Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars) is notorious for extrajudicial killings, extortion and sexual abuse amongst other crimes. Almost every Nigerian will have a story to tell of being harassed by squad members. If you are poor, you are termed a criminal; rich, you are a yahoo boy, slang for internet fraudster.
The squad’s modus operandi is simple: arrest someone, take the victim to the ATM and if money is exchanged the person might be freed. For those who can’t afford to pay, three possible scenarios await: they swap places with people already imprisoned, jailed for a crime they never committed until the family can afford to pay a bribe, or they are killed.
The government continues to turn a blind eye to the squad’s actions. It has been officially disbanded four times — including this month — yet it still exists. Thousands of complaints have been filed with the appropriate authorities against the squad, but nothing concrete has been done.
Since the start of the #EndSars protest, at least 30 protesters have been killed by the police officers, excluding deaths from the Lekki tolls shooting. Amnesty International has documented 82 cases of abuse by squad members between 2017 and 2020.
But a video of a victim that appeared online at the beginning of October has galvanised what is probably the biggest citizens movement in a decade. These grievances about police brutality have united Nigerians, irrespective of social, religious or economic background. The movement is apparently leaderless, and the protest grows with each passing day.
As they protest, food and drinks are donated to sustain the campaign. Coming together as feminist movement, young women have raised N74 727 649.13 (almost $180 000) in the past week. They have used this money to secure legal aid for those arrested and medical support for those injured in the protests. The audience has also grown through the young protesters’ use of hashtag activism to fight against injustice from online to offline.
Is the government listening at last? This protest has led to a fourth promise to disband the squad. The governor of Lagos joined the protest and carried a placard in support of the campaign. He also tweeted a list of officers arrested for police brutality and the violation of human rights.The hitherto silent President Muhammadu Buhari has even spoken about the matter.
The Nigerian National Economic Council, led by Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and composed of the 36 state governors, has called for the immediate establishment of a judicial panel of inquiry comprising government and non-state actors into police brutality.
But the protesters are yet to be convinced. They are insisting that new standards must be established and that an implementation plan for any of the proposed reforms be developed before they will relent.
They are right to be suspicious. Increasingly the actions of the state have been to foment violence by using thugs to infiltrate the peaceful protests and cause death and destruction of property in major cities around Nigeria. Social media is buzzing with videos of armed hoodlums being ferried around in expensive four-wheel drives and government buses in Abuja and Lagos. Videos have also emerged of them receiving as little as N1 500 ($3) to scatter the protesters.
Given Nigerians’ experiences of electoral politics, and politicians’ use of thugs to achieve their personal election objectives, many suspect these are the same actors disrupting the protests.
Worse transpired in Lagos on 20 October when security forces fired live bullets at unarmed #EndSars protesters at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos. Twelve people were shot dead. Others were killed elsewhere in the state.
Pictures of the sorry plight of protesters with the bloodied Nigerian flag have appeared on social media in the month the country celebrated sixty years of independence.
The attempt to fight for justice has again revealed the brutal nature of the Nigerian state. Instead of protecting citizens, the government turned the gun on them.
The protesters have called themselves the Soro Soke — the Speak Up — generation. It is time all Nigerians who care about democracy in the country follow their example.