#EndSARSNow Is Just the Beginning of Police Reform in Nigeria
On Monday, October 12, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari announced the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit notorious for its egregious abuses of human rights, including extrajudicial killings. It was not a decision he made voluntarily; a wave of protesting, tech-savvy Nigerian youth forced his hand. For years, Buhari had resisted pressure to dissolve the repressive policing unit, but he finally relented under days of street protests by resilient Nigerians, mostly youth, who used the “#EndSARSNow” hashtag to share stories and videos of horrific torture by the unit, which became a trending topic on social media worldwide.
Nigeria’s military regime established SARS in 1984 during Buhari’s military dictatorship to fight armed robbery, which was rampant on the country’s roads and rural areas. Over the years, SARS made a name for itself as the most violent police unit. Its members, including senior leaders, committed egregious human rights abuses and dabbled in non-criminal matters such as contractual and matrimonial disputes in order to collect bribes. More recently, SARS police officers would stop and search law-abiding Nigerian youth, targeting individuals perceived to have money or carrying expensive personal devices. SARS also harassed, detained, and occasionally killed youth wearing tattered trousers or sporting dyed hair or hairstyles SARS operatives do not like. This practice was the final nail on SARS’s coffin.
Q1: Why did the protests start?
A1: Nigerian youth have campaigned against SARS for years, but a viral video of the alleged killing of a young man by a SARS officer during a stop-and-search operation in early October sparked the recent wave of protests. The video resonated with thousands across the country and led to youth pouring out en masse onto the streets. As police officers used hot water, tear gas, and live bullets to disperse peaceful protesters—killing several and injuring dozens—more Nigerians joined in. Widely circulated videos of the police using lethal force against demonstrators functioned as a global call to action; Nigerians in the diaspora gathered in Atlanta, Berlin, London, New York, Washington, and other cities to show solidary and amplify the demands by chanting “End SARS Now.” This global condemnation became unbearable for Nigeria’s leaders who were afraid to make their negative international image worse.
The inspector general of the police (IGP) initially insisted that he would reform, not scrap, SARS. The protesters rejected this concession in part because it was the fourth time in four years that authorities had disingenuously promised to reform the unit. Other protesters argued the unit had outlived its purpose, noting that online banking negated the need to carry large amounts of cash and consequently reduced opportunities for armed robbery. The escalating protests forced the IGP to backtrack and commit to disbanding the squad in live broadcast.
At the insistence of demonstrators, President Buhari delivered a televised address on October 12 to reiterate IGP’s dissolution of the unit. He said the disbanding is “only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms,” and promised that his government will “ensure that all those responsible for misconduct are brought to justice.” This was still insufficient for some protesters; they have continued to demonstrate in the capital Abuja and across the country saying they will not let their guards down until the pledges are implemented. Some demonstrators have started making new demands, including the IGP’s resignation or removal for the death or detention of fellow protesters.
Q2: What factors explain the protests’ success?
A2: Nigerians are no strangers to demonstrations. Every now and then, protesters will march to the streets, rejecting government removal of fuel subsidies or demanding free and fair elections. In most cases, the police will use lethal force to quell the protests. Several factors—including the accumulation of anger, effective use of social media, and the involvement of Nigerian diaspora—account for SARS’s disbandment:
- Accumulation of anger: SARS’s brutality is not something Nigerians just hear or read about. Most have experienced pain directly or indirectly through friends, neighbors, or family. There is hardly a Nigerian that does not know at least one person abused by SARS. When the youth initiated these protests, the grievances and demands resonated across Nigeria.
- Social media: Social media, especially Twitter, played a vital role in this round of protests. The sharing of recent footage ignited the demonstrations and encouraged protesters who watched from home to also show up. Young people would turn up to a particular protest location and publish updates on social media urging others to join. Before the police could mobilize to prevent the protest, a larger crowd than they could handle had piled up. Further, Twitter and WhatsApp were used to share locations of those injured and call for volunteer teams of medical personnel to assist or, in serious cases, transport victims to health facilities. Last, Nigerians used social media to raise money to buy water, food, and other supplies to sustain the demonstrations.
- The Nigerian diaspora: Social media enabled Nigerians abroad to follow almost in real-time what was transpiring back home. They saw fellow countrymen and women, including friends and family, being harassed for peacefully protesting, and were inspired to raise their voices too. The diaspora’s participation was immensely impactful because Nigerian politicians are easily unsettled by negative news outside the country, especially in the West. The elite fear that it may affect their ability to see their doctors abroad, enroll their children in foreign schools, and visit their preferred holiday destinations. Furthermore, videos of human rights abuses by the police risk deterring foreign contributions, investments, and loans. The diaspora’s engagement spurred the government to do something to stop the situation from getting worse.
Q3: Is this the end of the struggle against police abuse?
A3: Flatly, no. Many Nigerians are still protesting, leveling new demands and asking for immediate action on government commitments. Even individuals who suspended their protests are carefully watching to see if SARS officers remain active, if transparent investigations proceed, and if offending officers will face justice and compensation provided for victims. If all or any of these demands are not met in the coming weeks and months, the protesters almost certainly will return to the streets in full gear. Even if the government’s pledges are redeemed, there is a drive to erase the SARS mentality from the police force. Nigerians are likely to regard any human rights violations by police officers as a continuation of the SARS’s abusive and corrupt legacy, which may lead to more protests. Last, inspired by their success, some Nigerian youth have started to call for more demonstrations against other issues affecting them, including public university lecturer strikes, persistent insecurity, and the rising cost of living. This may just be the beginning, rather than the end, of massive protests in Nigeria.
Q4: What are the implications for police reform in Nigeria?
A4: Nigeria’s youth are demanding holistic police reform, and they seem intent on holding President Buhari responsible for fulfilling these calls. The failure of the country’s policing system is evident in alarming levels of crime—kidnapping, cattle rustling, and cropland violence—for which no one is held accountable. This has led to the proliferation of vigilante groups to defend themselves against criminal gangs and terrorists. Kidnappings and killings have become commonplace; ethno-religious violence and ritual killings continue, while retaliatory killings between communities and ethnic groups are surging due to long-held frustration with the country’s policing and judicial systems. This slide into anarchy cannot be allowed to continue unabated.
The police, however, lack the human and technical capacity to detect and investigate crimes, much less prevent them. This is worsened by chronic underfunding, corruption, and political interference. These factors, coupled with impunity and a lack of accountability and transparency, have made the police the most hated institution in Nigeria. The average police officer considers himself above the law, even in obeying traffic rules. This culture of impunity must be changed. There is a need for an independent office to establish standards and investigate serious complaints against police. The protests are a beginning—and must pivot toward community-based, intelligence-driven policing to fulfill the promise of #SARSMustEnd.
Bulama Bukarti is a senior associate (non-resident) of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C.
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