On October 11, 2020, the Nigerian police force announced the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a corrupt police unit known as SARS. The announcement follows protests spearheaded by young Nigerians, whose challenge to the Nigerian government has gained worldwide attention. Despite the dissolution of SARS, protesters aren’t satisfied.
To understand the October protests, it is important to trace the history of SARS. In 1992, Israel Ridnam, a colonel of the Nigerian Army, was extrajudicially killed by police officers after stepping out of his car to discover the cause of a traffic jam. In retaliation, the army searched Lagos for police officers, causing many members of the police to physically withdraw from the city. This vacuum, which lasted for two weeks, caused a surge in both crime and the power held by armed robbers. Simeon Danladi Midenda told the Nigerian news site Vanguard he was tasked to found SARS “to make sure robbers were dislodged from Lagos.”
Despite the stated reason for the creation of SARS, Nigerian citizens say it carries out illegal acts against them, especially targeting well-dressed young people. Motolani Alake wrote on a popular Nigerian news platform that SARS became a force against “Nigerian youth with dreadlocks, piercings, cars, expensive phones and risque means of expression.”Amnesty International published in June of 2020 that it found 82 cases of brutality by SARS in the past three years, including “extortion, torture and ill treatment.”
These human rights violations led to the creation of a campaign tagged #EndSARS in late 2017. This movement, made up largely by young Nigerians, advocated for change through multiple avenues: protesters marched across major Nigerian cities and shared content on social media platforms to raise awareness. Although the Federal Government of Nigeria has repeatedly promised reform (such as when the Vice President “ordered an immediate reform of SARS” on August 14, 2018) the Nigerian police has failed to hold SARS accountable or end the human rights violations.
In October of 2020, the End SARS movement swelled to a breaking point after police attacked a young man and took his luxury jeep. Thousands of protesters demonstrated in the streets of Nigeria to call the government to disband SARS. Videos sharing stories about brutality were posted on the internet en masse. Nigerian celebrities brought further attention to the topic, and the #EndSARS hashtag spread internationally.
Following these protests, the Nigerian Police Force issued a statement on October 11, 2020 announcing the dissolution of SARS. Additionally, a spokesman said that the officers of SARS were redeployed, a replacement policing arrangement had been evolved, and a team had been created to investigate the allegations of human rights violations.
Although celebrations emerged following the police force’s statement, protests did not end.
For one, concerns were voiced against the decision to keep SARS officers within the police department. Protesters who want to see members of SARS fired and prosecuted say the government is holding back from actually fixing the problem by reassigning officers. Additionally, those against SARS note how similar promises have been made in the past to calm down the public but all failed to address the situation.
These concerns have led to the continuation of protests, which turned deadly on October 20 when soldiers fired on a crowd of protesters. An anonymous police officer said the death toll was 11, but the report has not yet been corroborated. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari remained silent on the military attack against peaceful protestors, instead instructing the young people to end their street demonstrations.
In response to Buhari’s speech, the End SARS movement has stopped physical protests and concentrated on online agitation. The use of social media has been important throughout the movement; the #EndSARS hashtag has accumulated around 28 million tweets on Twitter alone.
While the decentralized movement may be suspending its in-person protests, End SARS continues to be a way for young Nigerians to be heard. It has important implications for Nigeria, where half the population is under 19. “The protests have started to morph into a much larger critique about Nigeria, everything from police reform to security to extrajudicial killings,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
The movement shares similarities with the 2020 demonstrations in the United States; both are decentralized and were incited by a history of police brutality. However, Mr. Devermont said an important difference is that the Nigerian protesters are not demanding a defunding of the police. Instead, he said, they want more resources devoted to helping improve policing in their country.
The Nigerian government’s history of promising police reform and subsequently failing forecasts a bleak future for the ending of SARS, especially since officers of the disbanded unit are going to remain within the police force. However, the End SARS movement has shown young Nigerians the power social media has in amplifying their voice, and ultimately provides a stage for future protests against the government. As one of the protestors, who wanted to be known as CM, told CNN: “the movement is not ended.”
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