For more than two weeks, tens of thousands of people have been protesting in the streets of Nigeria, with people picking up signs and raising their voices in solidarity around the world. Their goal? To #EndSARS. If you’ve been online in recent weeks, chances are you’ve seen the now-viral hashtag trending. And everyone needs to be paying attention to what’s happening.
Here is everything you need to know about SARS, the #EndSARS movement and what is happening in Nigeria now.
What is SARS?
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was established in 1992 under the dictatorship of Ibrahim Babangida, according to Carl LeVan, Professor at American University in Washington, DC. (There is some disagreement around when SARS was actually established, with some saying it’s as far back as 1984.) “SARS itself is explicitly a product of the dictatorship in 1992,” LeVan, who specializes in comparative political institutions, democratization and African security and has published books on the subject, says. When Babangida took power in 1992 (by overthrowing Muhammadu Buhari, who has since come back into power as the current elected President of Nigeria), “he took power with the goal of dealing with more serious crime,” LeVan says. At the time, the country was facing rising levels of crime, especially pertaining to armed robbery and kidnappings. (Nigeria has one of the world’s highest kidnap-for-ransom rates, where wealthy citizens or groups—who are assumed to be able to afford to pay a fee—are typically targeted.)
“They were doing a good job dealing with reducing the level of armed robbery in Nigeria,” Isa Sanusi, media manager at Amnesty International in Nigeria tells FLARE of the early days of SARS. But, somewhere along the way they started to derail from their initial goal, he says. Since at least 2014, the human rights organization has logged widespread human rights allegations against SARS, including extrajudicial executions, torture, rape and extortion by officers, documenting 82 cases between January 2017 and May 2020. On top of this, SARS officers have also been accused of taking bribes. Per a 2020 report, “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. Findings from our research indicate that few cases are investigated and hardly any officers are brought to justice on account of torture and other ill-treatment.”
“They’re increasingly become lawless,” Sanusi says of SARS’s actions. “They’ve turned their job into an opportunity to make money instead of protecting Nigerians.”
What is the #EndSARS protest movement?
Since the beginning of October, Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest police brutality in their country. Young people in particular are mobilizing in major Nigerian cities, calling for the abolition of the SARS special police task force that has been operating for more than two decades. The task force, which is under government jurisdiction, has been accused of inflicting severe human rights violations on its citizens. And people have had enough.
The #EndSARS hashtag dates back to at least 2017, when people began using it online share their experiences of violence and assault at the hands of SARS. This most recent protest was launched by an October 8 viral video which allegedly showed SARS officers killing a young man in one of the country’s southern states. While authorities have denied that the video is real, according to Al Jazeera, the man who filmed it has been arrested, leading to more outrage from citizens. And this recent round of mass protests has led to further violence against the protestors themselves, including 25 people who were shot in Lagos, Nigeria while demonstrating on October 21 , with an unnamed witness telling BBC News that soldiers “pulled up… and they started firing directly” at protestors. An investigation by Amnesty International also found that Nigerian army and police killed at least 12 peaceful protesters on October 20.
In addition to protesting police brutality, demonstrators are also speaking out against Nigeria’s bad governance, citing grievances such as poor educational opportunities for citizens.
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Tell me about the history of SARS
Why would members of SARS, who are meant to protect the Nigerian people, exploit and harm them? It’s a little more complicated than just a group of bad people doing bad things. As Sanusi points out, this move from legitimacy towards lawlessness has been in part spurred on by poverty in the country. “I think it has to do with the declining standard of living in Nigeria,” he says. While Nigeria experienced a drop in the poverty rate between 1999 and 2007, impacted in part by the return of the country to civilian governance in 1999 (meaning that the people of the country could elect a president, as opposed to the previous dictatorship), a 2019 study in the Journal of Poverty found that “the majority of Nigerians have low living standards,” and that, despite this decrease in poverty between 1999 and 2007, more recently there has been an increase in poverty in almost every region of the country, both urban and rural. As of 2019, according to data from the Washington-based Brookings Institutions, around 87 million Nigerians live in dire poverty.
