Worldwide protests over Nigeria’s brutal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) rage on – the squad has been shut down, but pressure is on for real justice and reform in the politically and socially fraught country
In January 2018, Tobi* moved with some friends to an apartment in Akure, in the south western part of town. On his second night at the apartment, officers of SARS, a unit within the Nigerian police force, knocked on their door and dragged them outside.
“They started asking who we are and what we do,” Tobi tells Dazed. Tobi and his friends all sell supplement products. After showing them proof of their business on their phones, one man took his phone, and started scrolling through his WhatsApp. “He said one of my contact’s display photo, a Nigerian number for that matter, was a white woman. He accused me of being a digital fraudster.” Tobi protested that the number belonged to a Nigerian living in Nigeria, pointing to the local phone code, but he was tagged a fraudster and was taken to a police station.
“He threatened to jail me if I didn‘t confess,” Tobi said. Hours later, after several pleas, the unit told Tobi’s friends to go home, and that they could come for him in the morning. Next thing, they said to come and bring money for his release. Tobi was released at around midnight, four hours after being arrested on seemingly non-existent charges, and only after his friend had paid N15,000 (approximately £35) to SARS officers.
Tobi’s story is one that has become commonplace in today’s Nigeria. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known better as SARS, was created to tackle violent crimes, robbery, and kidnapping, but in recent years, this unit has been accused of carrying out the crimes it was created to stop. In 2016, the Nigerian police was ranked as the worst by the World Internal Security & Police Index. Amnesty International shared a report which noted that “detainees in SARS custody have been subjected to a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions, and sexual violence.”
Many Nigerian youths have shared their experiences of being stopped, extorted, and harassed by officers on social media. The author of this piece would also like to note that he has been stopped, harassed, and extorted from on four different occasions for nonexistent charges. Videos shared online have also reportedly shown these officers murdering and maiming people. A recent resurgence of harassment, killings, and extortion across the country – peaking as videos of SARS officers killing multiple people in states across the country were shared in the past weeks – have triggered nationwide protests.
The hashtag #ENDSARS has gone global, with protesters sharing their personal experiences with SARS, as well as reportage from the frontlines. The hashtag yielded 28 million tweets over the past weekend alone, and the movement has gained the support of global celebrities like Viola Davis, John Boyega, City Girls, Trey Songz, and many more. Nigerian celebrities like Wizkid, Davido, Runtown, Falz, and Oxlade have physically been present in #ENDSARS protests in the country and beyond. Popular podcast creator Feyikemi Abudu has been working with the Feminist Coalition to fund the protests around the country, and to ensure that all arrested protesters stay out of jail. Even with the presence of these celebrities and major public figures at the protests, the demos are still largely decentralised, and protesters have passionately and repeatedly declared in the prevailing chant “we no go leader, na all of us be the leader of #ENDSARS”. Meaning, “we don’t have leader, we are all the leaders of #ENDSARS”.
Despite Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari and governor affirming the constitutional right to protest, protesters have reported attacks by the police while peacefully demonstrating. On Monday October 12, peaceful protesters reported being shot at and violently harassed in Surulere, a town in Lagos, Nigeria.
“Some of us were sitting (on) the road, which was already on standstill. We were maintaining our positions, not causing havoc or doing anything,” Iyesogie Ogieriakhi tells Dazed. “Next thing, we heard a noise and everyone stood up and asked if that’s a gun or not. Someone was like, ‘they can‘t kill all of us, let‘s head that way’. As the protesters ran, police gave chase, firing live rounds at them. “Random people were on the road too, like children coming from school, people just parked in cars, and these bastards did not care.”
Videos show members of the police force violently dragging protesters on the floor and detaining them. Despite existing video evidence, social media handles of government officials claimed that protesters attacked members of the police and others tried allocating blame for the violence to random hoodlums. In Abuja, the nation’s capital, a similar situation saw police officers shoot water canons and tear gas at protesters, who had knelt down to signify they were peaceful.
Damilola Waterton, a protester at the Abuja demo, tells Dazed about clashes on Sunday October 11: “I got to the meet up point and we marched towards the police headquarters. From the secretariat you could already see the officers and the fucking van waiting for us.”
“I’m not sure what triggered them to release tear gas. We were peaceful, the majority of us (got) on our knees,” Waterton continues. “This was my first protest, I wasn‘t sure if they were gonna shoot, and I was panicking. I remember running back in panic, there was tear gas in my eyes, I couldn’t see as I was hosed down. I had lost my friends I came with and I couldn‘t face leaving them. I found my friend with my eyes still stinging.” In the chaos, protesters began chanting “fuck you” and began throwing tear gas cannister back at the police. Police trucks kept charging towards people in the roads.
Just like in Lagos, the police chased the protesters and, as footage shows, attempted to run over protesters in vans. “It was like a scene from Mad Max,” Waterton says.
The Same-Sex Marriage Prohibition Act (SSMPA) criminalises homosexuality in Nigeria. The LGBTQ+ community has been one of the most vocal and radical in the End SARS movement – queer activists have pointed out that SARS brutality is also a queer issue – many queer people have been arrested for ‘looking gay’, and many more have been harrassed or extorted. LGBTQ+ rights activist Matthew Blaise shared their experience on Twitter – they were accosted in Lagos for “perceived homosexuality”, and was verbally and physically assaulted in custody. Officers referred to their religious beliefs as their motivating force. Blaise was released and arrested again two weeks later for reportedly “looking like a lesbian”.
Following three days of protests, the Inspector General of the Nigerian Police Mohammed Abubakar Adamu announced the disbandment of the police force on October 11. He said measures would be taken to curb police brutality in the country. President Muhammadu Buhari addressed the nation and reiterated the same points, but many remain skeptical. As they should – news reports from 2017, 2018, and 2019 show that similar promises have been made in other violent aftermaths involving SARS. During the recent protests, Amnesty International reports that at least 10 people have been killed by the police. Nigerian authorities have yet to prosecute any SARS officer on charges of torture despite mounting evidence, and even after anti-torture legislation was brought into law back in 2017.
A major worry of the movement persists that, should SARS really stay disbanded, that offending officers will just be deployed elsewhere. Campaigners are insisting on a top-down structural reform of the police, not just SARS disbandment, calling also for justice and compensation for victims’ families. Additional, clear demands from the protests call for the detained to be released, for SARS officers to receive psychological evaluations, and the strict use of only rubber bullets during civil unrest.
Feminist Coalition, an organisation that has been raising funds for protesters, states that they have been penalised by the Central Bank of Nigeria, having organisation bank accounts deactvied. Fintech company Flutterwave, which first raised N2 million to help take care of the medical bills for injured protesters and has since raised N12 million from public donations, has received a summons from the government. Despite continued efforts to frustrate financial help for the movement, organisations are continuing to resist – Feminist Coalition is now asking for donations via Bitcoin.
Demonstrations continue in the country’s towns and cities. Protesters remain passionate and undeterred, continuing to occupy major roads in Lagos and Abuja, and protesters in Port Harcourt defied the governor’s orders against protesting in the state. Solidarity demonstrations have further been organised in London, New York, Boston, Toronto, and more, as Nigerians around the world pick up the #ENDSARS movement. Wherever you are in the world, to fight for the #ENDSARS cause you can stay educated, amplify Nigerian voices, and protest.