Abdullah Abdulsalam was on his way home from a writing workshop in Oyo State, Nigeria in May when an unmarked car pulled his bus over. The car, he quickly learned, was occupied by police officers in Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, also known as SARS.
As the youngest passenger, the 23-year-old was singled out. “They checked my phones, Gmail, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Freelancer,” he told VICE News. “They didn’t find anything incriminating.” According to Abdulsalam, the officers then told the driver to leave. Though Abdulsalam “told them [he was] a writer and media person,” they insisted that he was a “cybercriminal.”
"One officer said that if I don't bribe my way, he’ll kill me and nothing will happen,” Abdulsalam said. He eventually acquiesced, and they drove him to an ATM nearby, where the officers subsequently drained his bank account. (SARS unit spokespeople did not reply to requests for comment.)
Despite the theft and resulting trauma, Abdulsalam knows that he was lucky. “I might have been killed,” he said. He’s not wrong: What happened to Abdullah has happened to many other Nigerians. Over the last three years, Amnesty International has documented 82 cases of torture, abuse, and extrajudicial executions conducted by SARS officers. In 2016, Amnesty International documented 143 complaints made against SARS officers in less than six months. According to their most recent report, survivors of run-ins with the unit, usually youths, have experienced “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.”
After years of abuse, young Nigerians are speaking out against SARS and police brutality through Nigeria’s largest demonstrations in almost a decade. Protests began on October 5 after a young man was shot and killed by SARS officers the day prior in Ughelli, a town in the southern state of Delta, and accounts of the shooting reawakened national outrage. Since the shooting, protests have continued throughout the country in Lagos, Abuja, and other major cities.
On Sunday, in response to the protests, the Nigerian government announced SARS would be “dissolved.” The following day, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari promised in a speech on national television that “the disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms,” and added that the government would “ensure that all those responsible for misconduct are brought to justice.”
However, this isn’t the first time Nigerians have protested against the SARS unit, and this isn’t the first time the government has promised reform. Protests regarding police brutality have caused the government to say it would disband the SARS unit in 2017, 2018, and 2019. The unit was never disbanded, though, and protestors say SARS officers continue to act with impunity.
Issues with modern day policing in Nigeria can actually be traced back to British colonial rule. “Policing in contemporary Nigeria is indeed rooted in a colonial policing philosophy that aims to dominate space, intimidate communities, and mete out exemplary punishments to serve as deterrents,” Moses Ochonu, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, told VICE News. He noted that since colonial police engaged in military operations against Nigerians and the emphasis was on the “suppression of revolt” rather than protection, “brute force was the primary operating philosophy of the police.”
According to Ochonu, the Nigerian Police Force has not evolved past these colonial methods. “After independence in 1960, the postcolonial Nigerian police force was never reformed or decolonized to protect communities rather than treat them as potential criminals and insurgents against state supremacy” said Ochonu. “The police continued to treat Nigerians as people who must be intimidated into submission … Now, as in colonial times, the Nigerian police are an instrument of the state rather than an institution dedicated to protecting and serving the Nigerian people.” This, he said, explained the SARS unit’s brutality.
Formed in 1992, the origins of the SARS police unit actually harkens back to a dispute between the Nigerian army and the Lagos police force. While sitting in a traffic jam at a Lagos checkpoint, army colonel Israel Rindam got out of his car to check on the delay. He was shot by police officers at the checkpoint, and the officers, after realizing he was an army official, abandoned their posts.
Soldiers in Lagos were incensed, and stormed police barracks throughout the city. The police, in turn, went into hiding. “During this period, the incidence of robbery swelled and there was an urgent need for intervention,” Abimbola Oyarinu, a lecturer in history at Oxbridge College in Lagos, told VICE News. SARS was then founded by Simeon Danladi Midenda, a now-retired police commissioner, as a covert unit within the Nigerian Police Force. While there were other anti-robbery units, SARS could operate while the rest of the force was in dispute with the army. After the police and army reconciled, the unit was officially commissioned.
Beyond the disagreements in law enforcement, SARS began during a moment of turmoil for Nigeria: “The falling and failing economy after the oil boom, depreciating naira, the Nigerian civil war, Structural Adjustment Programme and poor leadership,” Oyarinu said. “All these factors culminated in creating an environment ripe for insecurity and violent crimes.”
