#ENDSARS: Understanding Nigeria's anti police brutality protests

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EndSARS protesters occupy Lagos State House of Assembly, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, October 9, 2020. The protesters are calling for the scrapping of police unit, known as Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) over the squads incessant harassment and brutality of innocent Nigerians.  (Photo by Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
EndSARS protesters occupy Lagos State House of Assembly, Alausa, Ikeja, Lagos, Nigeria on Friday, October 9, 2020. The protesters are calling for the scrapping of police unit, known as Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) over the squads incessant harassment and brutality of innocent Nigerians. (Photo by Adekunle Ajayi/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
  • Established in 1992 to detain, investigate and prosecute people involved in violent crimes, Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad was dissolved on 11 October 2020. 
  • Over the years the unit has been accused of violating human rights by routinely committing the kind of crimes it is supposed to prevent.
  • Although the dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squad was known for excessive violence and extortion, its staff will be redeployed to other police units.


  

The federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) was a Nigerian police unit. It was established in 1992 to detain, investigate and prosecute people involved in armed robbery, hijacking, kidnapping, cattle raiding and other theft related crimes often associated with firearms.  

To do this successfully the unit was designed to operate covertly. Instead of uniforms they were to operate in casual clothes without publicly carrying or displaying guns and walkie talkies. While on duty they patrolled with vehicles that either had no license plates or plates that could not be tracked by the country’s traffic department.

However over the years the unit has been accused of violating human rights by routinely committing the kind of crimes it is supposed to prevent. This began in 2009 when internet fraudsters and cultism presence began to allegedly grow in Nigerian universities. To address this Sars infiltrated the institutions. While the unit made several successful arrests, the tactic of harassing innocent youths gained popularity and soon morphed into the Sars normalising violence and extortion. Since then the unit has been cited for violence including extrajudicial killings, sexually harassing and assaulting women, torturing, extorting citizens, as well as unlawfully stopping, searching, arresting and detaining citizens. 

This was brought to the global fore in 2017 when Nigerian realtor and human rights activist, Segun Awosanya took to social media to convene the #EndSars campaign. 

Since campaigns to abolish Sars began in 2017, the Federal Government of Nigeria has promised to reform the unit. On 14 August 2018 Nigerian Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo ordered for an immediate reform of the unit. In spite of promises of reform and accountability for the violations, Sars continued to violate detainees’ human rights. And although Nigerian law criminalised torture in December of 2017, no Sars officers have been convicted of torture to date.  

Following interviews conducted with victims, journalists and witnesses of abuse, human rights advocacy group Amnesty International published a report that documented 82 cases of brutality that took place between January 2017 and May 2020. In the report, Amnesty International details some of the violence carried out by Sars: 

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.

Although they have ebbed and flowed since 2017, protests to abolish Sars in Nigeria resurged after a video, where alleged members of the unit shot a man dead in public, was shared on social media on 3 October 2020.  On 11 October 2020, the office of Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari released a statement responding to the country’s nationwide protest against Sars. The statement said the following: 

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force has been dissolved with immediate effect. The Inspector General of Police will communicate further developments in this regard.

The statement then went on to say that all officers who were employed and worked under the now defunct Sars were not losing employment but rather being redeployed “with immediate effect”. Protests are ongoing across many major cities as the Sars unit is still on the streets, attacking and kidnapping protestors.  Terms of the units "disbandment" remain unclear.


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