#EndSARS! How Nigerian Youths reclaimed their voices.
On Friday, October 2nd, it was alleged that members of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, popularly known as SARS had accosted and gunned down a young man in Ugheli town in Delta state. It was also alleged that the same members of the unit had fled the scene in the car of the young man who laid sprawled in a pool of his own blood clutching desperately to live. The incident had been captured on mobile camera as is customary with the digital age and within moments posted on twitter, sparking nationwide outrage. Almost simultaneously, the video of a physically distraught aged Nigerian father whose son had been allegedly killed by members of the same unit began circulating on social media. In the video, the man can be seen recounting how his son what killed by SARs adding that the boy was neither a criminal nor engaged in criminal activities. These incidents were precursors to a series of activities that would change the face of youth activism in Nigeria.
A Rallying Call
On October 4th, singer Runtown had one clear message, it was time to #ENDSARS, stating that they (government) must make and effect real and visible change. It was enough. Nigerian youths had heard it and connected to it. Of course, it hadn’t helped that the Nigerian police had summarily dismissed the shooting in Ugheli and the Nigerian government was disinterested in attaining justice for the victims of SARs brutality whilst many youths laid languished in SARs custody, some on trumped-up charges and unable to pay for their release. A video of no fewer than 50 Nigerian youth allegedly detained by SARs in Akwuzu, Anambra state, seated in rows on the bare ground without their shirts as they prayed to God to send help and deliver them from the hands of the SARs operatives, certainly did not help the Police as their dejection was clearly understandable even by non-Igbo speakers. The stage was set to launch a protest to End SARS unlike the Nigerian government and police had seen in recent times.
If Nigerian youths had been previously described as lazy and disinterested in national affairs, the narrative was about to change. The campaign to #EndSARS would be fought on two fronts, digital and physical protests, and the Nigerian government and police were not ready. Generation-Z were better adept with the use of social media and within minutes word had spread of planned protest in Lagos with the hashtag #EndSARS trending on social media. We can only liken this to the palm fronts of Madam Nwanyerewura and the Aba women of 1929. With several notable Nigerian personalities amplifying the call to #EndSARS such as Wizkid, Falz, DJ Cuppy, Teni, Mr. Macaroni, Small Doctor, Burna Boy amongst others, the call to #EndSARS was deafening.
Laying down clear plans for civil disobedience, Runtown encouraged Nigerian Youths in Lagos to make the voices heard on Thursday, October 8th by 10 am.
Evolution of SARS
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is an anti-crime unit and one of the 14 Sections under the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID) of the Nigeria Police Force. It was initially established in 1992 by Simeon Danladi Midenda, a retired Commissioner of Police to arrest, investigate and prosecute people involved in violent crimes such as armed robberies, murders, kidnappings, hired assassinations, and other forms of extreme criminality. According to Simeon Danladi Midenda, one major incident that prompted the creation of SARS was the death of Col. Rindam, a Nigerian Army Colonel from Plateau State, who met his tragic end at the hands of police operatives at a checkpoint in Lagos state. Upon discovery of the incidence, the Nigerian army took to the streets in search of criminal policemen in Lagos, which resulted in policemen abandoning checkpoints, security areas, and other points of interest for criminal elements on the streets of Lagos. They withdrew to their barracks and some were said to have resigned. Criminal activities began with impunity, which then prompted Midenda to form the pilot SARS in isolation of the already existing three anti-robbery squads. The original constitution of the unit was only 15 officers who operated in the shadows while monitoring police radio chatters. After two weeks of dialogue, the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force came to an understanding and official police duty resumed again in Lagos. However, the crime rate had risen exponentially in Lagos and the likes of Shina Rambo could not be challenged by any force. The secret behind the successes of the original SARS can be attributed to its facelessness and its covert mode of operation. They operated in plain clothes and rode in unmarked vehicles that could not be associated with security or any government agency. Members could not carry Walkie Talkie openly, guns were out of the question.
However, in recent years, in a shift that can only be attributed to the endemic corruption in the fabric of the Nigerian state, members of the SARS unit have shifted its focus from carrying out well-coordinated investigations on criminal elements to profiling and killing Nigerian youth extrajudicially. The modus operandi has been to go after young Nigerians who look fluent or seemingly well to do. Driving a Mercedes Benz, using an iPhone, wearing nice clothes, and keeping the dread loc hairstyle, while being a young person, could certainly warrant a stop and search from members of the unit which can have perilous consequences. Reports are agog social media of members of the unit allegedly planting compromising evidence on youth accosted in a bid to get them to part with a designated some of money in bribe. The illegal use of force and torture as a preferred choice by members of SARS has gone unchecked, backed by impunity. In a report by Amnesty International, titled “Demand Justice for Police Brutality in Nigeria”, we excerpt this survival story: “On 30 April 2018, Ugochukwu, a 32-year-old trader was arrested without a warrant at his shop. The police officers accused him of paying a gang whose members had been blackmailing him. Instead of helping Ugochukwu, SARS officers requested 20,000,000 nairas ($55,325) as payment for his freedom. They detained and tortured him for six days, and even staged a mock execution to break him and force him to pay. On the fifth day, Ugochukwu was told that his life would end that day because he refused to pay. Four policemen blindfolded and handcuffed him. They pushed him inside a car and drove for two hours. They brought him near a borrow pit inside the bush. They all drew their guns and pointed them at him. Ugochukwu begged for his life as the leader gave the order to fire. He heard the sound of rapid gunshots and passed out. When he finally came to, he was back in the car and policemen brought him back to the cell. He was told that he would not be so lucky next time. Ugochukwu paid 6,000,000 nairas ($16,666) to SARS officers the next day before he was released” see the full report here.