“Major Nigerian cities, especially the ones of the southwest [like] Lagos, Ibadan, and Benin were riddled with crimes such that armed robberies were happening during the day,” Ikemsit Effiong, a senior researcher at Nigerian geopolitical intelligence group SBM intelligence, told VICE News. “So SARS was created [as] a specialist hit squad that could metaphorically think the way the enemies think, operate the way the enemies operate, and address that sharp rise in armed robberies.” As a result, SARS officers were given allowance to operate outside of the system.
“They became law unto themselves, and began to act as accusers, judges, and executioners.”
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.”
The unit then became known for “extortion, road blocks, extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape,” said Oyarinu. Founded after police brutality led to a national dispute, SARS became the very thing it was supposed to counteract.
“One thing that is clear to me is that they have deviated from the original concept,” said Midenda in 2017. “The controversies engulfing SARS today will not disappear unless they return to the original concept. They should undergo reorientation and thereafter, disappear from public view and remain faceless.”
The announcement from Buhari about accountability for SARS officers, Ochonu said, “is a face-saving gesture by the government.” But, he added, “the entire Nigerian police needs to be decolonized, not just SARS.”
Beyond the SARS unit, policing in Nigeria has long been controversial. In 2016, the World Internal Security and Police Index ranked Nigeria’s police force last of the 127 countries surveyed. The Nigerian Police Act, which was repealed last month, was passed in 2004 and for years did not hold officers accountable for misconduct.
“The ideal thing would be to have a new generation of police officers that are significantly incentivized to do their jobs well,” added Effiong. “We need to be empowered with a modern approach of policing and the fact is a lot of the current crop of police officers would simply not make the cut, so that’s why reorienting the current crop of police officers is an insufficient means of addressing the systemic and generation-long deficiency.”
Faith Moyosore, a 24-year-old poet, was on her way home from the Lagos International Poetry Festival on November 2, 2019, when her Uber driver was asked to pull over by SARS officers.
"They started searching the car and my phone,” Moyosore told VICE News. She said they asked her where she was coming from, and insinuated that since she was out late at night, she must be a prostitute. "I told them it's a poetry festival, and they were still not having it,” she said. “It's mentally draining.”
While young women are frequently accused of prostitution by SARS officers, young men like Abdulsalam are accused of cybercrime and their electronics are confiscated or examined. Abdulrasheed Buhari told VICE News that he was biking to work in February when he was accosted by SARS officers. “One of them rough-handed me, literally wrestled me off the bike,” he said. “I was asking them what's going on but they asked me to get in their car so I didn't argue with them.”
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.”
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.
On Monday, Vandefan Tersugh James, a former SARS commander, justified these kinds of searches in a televised interview on AIT, a national broadcaster. “No matter what you say, SARS deals mostly with the youth because 90% of suspects you have in your cell are always those who are young men and women that are there,” he said. “If I stop you on the road and I want to look at your phone and I want to see your facebook I don't think I'm committing any crime … I’m only asking you a simple question.” His attitude isn’t that different from other Nigerian politicians: Lai Mohammed, Nigeria's minister of information and culture said in January that the Nigerian government has not targeted human rights, nor have they covered up “damaging evidence” with regards to SARS. Just last week, the president of the Nigerian Senate Ahmad Lawan said that he did not support the disbanding of SARS, and added that not all SARS officers acted inappropriately.
Regardless of the unit’s intent, its methodology can have devastating results. In April, Oluwaseyi Akinade, 23, died by suicide after leaving a note that detailed his extortion and torture at the hands of SARS. No inquiries were made into the unit’s methods after Akinade’s death, but even when the SARS unit is held accountable, justice is seldom served.
In 2015, Afam Nriezedi was arrested by SARS in Lagos, Nigeria. He was first accused of stealing four AK47 rifles, then later of participating in a kidnapping. Over three years later, in October 2018, a judge on the Federal High Court of Nigeria found SARS guilty of detaining Nriezedi without an arraignment or court trial, and awarded 20 million naira, or $52,000, in damages, and one million naira, or around $2,500, for illegal detention. The judge, according to court documents obtained by VICE News, also ordered “that [SARS] shall either arraign [Nriezedi] before a court of law within 24 hours from the date of this ruling or release him immediately.” This ruling took place over two years ago, but Nriezedi has yet to be released.
“We got a judgement,” Collins Okeke, a criminal reform advocate and Nriezedi’s lawyer at Human Right Law Services, told VICE News. Okeke said that the court has been unable to get SARS to “provide an explanation of what happened to the boy… It’s a very sad case. It’s an accountability problem.” Okeke said that he was told indirectly by a police commissioner that Nriezedi died in custody after being tortured, though his family has still not been given his body.
“It is the most notorious security agency as far as security is concerned.”
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.