And those who work within SARS are not exempt from that poverty—or the cycle of corruption themselves, Sanusi says. “Increased corruption, mismanagement of resources, even corruption within the police force” all may impact an individual or organization, according to Sanusi. “Nigeria is [in a] situation where someone superior or in a leadership role within the Nigerian police may corruptly steal money meant for equipment or for salaries of policemen,” he continues.
Which is something that has actually happened. Despite the fact that there are about 350,000 police officers in the country, according to LeVan, it was disclosed several years ago that about 50,000 to 60,000 people on the police payroll didn’t actually exist. “They were ghost employees,” LeVan says. “So not only are individual police officers engaged in corruption, but there’s corruption—where people want police and they want security—and someone in the middle level management is just taking those invisible salaries.”
So, Sanusi says, when policemen are sent to the streets in the name of protecting people, they’re also looking for money to care of themselves; and they use their position as SARS officers to that end. “Gradually they become more brutal, they become more cruel.”
Another reason SARS has been able to wield their authority with impunity for so long? The remnants of centuries of dictatorship. Over the years, leading up to 1999, dictatorships established different subgroups that held different functions within the security services. SARS was one of them. “In some ways, this is another example of something that was created by a dictatorship and then the government never really got rid of it,” LeVan says. Working in the legislature during the time after the government’s transition away from a dictatorial regime, LeVan witnessed conversations around overhauling the laws and giving the country a clean slate. “But people became so focused on the daily economics that I think some of these rule of law questions really got pushed into the background,” he says.
Further, in understanding Nigeria as it stands now, it’s important to know that current president Muhammadu Buhari is a former dictator himself who staged a military coup at the end of 1983. In 2015, Buhari was elected as president after running four times, which was in itself monumental, as LeVan, who explored Buhari’s election win in his book Contemporary Nigerian Politics: Competition In a Time of Transition and Terror, says a ruling party hadn’t lost an election since Nigeria gained independence from Britain in 1960. “There was something that was compelling about Buhari’s message,” LeVan says. “And his coup, when it happened in 1983, was actually fairly popular; people thought that somebody like Buhari at that time could really get a handle on things and calm down a difficult security situation.” While Buhari’s campaign message in 2015 was one of anti-corruption, LeVan says that what we’re seeing now with SARS and the continuing corruption under Buhari’s government is that, as he says, “the old habits die hard.”
“There are still these ghosts of the dictatorship that haunt the habits of governance,” LeVan says. “[Buhari] has surrounded himself with some people who believe that a strong hand of the state is what is needed to really stabilize things.” Meaning, in many ways, that the government benefits from this corruption.
This complacency from the federal government means that SARS can continue to do what it’s been doing, with little institutional accountability on the part of the police.
Is SARS’s behaviour a human rights issue?
100%. “This is a serious human rights issue,” Susani states. “We consider torture a human rights violation and they do torture people. They also confiscate property from suspects, we also consider that as an egregious human rights issue. And the fact that SARS is supposed to be dealing with armed robbery and other high crimes like kidnapping, but instead of doing that they have concentrated their attention on arresting young people; these are all violations of human rights.” In fact, over the past 10 years, Amnesty International has issued four separate reports on SARS and their tactics.
In addition, SARS’s response to the protests is also an issue. “Nigerian citizens protesting police brutality in the past few weeks have reportedly been shot and killed, or tortured, by the disbanded SARS,” says Sukanya Pillay, an international human rights expert and member of Canadian Lawyers For International Human Rights (CLAIHR). (On October 11, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that he had dismantled SARS, re-deploying former SARS officers to other unites. There’s more on this below.) “If true, such actions by SARS raise serious questions about violations of international human rights law, particularly the right to life, right to peaceful protest and freedom of assembly, and serious questions about extrajudicial executions and torture.” These rights, Pillay says, are protected in several international human rights laws, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and in the African Charter on Human Rights, both of which are legally binding upon Nigeria. “The use of excessive force and violence against protestors contravenes international standards on policing and use of force.”
