The unit started small, working as a 15-person team that traveled on two buses. Unit members didn’t wear name tags, or even uniforms, and their anonymity was supposed to help them address crime. “The secret behind the successes of the original SARS was its facelessness and its mode of operation,” Midenda told Nigerian newspaper Vanguard in 2017. “We were fully combatant and combat ready at all times … We never stood on the road looking for robbers. We met them in their beds.”However, the unit did not experience any oversight. “The police unit was let loose on Nigerian communities with little or no accountability and with tenuous control from the central police hierarchy,” Ochonu said. “They became law unto themselves, and began to act as accusers, judges, and executioners.”With the rise of cyber crimes, the SARS mandate changed. In 2018 alone, cybercrime in Nigeria cost citizens $800 million dollars, and instead of dealing with heavily-armed suspects in person, SARS units were forced to contend with tech-savvy Nigerians who, said Effiong, resemble “average Nigerian youth, entrepreneur, a tech guy, or a freelancer who does a significant amount of work on his computer.” Ostensibly in search of these suspects, the SARS unit, Effiong added, profiled "everyone that works, talks and appears like those people.”
“They became law unto themselves, and began to act as accusers, judges, and executioners.”
Buhari, 22, said they then interrogated him, and pointed a gun at his face. “So I complied and unlocked my phone and gave it to them. They started ransacking my phone, they started checking my Whatsapp messages. They invaded my privacy, [and] checked my mail. Even my music.” While they didn’t beat him, Buhari said that he watched as they attacked two other men the SARS officers stopped. They asked him for money, and Buhari said they “showed us some body bags and told us that they can kill us here and nobody will know, nothing will happen and they will throw our body away.” Finally, he was released when he withdrew 50,000 naira, or $130, from an ATM nearby.
They “showed us some body bags and told us that they can kill us here and nobody will know, nothing will happen and they will throw our body away.”
Torture is illegal in Nigeria, and while some politicians have endeavored to hold SARS accountable, they have largely been unsuccessful. In December 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari passed the Anti-Torture Act, which states that an offender “is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding Twenty-Five (25) years.” The law is a “very beautiful piece of legislation,” Okeke said. “Unfortunately both the police and the public are not aware of the law and its consequences.” Research from Amnesty International shows that torture remains a routine and systemic part of SARS investigations, and is used as both a means of punishment and as a tool for questioning detainees. There are even designated torture chambers in SARS offices, and the reigning officer, according to Amnesty International, is known informally as “O/C Torture,” or the Officer in Charge of Torture. “It is the most notorious security agency as far as security is concerned," Isa Sanusi, media director at Amnesty International in Nigeria, told VICE News. "We have documented all their misconduct for so many years and we have been advising them on what to do to improve and make their operation smooth and be more people-friendly, more human rights-friendly, but they've refused, they didn't change.” SARS officers accused of torture have, in some cases, been reportedly transferred to other stations, or promoted. According to Effiong, SARS officers are usually tried in an internal police justice system that reports directly back to the police. The Police Service Commission, set up by the federal government, has powers to discipline and dismiss SARS officers and other police officers. However, the commission cannot refer cases to external courts for prosecution, as complaints made to the body have to be referred to the police for further investigation. As a result, perpetrators tend to walk free. If SARS officers are ever to be held accountable, “the system has to be radically changed," said Effiong. And that change, protestors hope, will come from the people. Since the demonstrations began last week, the #ENDSARS hashtag has continued to trend on Twitter, and celebrities like actor John Boyega, Wizkid, and Cardi B have all voiced their support of the movement. Anonymous, the international hacking organization, claimed that they infiltrated the Nigerian government’s websites in support of the protestors. But even following government announcements of reform, SARS is still operating covertly in unmarked vehicles, searching through the mobile phones of protestors to check for the use of the #ENDSARS hashtag. Footage has also shown police officers shooting at protestors, and since the demonstrations began last week, 10 Nigerians have died during the protests. Despite the danger, youthful protesters, full of energy and defiance in the face of bullets, water cannons, teargas, violent arrests, and possible death have been clear about their goal: #ENDSARS.
“It is the most notorious security agency as far as security is concerned.”