Protesters in Nigeria Demand a Proper End to Police Unit That Tortures Detainees

President Buhari promised to abolish the controversial police unit SARS on Monday, but activists say they want proof it's actually being done.
October 12, 2020, 2:21pm
Thousands take part in a demonstration in Lagos calling for the scrapping of the controversial police unit SARS.
Thousands take part in a demonstration in Lagos calling for the scrapping of the controversial police unit SARS. Photo: PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP via Getty Images

In June of 2018, then 22-year-old Benjamin Dada was stopped by officers from Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) on his way to a driving lesson. The officers bundled Dada – a business manager at a software company in Lagos – into an unmarked bus, where they searched his mobile phone.

“They collected my phone and violated my privacy,” Dada told VICE News. “They searched through my text messages, chats and pictures. When they couldn’t find anything incriminating they handed it back to me and asked me to [give] them some money, which I did.”

For Dada, the payoff was worth it: the police unit is known for indiscriminately targeting and extorting young people, and interactions with SARS officers can quickly become violent. Since his last encounter, Dada has changed many of his habits; importantly, he no longer carries expensive phones and gadgets that might draw attention to him and act as a “trigger for the police to harass me”.

“I also wear traditional attires with a wedding ring always, just to appear like a married man, so they won’t harass me,” he added.

A recent surge in extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests and the extortion of young people in Nigeria by SARS officers has sparked protests across the country, with demonstrators calling for both the unit to be disbanded and for the government to announce wide-scale reform of the country’s entire police force.

The #EndSARS hashtag has also gone global as people share personal stories of police abuse. On Sunday, the musician Wizkid joined hundreds of protesters outside the Nigerian embassy in London, while similar solidarity demonstrations were held across Europe and the US.

In June, Amnesty International documented 82 cases of the squad’s brutality over the past three years, noting that “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”. The police force was ranked the worst in the world in the 2016 “World Internal Security & Police Index”.

Yesterday, following three days of protests, Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Abubakar Adamu, claimed that SARS would be abolished across Nigeria’s 36 states with immediate effect, and said measures will be taken to curb police brutality across the country. In a speech the following day, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to introduce a set of wide-ranging police reforms. However, both announcements have been met with scepticism, not least because the government has called for SARS to be replaced with a new anti-robbery force, which sounds to many like a simple rebrand.

Over the past decade, the Nigerian government has repeatedly promised to reform the SARS, only to quickly pull back on the promise when public attention dies down. In response to Adamu’s announcement, demonstrators presented the government with five demands that need to be met to end the protests, including the immediate release of all protesters and the creation of an independent body to investigate police brutality.

Since the announcement, the protests have only continued to grow, with activists blocking major roads across Lagos and the capital, Abuja, during the Monday morning rush hour.

“There’s a limit to which someone can be pushed,” said Oduala Olorunrinu, a Nigerian student who helped organise the first three days of protests. “This is meant to let the government know that we mean business and that we are spending the nights on the streets [and in] places we know that we can get answers to our demands.”

She added: “We have patiently waited for this day to come; we have waited for influential figures to take up the campaign, but we realised that nobody will come to our aid except we, the youths, [who must] rise up and take our destinies in our hands. Our lives are being taken away by persons paid to protect us; we cannot bear the frustrations anymore.”

So far, protesters have spent three days in front of Lagos’ police headquarters and the lower parliament of the city’s legislature. They have also filed petitions to the Inspector General of Police and the governor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, while an online petition calling for a UK, USA and Canadian visa ban on Nigeria’s government officials and police is building momentum and has garnered almost 50,000 signatures.

Organisers have received donations from thousands of individuals, NGOs and startups to help pay the legal fees of anyone arrested and provide food and drink for activists. Supporters have also pledged around $380,000 (£289,000) to support the family of Jimoh Isiaq, who was shot by the police during last Saturday's protest in Ogbomosho, a town in the south-west of Nigeria.

Segun Awosanya, whose Social Intervention Advocacy Foundation (SIAF) is focused on making Nigeria’s special tactical police squads more accountable, described SARS as the “poster boy for impunity in the Nigeria police force, because it’s the most popular among the force’s units”.

SIAF worked on what eventually became the Police Act 2020, which aims to ensure an effective and well-organised police force driven by the principles of transparency and accountability in both its operations and the management of its resources. Awosanya believes the corruption is systemic, making reform difficult. “Hence, reforming the SARS will just amount to exchanging our freedom for temporary safety, which we will lose at the end of the day,” Awosanya said.

Unless things change, Dada fears more and more talented young Nigerians – especially in the tech sector, which contributes more to Nigeria’s GDP than oil and gas – will look to leave the country. “The SARS brutality is [causing] a brain drain,” Dada told VICE News. “When I think about the first time a gun was pointed at me by my local police, [who are] paid to protect me, I feel like seeking another opportunity elsewhere. A lot of people studying computer science to either launch into software development or coding are considering leaving the country.”

Ized Uanikhehi, managing director of a digital marketing company in Lagos, believes the calls to dissolve the SARS unit are coming at the right time. “It wasn’t something anybody sat down to plan,” she said. “It has gotten to the point where people have had enough.”