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What has the response been to the #EndSARS protests?
The global response to the #EndSARS movement has been overwhelming, with people across the world calling for change. Celebrities like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West and John Boyega, not to mention politicians like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have called for the end of SARS on social media.
I have a feeling that this is more than just SARS. Nigerians want true change! They are done managing faith without practical action and we support you. 💪🏾 https://t.co/FpNqb1wufa
— John Boyega (@JohnBoyega) October 14, 2020
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 20, 2020
I thought SARS was dismantled. Isn’t that enough?
The #EndSARS protests and high-profile calls to action have worked, to a certain extent. On October 11, President Muhammadu Buhari announced that he had dismantled SARS, replacing it with the newly-formed Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) task force. Former SARS officers have been deployed to other policing units. But protestors and academics say that isn’t enough, because it feels like more of a reallocation than dismantling. “I’ve been chatting with activists in Nigeria a lot the last couple of days, and no one is satisfied with the creation of the new police unit at all,” LeVan says. “It just seems like putting a new name on the same group of offenders.”
“I don’t think it is the end [of SARS],” Susani agrees. “Even though SARS has been dismantled, Nigerians believe that something concrete has to be done to prove that the atrocities [they’re] committing will stop.” Susani refers back to the numerous offences SARS has committed over the past four years, and the immediate uproar and then inaction from the government. “When SARS has either killed a young man or tortured Nigerians, people will be angry. They will come out and protest maybe for half a day or one day, and the government says, ‘we are going to report this. We are going to look into your complaint.’ So four times within the last four years, they have promised to end the atrocities of SARS, but nothing changed in power. They just become [worse]. That is why Nigerians don’t trust the government when they say we are going to protect you from SARS and make it better.”
So, what happens next with SARS?
For one, real police reform. “[This needs to be] where individuals can be held accountable and that isn’t seen as punitive to the police as a whole, but something that encourages better behaviour and builds trust with the people that they need to protect and work with,” LeVan says. As well, there needs to be better training and pay for law enforcement. (As Susani notes, some torture tactics by SARS has been attributed to a lack of modern policing and investigating skills, though it’s important to emphasize that that isn’t a blanket statement and in no way excuses torture.) “There should be a mechanism of accountability when it comes to policing so that if a policeman tortures someone, the person has the right to and can get justice,” he continues. “But a situation where people cannot get justice, that’s not good.”
“It’s a hard conversation, but I think there is some political space in the country to do that sort of thing now,” LeVan says of reform.
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What can Canadians do to help the#EndSARS movement?
For people who are outside Nigeria, Susani says the key to helping is to put pressure on the Nigerian government and politicians to end corruption and make the government work for the people. “The governance should not be about providing luxury for people in politics, it should be in service to the people,” he says.
And also, as LeVan emphasizes, don’t let the current news cycle about Nigeria be the only thing you read about the country. “It’s really important to learn about African countries when things are also good,” he emphasizes. “We wouldn’t want this bad news about police violence to reinforce negative stereotypes.” Especially because Nigeria is modern, resourceful country in so many ways. LeVan points to the country’s low number of COVID-19 infections as an example of this. The country—which has 200 million citizens—had, as of July, only counted a total of 33,000 cases since the start of the pandemic. This, despite the fact that many would assume they have a weak health capacity. (It’s important to note that these numbers could in part be due to limited testing.) In contrast: the United States. “I’m living in the richest country in the world and there are 70,000 new infections every day,” LeVan says. “So Nigerians find great resourcefulness and ways to do things right. This is a moment where all eyes are focused on police and public safety and the dignity of the individual, and that’s a wonderful thing to observe.”