As social movements continue around the world to end the impunity that police forces have, the African continent has seen their biggest movement within the country of Nigeria with the #EndSARS protests. Nigeria has the largest population on the continent, and the largest population of young people has taken to the streets to protest the torture and brutality Nigerians are facing at the hands of police. The Nigerian government has at least acknowledged some of the problems, however, the protests have turned toward social change demands, with citizens calling for more anti-corruption crackdowns in the government and social and structural changes nationwide.
In 2017, Nigerian activists launched a campaign to end human rights violations committed by SARS – the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian police responsible for the investigation of crimes such as robbery and kidnapping. SARS had been created in 1992 to fight an increase in armed robbery and crime. Over the years, video evidence has appeared on social media showing unlawful arrests and other abuses. In 2017 when the campaign #EndSARS was launched footage was shared allegedly showing the aftermath of the police killing of a young man. The internet began to fill with horror stories of young people who had suffered human rights violations at the hands of SARS.
At that time, in 2017, the police authorities made it known that they would reform SARS. Among the police amendments was the passage of the 2017 Anti-torture Act and the signing of the New Police Act. However, there was reportedly no enforcement. For example, an Amnesty International report – Nigeria: Time to end impunity and other violations by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) details at least 82 incidents of torture and other gross human rights violations between January 2017 and May 2020.
On October 8, there was again a rise in nationwide and international protests against SARS. This is after a video emerged of alleged SARS officers shooting a man in the Delta State of Nigeria. Unlike previous protests, which lasted just a few days, the current protests have gone global with petitions and demonstrations to the U.K. government to extend sanctions to the Nigeria government. The demonstrations have also carried more than the message that the police cannot operate with impunity, they are calling for an end to corruption and good social governance. Famous celebrities and business leaders have given rise to the spread of the #EndSARS movement, and they include Joe Biden and the U.K government and European Union who have expressed their concern at the Nigerian’s government’s lack or reform.
The Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, on October 11 agreed in a televised statement to disband SARS but replaced it with a new unit on October 13 called Special Weapons And Tactics unit (SWAT). This is the fourth time that SARS has either been disbanded or reformed. Mohammed Adamu who oversees the police announced that SWAT would carry out the duties which were done by SARS. The SWAT team would receive training on police conduct and use of force by the International Committee of the Red Cross. However, this is a far cry from the reforms that protestors have been calling for and therefore the protests have continued.
The Nigerian government has issued statements claiming the protests have become political and have been being infiltrated by anarchists as property of politicians has been destroyed. Depending on the reports nearly 2,000 inmates have broken out of jail after crowds attacked two prisons in Southern Nigeria in Benin. However, by large the protests have been peaceful. Though lacking a central figurehead; young people have organized themselves through social media and come out to the streets to march sometimes holding hands. Fundraising for legal aid, food and drink has been organised for the protests by various groups including the Feminist Coalition which the Nigerian government has tried to label as a terrorist organization.
On Oct. 20, 2020, which marked about two weeks into the protests, the Lagos State governor suddenly announced a curfew to try and stop the protests by ‘restoring order’. However, as we have seen around the world, the police only use force to restore order. The Nigerian government at the prominent protest site of the Lekki Toll Gate, reportedly cut the camera feed and lights. The protesters who as seen in video footage were, at this stage, sitting on the ground peacefully were then attacked by soldiers who shot into crowds of people. The sad footage of what happened has gone viral and is yet another example of a failed democracy and how governments continue to use the police and military to oppress their citizens with impunity. The #EndSARS movement becomes a reminder of why we need police reform around the world.
Photo: Guy Smallman