Youth-led Protests in Nigeria Call for Disbandment of SARS Police Force

Youth groups protest to end the SARS police force throughout the cities of Nigeria.

Chants of “Enough is enough” swelled as thousands of passionate young Nigerians took to the streets of Lagos since the beginning of October in response to a widely circulated video over social media that showed unprovoked Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) officers in Ughelli, a town in the Delta state, killing a man. Further demonstrations against the police brutality and violence inflicted by SARS were incited when soldiers opened fire on protesters on October 20. Though President Muhammadu Buhari agreed on October 12 to disband SARS, this was the fourth time in four years he had promised to do so. Unsatisfied with the government’s response, the protests have taken on larger significance as a critique against the country’s corruption and suppression of public dissent. 

The recent demonstrations are manifestations of long-held public anger against the police unit. In September 1992, police officers killed Colonel Ridam of the Nigerian Army at a checkpoint in Lagos, prompting army soldiers to be dispatched throughout the streets of Lagos to hunt down police officers for investigation. In response, the police withdrew from checkpoints, security areas, and other points of interest for criminals. This allowed the crime rate to grow rapidly. SARS formed to fill the power vacuum, serving as a force dedicated to the investigation, arresting, and prosecution of those involved in violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping. SARS officers’ main job was monitoring radio communications and facilitating an effective arrest of criminals and armed robbers, all while operating in plain clothes and vehicles and without arms in public to avoid recognition by the army. Eventually, the conflict between the Nigerian police force and the army was resolved, and the official police duties resumed in Lagos. Around the same time, the SARS unit was officially commissioned in Lagos and became one of the 14 units in the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department.

The SARS unit was operating in all 36 states of the Nigerian federation by 2002. With the increased authority, the unit began setting up roadblocks, extorting money from citizens, and carrying arms in public. Over time, the unit has been implicated in many events of human rights abuses, including torture, unlawful detention and extortion, arbitrary arrests, and extrajudicial killings. Between 2017 and 2020, Amnesty International documented over 80 cases of police brutality in Nigeria, many of which SARS allegedly committed. Their report published in June 2020 said those in SARS custody were “subjected to a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, punching and kicking, beating, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.”

The protestors have now begun using social media and the hashtag #EndSARS to share visuals of police brutality and raise their concerns on a global scale. Protestors call for the immediate release of all arrested protesters and justice for all deceased victims of brutality by accompanying compensation for their families. They also insisted on a thorough investigation and prosecution of police misconduct reports, including a full psychological evaluation and retraining of disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed. Prominent celebrities, including Kanye West, Jack Dorsey, Rihana, and Hillary Clinton, have expressed their support for the movement. Solidarity protests in Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and more have arisen, with analysts drawing comparisons between the protests that erupted in the United States following the killing of George Floyd. With over half of Nigeria’s population under the age of 19, according to The New York Times, the police brutality protests have likewise been driven by the younger generations. 

According to the New York Times, Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, discerned a critical distinction between the Nigerian and United States protests, as rather than aiming to defund the police, the demonstrators are advocating for increased resource allocation to improve policing. 

“They are saying police brutality cannot stand, and at the same time they’re saying the police are underfunded and poorly equipped. This is a systemic problem—to get a better Nigeria, we need better police,” said Devermont. 

With only 39 percent of Nigerians satisfied with how the country’s democracy is functioning, according to a Pew Research Center survey, and the greatest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world, the protestors are vocalizing their grievances over corruption, the stagnant economy, and the government’s failed pandemic response. 

With the #EndSARS protests forming the largest anti-government movement to sweep Nigeria in recent years, there is a platform for the new generation to call for extensive socio-economic change. 

Photo from Shutterstock.

By Michael Hlavaty