SARS Protests Empower Nigerian Youths

Nigerian protestors holding #endSARS sign
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Throughout the month of October, tens of thousands of young Nigerians have taken to the streets of Africa’s most populous nation to chant “Enough is Enough” against the longstanding corruption and lack of accountability within the country’s police force. As a result, the phrase #EndSARS has become internationally ubiquitous across myriad social media platforms.

The protests initially began as a means of demanding that the notoriously unjust and violent police unit Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) be shut down. SARS was created in response to an overwhelming issue of vicious crime within Nigeria, including robberies, carjackings and kidnappings. At first, the police unit quashed the burgeoning epidemic of violence and was credited with reducing the brash lawlessness that had consumed the country.

Yet, following its early years of crime-fighting success, SARS was accused of inciting the very problem it had been designed to stop. Quickly becoming synonymous with other criminal enterprises that acted with impunity, the unit been accused of harassing and physically abusing Nigerian civilians since 1992.

Earlier this month, the Nigerian government announced that they would disband the unit. However, this assertion did not indicate a massive victory. Instead, this was the fourth time in several years that the government made a promise to reform and/or disband SARS that it could not keep. Nearly 24 hours after the government’s announcement, SARS was reborn as Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT).

Nigerian #endSARS protestor using tech gadget
An EndSARS protestor in Lagos, Nigeria on October 17, 2020 using one of the most important tools at their disposal — technology.

Over time, the protests against shutting down SARS have morphed into a larger campaign for police reform and an overall end to the decades of terrorism against civilians. Motolani Alake, a journalist for Nigeria’s Pulse newspaper, wrote that the demonstrations have taken on “a tone of rebellion, a note of valid belligerency and a chant of unification in the Nigerian struggle against police brutality and terrible governance.”

Fulani Kwajafa, the former police commissioner who founded SARS, told BBC that he eschewed what the unit became, stating that unit had been “turned into banditry.” In fact, many of the SARS officers do not wear uniforms or name tags that identify themselves. Amnesty International issued a report in June revealing that at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions were inflicted by SARS officers between 2017 and 2020.

However, Amnesty also reported that people in SARS custody are generally “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.” Hence, it is likely that the actual number of human rights violations that are occurring is far greater than what has been officially documented.

On October 3, a video showing the unprovoked killing of a man by SARS officers went viral. The young man was forced out of his jeep and attacked by officers that donned all-black clothing and lacked any form of police identification. Nigerian officials said the video was fake and instead arrested the person who filmed the murder rather than the responsible officers.

Although the incident took place in Ughelli, a town in southern Delta state, demonstrations engulfed the nation’s biggest city of Lagos as well as several other parts of the country. Showing up in droves, Nigeria’s young population viewed the atrocity as a call to arms and a chance to dismantle SARS once and for all.

demonstrators write #EndSARS in Nigeria
A demonstrator writes #EndSARS on a street during a protest in Lagos, Nigeria on October 20, 2020 [Seun Sanni/Reuters/AlJazeera]
On October 12, President Muhammadu Buhari made the aforementioned announcement to disband SARS. In an effort to placate protestors, President Buhari added that his decision was “only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of the lives and livelihood of our people.” Instead, protestors grew outraged after it was revealed that SARS officers would simply be redeployed elsewhere within Nigeria’s police system.

One week later, the otherwise largely peaceful demonstrations took a deadly turn. Soldiers descended upon the protests and fired indiscriminately into the crowds of people. Police mobilized and reclaimed public spaces whilst protestors began to loot and vandalize government property — destroying at least 17 police stations in Lagos.

In an interview with GQ, celebrity DJ Switch recounted her experience of the exceedingly violent evening of October 20. Around noon, the governor of Lagos State announced that a curfew would go into effect at 4 p.m. Switch and her fellow protestors remained at Lekki Toll Gate, which served as the homebase for many of the protests. Soon after, Switch witnessed the mass shooting of unarmed protestors by police insurgents and even filmed the bloody aftermath on her Instagram Live.

According to Switch, the security cameras were removed from the area and billboard lights that would otherwise illuminate the scene were turned off. Just before 7 p.m., the military “came in guns blazing.” Switch took to filming the chaos on her Instagram because, “I thought I was going to die.” Additionally, she wanted to make sure that “the world sees this so they don’t change the story and tell people that we killed ourselves . . . I didn’t want us to die in vain.”

When asked if the carnage she witnessed was “fake news” (as it has been deemed by the government), DJ Switch balked. “It’s an absolute lie from the pits of hell,” she said. “People died for nothing . . . People just died, for what? What did they do?” In short, the only “crime” that these individuals have committed is that they are part of an increasingly formidable population of “young creatives.”

Nigerian #EndSARS protester explaining why he is protesting
Divine Eze, 29, lawyer/entrepreneur: “When I was 14, some SARS officers stopped me for a random search; when I asked why I was being searched, one of the officers got upset and ensured I stayed for a couple of minutes … Protesting is the only way we can let the government know about our plight; it is the only way we can correct their notion of us.” [Etinosa Yvonne/Al Jazeera]
More than 40% of Nigeria’s population is comprised of individuals that are under 30 years old and SARS has preyed on well-dressed, or “fresh” youths for over a decade. The unit has pulled over individuals solely because they drive nice cars and then the officers demand money in exchange for the civilian’s freedom. SARS officers are also known to stop anyone that carries the latest phone or other popular tech gadget and accuse them of “cybercrimes.”

Ultimately, SARS officers rely on little information before making egregious claims. Individuals that sport dreadlocks, piercings, tattoos, colored hair, and any other form of alternative appearance/dress are especially targeted, and oftentimes these young creatives are labeled as highly suspicious criminals that have to live in constant fear of being jumped by plainclothes SARS officers.

Popular Nigerian musician Falz, who helped organize the original protests, explained that the government has succeeded in maintaining decades of brutality because Nigerian citizens remained silent. “They’re used to a level of silence, a level of apathy, people don’t really push back against the government,” he said. “But we’re a different generation. We’re not just going to lie there while we’re being oppressed. We’re going to fight back against the oppression.”

tweet from feminist coalition about how they spend money
Tweet from the Feminist Coalition outlining where donation money was spent between October 20/21, 2020 throughout Nigeria [Twitter].
Nigerian women have stepped up and showed an incredible amount of power behind the protests. In particular, the Feminist Coalition raised nearly $400,000 to fund various demonstrations around the country. The group is highly active on social media and saw great success in posting honestly and openly on Twitter about how they use their money. Most notably, the group provided free medical assistance to those who were injured in the protests and even offered rapid volunteer legal assistance to help free anyone who was arrested.

Currently, the protests have been suspended and it is unclear if they will return. “I genuinely don’t know the answer,” Falz said. “Is it smart to return to the protests after we’ve just lost so many people? [However,] I’d rather die fulfilling a purpose than die for nothing. I’m not afraid to die.”

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