A report released by Amnesty International in June 2020, detailed extensive research that was carried out in six states; Rivers, Anambra, Enugu, Imo, and the Lagos States, as well as the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), between January 2017 and May 2020. The research documented 82 cases of SARS brutality within that period, which included various forms of extortion, torture, and ill-treatment such as; hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, and other violent tactics. A similar report by Nigeria Mourns, a mass atrocities tracking and documentation desk under the Joint National Action Civil Society Coalition revealed that in the first half of 2020, it tracked 80 killings described as extrajudicial killings in Nigeria. Ifeoma Abugu, killed last in September 2020 is one such victim. She was raped and killed by SARS officials who had stormed her apartment in Wumba, Abuja, and forcefully arrested her. A young man simply identified as Sadiq, was at home in Gwarimpa when a SARS operative stormed his home in May and shot him, the bullets allegedly damaged his bone, and attempts to get justice left his family members threatened. Anita Akpason was 31 years old when she returned from studies abroad and started a govt job with NEMA. On her way home, Police overtook her, ripped bullets into her Honda Accord tires and bullet hit her. She died on her way to the hospital, she was labeled a criminal even though she wasn’t. In February, Kazeem Tiamiyu a budding footballer was shot and killed by SARS. Interestingly, when members of the general public gathered to protest his killing, members of the police shoot at them. Kolade Johnson was shot and killed by trigger happy SARS operative, The crime was being at a football viewing center to watch a football game and 18 months later, Kolade is yet to receive justice and the list goes on.
More than a Protest.
On Thursday, October 8th, in the midst of the growing outcry against SARS and Police brutality, a video appeared on twitter of an unidentified woman who had allegedly been shot in the mouth at Salvation bus stop Ipebi, Lagos, by a mobile police officer later identified as Sergent Eze Aiwansoba. This disturbing display of excessive force by police was enough to push what remained of the population of undecided youth to join the campaign to #EndSARS. By the dawn of October 9th, Nigerian Youths dug in, enough was finally enough. With many taking to social media to voice their displeasure for Police Brutality and support for the #EndSars movement, in a few hours, the hashtag was trending number 1 worldwide and continued to do so for the next 3 days. Nigerian Youth finally had the world’s attention. As the report began to circulate of the possible local media gag, Nigerian youths were not to be deterred. They took the campaign to the doorstep of international media houses, soon enough, these international news outlets began reporting on the situation. The diversity of media outlets reporting on #EndSARS and global personalities who came out in support of the movement was perhaps what made the movement more than just a protest. From traditional media houses such as CNN, CNN Africa, Aljazeera, BBC, AIT, Channels TV, Guardian, The Washington Post to even Goal.com (a football news outlet), The Shade Room (a predominantly celebrity gossip news outlet in America) all picked the story, amplifying the #EndSars movement.
Within moments, both Nigerians and Non-Nigerians stood in solidarity in the call to end police brutality. Leading the charge for the diaspora, was Nigerian-British actor, John Boyega, who took to twitter to utilize the power of his 2.1 million followers to call for an end to police brutality in Nigeria. Not long after, the planned protest had been organized for marches to the Nigerian Embassy in the United Kingdom and the United States of America to call for an end to sars. On a day when the Nigerian Super Eagles were scheduled to for a match with Algeria, with football being the most viewed sport in the country, with millions of youths tuning in weekly to catch the various exotic club matches, it was fitting that the footballing world would answer the call of Nigerian youths. With Manchester United forward, Marcus Rashford, Arsenal’s Mesut Ozil, former Arsenal striker Ian Wright, Nigerian Leicester midfielder Wilfred Ndidi, Chelsea’s Tammy Abraham, all joining their voices to the #EndSars campaign, the Nigerian Police and indeed Nigerian government had no place to hide.
The entertainment industry was not left out. From national stars like Genevieve Nnaji, actor turned politician Desmond Elliot, Davido, BankyW, Adesua Etomi-Wellington, Timi Dakolo, Wofaifada amongst to international acts such as Trey Songz, Chance The Rapper, MoneyBaggYo, Big Sean, Estelle, Stef London, Lil Baby with Rapper YungSix physically joining an #EndSars protest in Los Angeles, California, the world was truly watching.
Organized civil protest in Lagos, Abuja, Port Harcourt, Abeokuta, Anambra, etc. ensured that both State and Federal governments felt their physical presence.
