Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad: Police brutality is worldwide
By Nina Reis
Published Mon Dec 14 2020
“I am fortunate to only have one encounter with SARS and I’m lucky to have been alive after it. (…) So, we agreed and, on the spot, he made me open by bank app and transfer the money. (…) Also, I thought about the other people that wouldn’t have been able to produce that amount of money on the spot and would have been killed.” – Damilola, living in Lagos As much as 2020 was a year characterized by the Coronavirus pandemic, it was also a year of protests, and of the Black Lives Matter movement returning to the public sphere of (selective) attention; and becoming global. For good reasons, too: police brutality is not solely American. Racism is not solely American.
In October 2020, in Nigeria, a young man was killed by members of SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. His death seemed to be the final trigger; protests erupted and a movement flared up, #EndSARS. The End SARS protests in Nigeria are about disbanding SARS and stopping police brutality. According to Nigerian Youths in the Netherlands, a collective of young Nigerians living in Amsterdam, “the EndSARS movement at first started as a call to end police brutality, harassment, and extrajudicial killings of young Nigerians who appeared opulent. Now, it is a social movement to request accountability and good governance in Nigeria.”
But what is SARS in the first place, and what do they do? The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was first formed in 1992, to combat rising violent crime. By the early 2000s, this special police unit, whose members mostly operated in plain clothes and were responsible for arresting armed criminals, had expanded its jurisdiction from the city of Lagos to the whole of Nigeria, expanding their power in the process. Nowadays, that power is characterized by impunity: SARS officers generally operate in plain clothes and are armed with guns, and for years have been accused of engaging in extortion, brutality, and murder. They stop and search people, asking for bribes and threatening them, using force, detaining them, and at worst, killing them. Talking with Damilola and the collective Nigerian Youths in the Netherlands, it becomes obvious that many young Nigerians have had first-hand experiences with SARS, or know someone else who has been stopped by SARS officers. As much as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad has become a part of young Nigerians’ lives, so have the protests against them.
On October 11, the Nigerian Police Force announced that the government had dissolved the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. On October 20, Nigerian security forces shot live ammunition into peaceful protesters, demanding police accountability, at Lekki Toll in Lagos; at least 12 people died.
The dissolvement of SARS did not put an end to police brutality, but the #EndSARS movement amplified the resistance to it. Even after the announcement on October 11, protests continued because, as Damilola points out, “after the so-called disbandment, in the same speech the head of police in Nigeria immediately said that there would be a new task force called “SWAT” (…) which was basically saying that they are rebranding; the same people are going to be in that task force, still [engaging] in their old habits of extortion, using their guns. (…) they have been using different terminologies since 2015! It’s the same story, they never do shit.” Since 2015, it has been declared that the unit will be reformed, restructured, reorganized, disbanded, and now, dissolved. Extortion and violence at the hands of police officers have persisted nonetheless. Nigerian Youths in the Netherlands argues: “Although the government has claimed the group [SARS] would be made defunct, we all know for a fact the police officers would just be recycled to other units, or even the newly created SWAT. Like wearing fresh clothes on dirty skin.”
So, young Nigerians kept coming to the protests, continuing to call for police accountability. Even more so, besides demanding an end to the SARS unit and impunity of the officers, the protesters are demanding public trials, compensation for the families of victims, a psychological evaluation for all police officers, better training, and government accountability. Some have even called for the resignation of President Buhari. Calling for structural reforms and accountability beyond the police force acknowledges a very important aspect of impunity in Nigeria: it is not just individual officers that are the problem. #EndSARS quickly gathered international attention and support, despite the Nigerian government failing, at first, to take the young people protesting seriously. Many people in the West (meaning North America and Europe), mostly online, shared information about the movement and protesters’ Gofundme links, as well as appealing to their governments to punish the Nigerian government, to hold it accountable.
But, a petition is not as simple as it appears at first glance. Economic sanctions on Nigeria, or cutting aid, will bear little results at first, and at worst, will only end up making life more difficult for ordinary people, the kind of people who are protesting. What do they want, what do they need? What is the business, the legitimacy, of Western countries holding the Nigerian government accountable, of intervening? Why do we not hold our own governments accountable? The United Kingdom, for example, and it is not the only European country, provided “strategic assistance” training to the Nigerian police force between 2016 and 2020.
SARS, since its inception in the 1990s, has been disbanded, dissolved, and reformed many times. These are not the first protests against the excessive violence enacted upon ordinary people, against corrupt and violent officers, and the state looking away. But the protests, which started up in early October after the video of SARS officers assaulting a young Nigerian went viral, seemed to be different this time; maybe simply because the End SARS protests haven’t stopped yet.
The protests are dominated by young people and it is the largest social movement in the country since 2012. Sharing their experiences and organizing both on- and offline, a broad sense of community and empowerment has developed. Social media serves as an amplifier, grievances and violence are experienced at a global level. Maybe it’s because of social media, maybe not – the EndSARS movement is characterized by a leaderless decentralization, with many different groups and collectives providing support. Like the Feminist Coalition. Like queer activists. In a country where the Same Sex Marriage Prohibition Act essentially legalizes violence against queer people, the public participation of queer people in the #EndSARS protests is brave and courageous. And a sign that Nigerian youths envision a widely different future for their country than its current leaders.
Asking Damilola about his own experience protesting, he remembers: “During that period [in October] I went to about four protests on four different days. Because I had a personal connection to the fight, I felt like it was compulsory that I go”. Now, with the second phase of December, as the dissolution of SARS appears to be mainly symbolic, will more people join? Or less, as the impunity of the Nigerian police seems to continue? The Lekki Toll massacre was a display of pure brutality – nationally and internationally condemned – but once a certain threshold of violence has been crossed, it is not all that clear what comes next. With this second wave of protests, there is genuine fear about the safety of protesters. The protests fall into the common pattern of police brutality protests worldwide, whereas the typical response to protests against police violence is more excessive police violence.
For Nigerians living in diaspora, in the Netherlands, Nigerian Youths in the Netherlands says they strongly felt the need to speak out and raise awareness to bring attention to the injustice occurring and still occurring till this day in Nigeria. “Most of us still have family members, loved ones, friends in Nigeria who were part of the movement back in Nigeria.” The collective itself was founded as an immediate response, as a need to “bring together young Nigerians and (…) to build a robust Nigerian community here in the Netherlands”; just like the protests brought together Nigerians.
A huge thank you to Damilola (check out his label!) and Nigerian Youths in the Netherlands for speaking so candidly with me. Please follow Nigerian Youths in the Netherlands on Instagram/Facebook to stay up to date with their work and events.