police unit, but eventually the movement lost it’s motivation and died down. However, after videos of police shootings were circulated through social media in October, the movement came back through a series of mass demonstrations throughout Nigeria’s major cities.
History of Nigeria’s policing
Nigeria’s modern policing began in 1861 when British forces colonized the area near Lagos. The governor set up a police force of 25 men, all members of the native African ethnic group, Hausa, to protect the European occupied parts of the city. Eventually, these police forces started spreading outside Lagos along with the spread of British power. The forces became key to bringing defiant communities under the control of the British. Soon it became a pattern in which the forces were assembled to protect the government and not the people, as they harassed local communities and subjugated citizens.
After Nigeria received its independence in 1960, the three regions that made up the country decided on Nigeria’s current structure of their police force, which is under the command of the federal government. This was to ensure that politicians and regional leaders wouldn’t be able to use the police to their advantage. However, the abuse of power didn’t stop. Armed military and police forces ruled the streets and governed the states, inflicting their violence on ordinary people. The only check for the police was other uniformed men.
In 1992, a Nigerian colonel died at the hands of police officers at a Lagos checkpoint. Colonel Rindman got out of his car during a traffic jam to see what the problem was, and was promptly shot by officers. When the Nigerian military learned of this, soldiers were deployed into the streets of Lagos in search of any police officer they could find. In fear, many police officers began abandoning their stations and a few officers even resigned. The absence of police catalyzed an increase in already high crime rates, so SARS was formed to work in secrecy and avoid the army. SARS was officially commissioned after an agreement was reached between the Nigerian Police force and Nigerian Army. For the first ten years, they operated only in Lagos, but in 2002, spread to all of Nigeria’s 36 states.
With their newfound power, they moved from carrying out secret operations to setting up roadblocks to extort citizens. One of the first occasions where SARS abused its power occured in 1996. Two security guards were arrested by SARS under the suspicion that they assisted in a robbery, yet neither were actually charged. Almost half a year later in 1997, their bodies were discovered at a morgue with no explanation. In October of 2005, a bus driver in Obiaruku, Delta State, was killed by a SARS operative for not paying a bribe. The operative was later arrested on charges of murder. In 2010, an editorial report that was published showed that SARS and other police forces had made $60 million through roadblocks and extortion over a 18 month period.
In 2010, Amnesty International, a non-profit focused on human rights, sued SARS after their operatives arrested three people in Borokiri, Port Harcourt, and detained them for a week while they were mercilessly beaten every night. In 2016, an Amnesty International investigation into SARS found them implicit in human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, and extortion.
Additional research by Amnesty Interantional revealed that detainees, both men and women, are subjected to various methods of torture and ill-treatment to extract information and “confessions”. Such methods include severe beating, hanging, starvation, shooting in the legs, mock executions, and threats of execution. A 2020 publication from Amnesty International documented 82 cases of abuse and killings from the beginning of 2017 to May of 2020.
One such documented case occurred in January of 2016 when a man was detained at a SARS station in Ajuba. He had been severely beaten and his arm was broken, yet no treatment was given, even after his release. He had no contact with his family, wasn’t given a lawyer, or taken to court. This is one of countless cases, many of which have not been reported.
Footage of the aftermath of SARS killing a man went viral in late 2017, so Nigerian activists started the #EndSARS Twitter campaign and made it a national social movement. The campaign demanded that the Nigerian government scrap and end the deployment of SARS operatives. It documented the abuse and extortion by SARS and gave a voice to those whose complaints were previously ignored by the government. A petition with 10,195 signatures calling for the disbandandment of SARS was given to Nigeria’s National Assembly and peaceful protests were organized in major cities such as Abuja, Lagos, and Warri.
The petition and protests were so powerful that in December of 2017, Inspector General of the Nigerian Police force Ibrahim K. Idris announced plans to reorganize the force, start a better training program for trainees, and prosecute cases of abuse. Later that month, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria signed in a law that criminalizes torture. However, according to a reporter from Amnesty International, not one officer has been charged under the law as of 2019. In August of 2018, Nigeria’s acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, called for the overhaul of SARS. Unfortunately, the abuse continued as the motivation for the movement died down on social media.
