Since October 8, Nigerian youths worldwide have taken to the streets to peacefully protest police brutality. The movement shares one simple message: #EndSARS.
The Nigerian Special Anti-Robbery Squad, commonly referred to as SARS, is a unit of Nigeria’s federal police force that has harassed, killed, tortured, and raped Nigerians in vicious act of police brutality and oppression. While corruption is unfortunately widespread within the Nigerian police and government, SARS is particularly notorious for unjustifiably profiling youths. Youths in Nigeria are likely to be stopped by SARS officers and searched for reasons as irrelevant as having tattoos, piercings, braided or coloured hair, owning an iPhone, laptop, or car, and other unfound reasons SARS deems criminal. Ultimately, the risk of being targeted as a Nigerian youth lies in being a Nigerian youth.
Growing up in Nigeria, I vividly remember my parents and relatives regularly receiving calls warning them to avoid certain routes because SARS officials had been spotted in those areas. An encounter with SARS officials would unfortunately often lead to extorting, brutalizing, unlawfully arresting or killing those apprehended.
According to Amnesty International, a non-profit organization that exposes and prevents human rights abuse, Nigerians unlawfully detained by SARS are subject to torture. This includes, but is not limited to “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.”
Having lived in Nigeria for most of my life, it is an understatement to say that SARS has become a societal menace.Across all 36 states in Nigeria, people have unending tales of SARS’ vicious and extremely unprofessional tactics. My first experience with SARS occurred in what I assumed to be an armed robbery. I was stuck in traffic in Lagos State when I saw SARS officials shooting carelessly at “criminals.” Thankfully, no one was hit with a stray bullet, although this is very often the case.
My cousin had a different encounter with SARS. He was riding a commercial bike with his friend when they saw SARS officials ahead performing their routine searching and extorting practises. Their bike man wanted to outsmart them and drive off. However, the officers cocked their guns at them, so my cousin told the bike man to stop since they had no implicating items anyway.
The SARS officers collected everyone’s phones and started searching the bike. But it didn’t end there. “I complained, and the next thing I got was a slap on my cheek. They handcuffed us and pushed us into their vans and started asking for money. I had to lie that I was going to call my father who was a ‘Major General,’ and that scared them,” said my cousin. Although the SARS officials let them go, they seized the bike.
The reality is, in Nigeria, if you look fresh or clean, then you can be SARS’ victim. They will harass you until you drop money, or until you are beaten black and blue.
This year, Nigerians took to social media to share the ghastly stories of their encounters with SARS, and to raise awareness worldwide about the unjust treatment. We decided that we have had enough of the unprovoked cruelty. We are protesting to end SARS, and eventually, for a complete overhaul of the current government.
In response to the pleas of our protests, Nigeria’s Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced that SARS, alongside other tactical units, have been banned from routine patrols and other conventional “low-risk” duties. Adamu also mandated that all SARS officials must appear in their uniforms while on duty. Yes, SARS officers are very often untrained men in regular clothes carelessly wielding guns.
I, as well as most Nigerians, took this announcement with a pinch of salt. This wasn’t the first time the government promised to check SARS’ abuse of power. In line with our suspicions, the announcement proved to only be ceremonial, as SARS reportedly continued its extortion tactics the very same day of the announcement.
The formation of a Special Weapons and Tactics unit (SWAT) to replace the “dissolved” SARS unit was then announced on October 13, 2020 by the federal police force. Nigerians, aware that this was yet another mere formality with no backing action, aptly changed the message to #EndSWAT.
My friend, Dotun, also shared his SARS story with me where he was apprehended by SARS officials who were out of uniform. “It happened in 2017. I had just arrived in Nigeria and had never heard of SARS. I was driving, on my way to a date when these guys stopped me,” said Dotun. The officers were carrying guns, but they weren’t in uniform. Thus, Dotun thought he was being robbed or kidnapped. Dotun asked them what they were doing, but the officers simply seized his vehicle permit and driver’s license and proceeded to “search my car, my wallet, my emails and text messages. They really invaded my privacy.” Afterwards, the officers drove Dotun in his car to a police station where they “threatened to throw me in a cell and wouldn’t even let me make a phone call.” Dotun only regained possession of his phone and car after paying the officers. Since then, Dotun has crossed paths with SARS officers two other times, one in which he was picked up in a van.
Nigerian youths, following these traumatizing encounters, live in fear and are often unable to leave their houses with valued belongings.
Today, amid the movement to end police brutality and oppression in Nigeria, protesters are being attacked and arrested. Unfortunately, protestors have also lost their lives for the cause, and at the hands of the people we are fighting against. Yet, none of the officers involved have been convicted, or even booked. Although the protests are peaceful and citizens are unarmed, police and other law enforcement officials have shot, tear-gassed, and even sprayed hot water from tankers in a bid to disperse crowds. Street thugs have also been paid to attack protesters.
However, this has not deterred us because we anticipated these poor responses from the government and have made up our minds to not be shaken. Nigerians worldwide have come together to organize funds to feed and transport protesters, medical teams to cater to the wounded, groups of lawyers to work on the release of the wrongfully arrested, and hired private security guards for protection against the government.
When all is said and done, all Nigerians want, is to not have to run away from the people paid to protect us. We want to use our phones and drive our cars without fear of being apprehended. We want to wear nice clothes without being referred to as criminals. We want our parents to be assured that we will come back home at the end of the day. My experience at UTM as a political science and sociology double major has been amazing, and I want my friends schooling back home to experience this same level of security and socio-political stability. The Nigerian dream shouldn’t be to leave Nigeria.
The message is simple and clear: end police brutality in Nigeria, end SARS.