Recently, the hashtag #EndSARS, and related others calling for an end to police brutality in Nigeria became a top trend on Twitter and other social media platforms, eliciting diverse discourses from people within and outside the country.
The campaign #EndSARS first emerged in 2018, but resurfaced once more a week ago, attracting an upsurge of support from most Nigerians, majority of whom were youths. As a result, the streets of major cities in the country were crowded with numbers of peaceful protesters flaunting the notice #ENDSARS.
The Lawfully backed Special Anti-Robbery Squad
The #EndSARS campaign has attracted massive reactions from significant people and organizations all over the world, demanding an end to a unit in the Nigerian Police Force called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, simply abbreviated as SARS. The unit was set up by the police in 1992 by CP Simeon Danladi Midenda with the sole responsibility of carrying out special undercover anti-robbery assignments without wearing a police uniform or badge.
This task, mandated for the SARS to discharge, was in line with the duty of the Nigerian Police Force, as set out in Nigerian Police Force Act 2004, to secure lives and properties, prevent and detect crime, and apprehend offenders. The same Law also allows the police to detain and search any suspected person in possession of anything stolen or unlawfully obtained which the SARS operatives are primarily assigned to carry out.
SARS: under criticism for impunity
However, the SARS operatives have come under serious criticism from Nigerians and human rights organizations for committing crimes such as unlawful arrest, extrajudicial killing, torture, and extortion in the guise of preventing internet fraud.
An analysis by Amnesty International in 2016 showed that youths are more affected by SARS operations. This assessment recently presented itself in reality, when footage of officers pulling two men out of a hotel in Lagos into the streets and shooting at them leaked to the media. The event stirred anger and provoked outrage which led many to share stories of brutality attributed to the SARS and how the unit garnered the limelight for undue negative profiling of young people.
BBC reported that targets are usually any youth, tech, or software developers found with mobile devices such as phones, laptops, tabs, etc., are labeled as internet swindlers by the SARS unit. Recently, Vandefan Tersugh, a former commander of the now-dissolved SARS unit, said it raises suspicion for a young Nigerian to have a car worth N7 million.
These stories of alleged terror, traced to SARS first stirred a public uproar on the internet and then a massive social media campaign with the hashtag #ENDSARS, which later resulted in a vast protest across the country.
SARS: alleged cases of horror
The Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, released a statement on January 21, 2020, during a social media campaign that promised to reform the SARS, and further barred the unit from a stop and search exercise, unless there is a distress call. However, most individuals in the recent protests argued that the reform is a facade, and the unit is still intact to carry out its dreaded chores.
In February this year, the Guardian Newspaper published an analysis of the alleged killings purported by the SARS. The article shared some references to the September 2016, Amnesty International report with the expression, ‘You have signed your death warrant’: Torture and other ill-treatment in the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The report highlighted grave violations by SARS including torture and other forms of ill-treatment. The document elicited warranties from the Nigerian authorities, promising that SARS would be reformed, yet most protesters argued that the shocking violations committed by the unit continued.
In February, the death of the assistant captain of the Remo Stars football club, Kazeem Tiamiyu, triggered an upsurge of protests in Sagamu, Ogun State, when the football club released a statement that SARS officers harassed and tortured their player leading to his death in Sagamu, on Saturday 22 February. Kazeem was profiled as a swindler even after showing them his I.D. card.
Tina Ezekwe, who died on Thursday, May 28th, 2020 was said to have been shot by a drunk officer who was trying to stop a motorist violating the lockdown regulations. #JusticeforTina trended on social media and aroused concerns over police brutality.
Nonetheless, according to investigations by BBC persons who also lost their lives due to Police/SARS brutality include Kolade Johnson, Mus’ab Sammani, Chima Ikwunado, Ogar Jumbo, Chibuike Daniel. Even more, video footage also shared by BBC, depicts how the SARS operatives interrogate young people in the most sadistic and vile manner.
SARS ends, other issues arise
Even though Mohammed Adamu, Inspector General of the Police, has announced the dissolution of the SARS unit of the NPF on Sunday and expressed that a team of investigators including civil society organizations and human rights bodies would be set up to investigate alleged abuses by SARS, the presidency seems to have given birth to some controversy when it announced that all the officers in the SARS squad widely accused of unlawful arrests, torture, and murder would be redeployed, and a new arrangement to replace the squad would be worked out.
Nigeria’s former Vice President, Atiku Abubakar, criticised the decision, with a position that the members of the defunct SARS will pollute other units, hence they should undergo retraining instead. Amnesty International requested a drastic measure, demanding that SARS officers who were involved in human rights abuse be prosecuted.
“The Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute a single officer, despite anti-torture legislation passed in 2017 and evidence that its members have since continued to use torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish, and extract information from suspects,” the group noted.
Hence, new demands from protesters not only demand the end to SARS but also the prosecution of erring officers and the transparent process of dealing with the SARS officers afterward. Protesters have also broadcast a list of five key demands to bring about reform. These are:
- The immediate release of all arrested protesters.
- Justice for those killed by police brutality and compensation for their families.
- An independent body to investigate and prosecute misconduct.
- Independent psychological assessments and new training for dismissed SARS officers who want redeployment.
- A pay rise for police so they are “adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens”.
The demand by civil rights agencies to end the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police Force has been in place for some time now. In December 2017, massive clamor urged Nigeria’s then-police chief, Ibrahim Idris, to order an immediate re-organization of the anti-robbery unit in the aftermath of a viral video showing a young man allegedly killed by police. Also, in August 2018, acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered an overhaul of SARS, demanding a new unit whose officers would wear proper identification while on duty. He also required the National Human Rights Commission of Nigeria to create a special panel to investigate previous misconduct by SARS.
In January 2019, Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, proclaimed a detailed reform of SARS, temporarily decentralized the unit, and in February 2020, the Police boss further gave instructions to disband SARS’ satellite offices. Nonetheless, with all these in place, rights groups such as Amnesty International, argued that the reforms do not go far enough for citizens to trust the police and that the unit lacks the sincerity to deal with the changes required, having have had many members of SARS involved in the actions of SARS now under condemnation. Still, as young Nigerians continue to protest, the question that seems to now demand an urgent answer is: who is policing the Nigerian Police Force!