EndSARS Campaign Revived
A video of a young Nigerian man being shot by a SARS police officer on Oct. 3 caused a outcry on Twitter. On Oct. 5, a report of a 20 year old musician being shot by SARS officers surfaced, adding to the resentment against SARS. The EndSARS campaign was brought back in the form of protesters on Oct. 8. On Oct. 9, a peaceful protester became a martyr for the movement after he was shot and killed by federal officers. In Lagos, protesters camped out in front of the Lagos State House Assembly from Oct. 8 to Oct. 9. Many of the peaceful EndSARS protests all over the country have been disrupted by federal police officers with tear gas, live ammunition, and water cannons.
On Oct. 9, the Deputy Governor of Lagos addressed the protestors and acknowledged that police officers don’t have the right to harass law-abiding citizens. After an emergency session in the Lagos State House Assembly, legislators passed a motion that recommended that the Federal Government end SARS. The day after, on the 11th, Mohammed Adamu, the Inspector General of Police, announced that SARS would be disbanded and a SWAT (Special Weapon and Tactics team would take its place.
Despite the announcement that SARS had been disbanded, protesters still rallied to the streets against harassment by the police. The Nigerians believed that the announcement was false due to similar announcements in previous years. They were also worried that the officers would be reassigned. Since the protests have started, at least 70 peaceful protesters have been killed.
The movement gained a lot of momentum and received support from people all around the world. There was a social media outcry and many celebrities came to the aid of the Nigerian protestors. On Oct. 16, renowned hacking group, Anonymous hacked into the National Broadcasting Commission’s Twitter account. They posted a message saying that “We #Anonymous will continue supporting Nigerians”.
Due to violent attacks by agitators against the police and protesters, the Lagos Governor declared a 24 hour curfew at 4 P.M. on Oct. 20. On the same day, Nigerians at the Lekki Toll Gate were peacefully protesting, when the Nigerian Army opened fire on them and killed at least 15 and injured 25. The exact number of deaths has not been released by officers. After the massacre, many fires were set, and they burned throughout Lagos. The violence was condemned by many notable figures, including presidential candidate, Joe Biden, and Former U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.
The protests have now declined due to large military presence, which means what happens going forward depends on the government. If the government chooses not to push police reform, it is highly expected that another wave of protests may begin.
Through Teen Lenses: What are your thoughts on the EndSARS protests? Do you believe that Nigeria’s replacement team, SWAT, will be a reformed version of SARS?
“I believe people in both Nigeria and the rest of the world are rightfully participating in the EndSARS protests. Police brutality is an issue that occurs in multiple places in the world, most recently shown in Nigeria and the U.S, and it is good people are protesting for change. Although the Nigerian government will be replacing SARS with a new SWAT team, I don’t think this will change much, as it’s still a form of weaponized law enforcement. No matter what label you put on something and what guidelines you tell people to follow, being in a position of power and often oppression like the police force will cause people to believe they can act brutally. Police brutality is a very large and complex issue that I don’t think will be solved by replacing SARS with minor reforms.” Michelle Qiu, 15, Sophomore, Oakton HS, Reston, VA
“Obviously I think the protests are one hundred percent valid. It’s a necessity and a right of the people to peacefully protest the injustices they are experiencing. I don’t think it’s replacement SWAT team will be any more beneficial to the Nigerian people than the previous enforcers. Why? We already know how complacent the Nigerian government was in terms of the 9-day silence of the president, after which he which didn’t even address the murder of peaceful protestors. Though it has been claimed that SARS has been disbanded, it has also been claimed that SARS officers are not allowed to harass the public, so what the people are meant to believe is unknown.” Ambika Elangovan, 15, Sophomore, Chantilly HS, Chantilly, VA
“When I first heard of SARS, I thought It was about the disease. However, after I learned about it, I was shocked at the amount of police brutality that is going on in Nigeria. These protests are justified because peaceful protesters are being killed even though no violence was induced during the rallies. The Nigerian government is clearly not doing much about the brutality as they have made the same announcement over and over again. I believe these protests should continue and the government should not tear gas or attack the protesters if they are peaceful.” A.D., 15, Sophomore, Chantilly HS, Chantilly, VA