Not Without A Cost
Unfortunately, as the call to End Sars gained stem and began reverberating around the world, the Nigerian police were yet to comprehend the magnitude of the moment. Soon, reports of police using excess for such as tear gas, water cannoning, and even firing live bullets at unarmed protesters and subsequent arrests of protesters in various parts of the country began flooding the internet. Perplexingly, these scenes were even more terrifying in Abuja, the capital city of Nigeria. The public relations campaign efforts by the Nigerian Police had suffered a massive set back. Frank Mba, the Nigerian Police Public Relations Officer was quoted earlier in the day as saying “it will be difficult for any responsible organization to scarp the Special anti-robbery squad…As a matter of fact, we have received a lot of call from people particularly in states like Maiduguri, Yobe, and some other parts of the north where SARS operatives are deeply embedded in the fight against banditry, insurgency”. The problem with his assertions was that just last month, community members from Jibia Local Government in Katsina State had taken to the streets to protest the growing unchecked spates of banditry in their communities. As with the Jibia protests, the protest the #EndSars also recorded a loss of lives. On Saturday, October 11th, with was reported that Jimoh Isiaka, an #EndSars protester had been shot dead in Ogbomoso. The Nigerian police were quick to deny claims by an eye witness that it had used live bullets to dispel the crowds, Premium reported Read here. Ladoke Akintola, a student of the University of Technology, Ogbomoso was also alleged to have been killed by the Nigerian Police during the #EndSars protests. By Monday, twitter user, Mazi Gburuguru tweeted on the total militarization of Ogbomoso, alleging that at least 10 persons had been killed in the city whilst calling on Governor Seyi Makinde to act decisively to stop the bloodshed. The governor responded. In an abridged broadcast released on twitter, Governor Seyi Makinde announced that after emergency deliberations with the heads of the security agencies in Oyo State, he had instructed the Nigerian Police in the State to take a “back seat” as other security agencies take charge. Shortly after, award-winning investigative journalist, Fisayo Soyombo, took to twitter to were he shared that 27 arrested protesters in Ogbomoso had been released from Police detention, however, sharing a screenshot of court documents, he noted that 3 protesters had been arraigned before a magistrate court for charges of attempted murder, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. On Sunday, just as the Inspector General announced the disbandment of the SARS unit, police fired teargas at the protesters, shot rubber bullets, and sprayed water on them. Not done, the rampaging cops alighted from their van and started chasing down protesters one after the other. Perhaps the most chilling and equally impressive moment when police shoot at protesters in Abuja, Ms. Aisha Yesufu, a renowned activist, walk calming away from the police with her arms raised high in selfless defiance. That moment captured on camera instantly reverberated across the country and beyond, instantly cementing Ms. Aisha Yesufu as a shero for the people.
Under growing pressure, the Inspector General of Police, announced the disbandment of the infamous police unit making the fourth time the unit had been banned. In December 2017, when the agitation to disband SARS gained momentum, the then IGP Ibrahim Idris announced measures to reorganize SARS; he had said that SARS would be banned from conducting stop and search operations except when necessary and warned SARS operatives against acting as bodyguards or getting involved in civil disputes. In August 2018, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo directed IGP Idris to overhaul SARS and stop the police officers from engaging in arbitrary arrest and civil matters, stating that “any unit that will emerge from the process will be intelligence-driven and restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping, and apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offenses, and nothing more. In September 2018, Idris ordered SARS to stop the random searching of people's phones immediately.
In January 2019, following yet another public outcry, the Acting Inspector General of Police of Nigeria, Mohammed Adamu disband Federal SARS, Special Investigation Panel, and Special Tactical Squad with immediate effect and ordered a total reorganization. He promised a comprehensive reform both in terms of ethics, mode of operation, nomenclature, and orientation, function delineation, command and control, weaponry, and accountability mechanism will be undertaken in SARS. In February 2020, after the death of Tiamiyu Kazeem; a Remo Starts football player, IGP Adamu ordered a shutdown of all satellite offices of SARS in the country. The trajectory shows a wealth of evidence that the inspector generals’ directives may yet be flouted. Dapo Awobeku, program officer at EiE Nigeria, a youth-led civil advocacy group stated that “The bans have so far been largely unclear and left to the discretion of state commissioners of police to interpret, for the bans to be effective, they must be based on a well-thought-out process, not some reactionary, emergency notice as seen since 2017.”
Though the unit has been officially banned, protest continues across the country with many stating this is not the first time the unit had been banned but yet the activity continues. To show the Police commitments, protester demand full answer on the #5for5 demands which includes:
1. Immediate release of all arrested protesters.
2. Justice for all the deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families
3. Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct (Within the next 10days)
4. In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation, and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed.
5. Increase Police Salary so that they can be adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of Citizens.
A Presidential Address
After days of deafening silence to the cries of the Nigerian Youth on the #EndSars campaign, President Muhammadu Buhari (GCFR) finally addressed the country. In a brief video statement posted on twitter stated as follows: “The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people”.
It is yet to be seen if this government has the political will to carry out its promises to reform the entire police department. However, Nigerians ended October 12, 2020, with the knowledge that their message of no retreat no surrender has been clearly received by the Nigerian government and the Buhari administration.