Disclaimer: The following blog post is not a reflection of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s opinion on The EndSARS Protests of 2020.
By Ian Cata
In October 2020, after a summer of massive global protests surrounding the issue of police brutality, Nigeria found itself in the midst of a similar watershed moment. After a video of an extrajudicial killing committed by an officer of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) went viral, young Nigerians joined together in country-wide peaceful protests calling for the disbandment of the unit. The protests were completely decentralized, youth-led, and, utilized the power of social media to create global awareness. After only a week of protests, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the complete dissolution of the SARS unit, effective immediately. To many outsiders, this was a massive victory, but within Nigeria there was hesitancy, this hadn’t been the first time the SARS unit was dissolved and many feared it wasn’t the last. Since 2015, the SARS unit had been disbanded or reformed on four separate occasions and had always come back in one form or another. But why and how? Who was this seemingly immune police unit and did the introduction of their abuses to the international stage create lasting change?
The SARS unit was established in 1992, serving as a masked police unit dedicated to investigating and prosecuting crimes such as armed robbery, car theft, kidnapping, cattle rustling, and the illegal use of firearms. Over the years, the SARS unit became notorious throughout Nigeria, racking up accusations of illegal detentions, sexual assault, and even extrajudicial killings. Alongside the allegations of human rights abuses, the unit became synonymous with corruption in the country. SARS officers were reported to have specifically extorted young Nigerian men with dreadlocks, tattoos, designer clothes, luxury cars, and/or nice phones. SARS officers would arrest and detain the young men and then drive them to the nearest ATM, telling them to pay whatever sum they chose in order to gain their freedom . For those who couldn’t or refused to pay, they would be imprisoned and their family would then be ransomed in return for their freedom. Some families who experienced this extortion and were unable to pay, have claimed that the detained family member had been killed or “disappeared”.
The #endSARS movement began in 2016, with human rights activist Segun Awosanya who began a campaign on Twitter to bring attention to the abuses committed by the police unit. The government eventually responded claiming that it would bring reform to the unit, yet none occurred. In 2017, a petition gained over 10,000 signatures calling for the disbandment of SARS and was submitted to the Nigerian National Assembly where disbandment was taken off the table but reform was considered. Throughout 2017, the hashtag, #endSARS, was used to organize peaceful protests throughout the country with the central goal of disbandment. In late 2017, in response to the campaign, the Inspector General of the Nigerian Police Force announced that SARS would be reformed and reorganized.
In 2020, the #endSARS movement inflamed to new heights. On October 4th, 2020, a video depicting two SARS officers dragging two young men out of a hotel and shooting one of them began going viral across social media platforms. Soon other videos depicting abuses committed by the SARS unit began popping up on Twitter alongside the hashtag #endSARS. The next day a report surfaced of another young Nigerian man who was approached by SARS officers outside of his hotel and was subsequently killed. Within a week the #endSARS had been used over 28 million times and was trending on Twitter for several days. The movement caught the attention of many celebrities and Black Lives Matter Activists who wrote letters to President Buhari urging him to treat protestors humanely and to release all illegally detained protestors. Even the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, tweeted out his support for the movement.
With half of Nigeria’s population being under the age of 19, the power and voice of the youth were on full display. Using Twitter to organize, young Nigerians took to the streets en masse, with peaceful protests in almost every single district and major city of Nigeria, #endSARS became impossible to ignore. Although the protests were decentralized, five main demands were widely agreed upon. In a letter to the government signed by “the Nigerian Youth.” They listed the following:
- Immediate release of all arrested during the protests
- Compensation for all victims of police brutality in Nigeria
- Establishment of an independent investigative body to investigate and prosecute all reports of police misconduct
- Psychological evaluation and retraining of all SARS operatives before they are deployed to a different unit
- Adequate increase in the salaries of officers of the Nigerian police
Across the country, protestors used various forms of peaceful protest to create disruption and force the government to accept their demands. Some blocked tollways or important highways, dampening economic activity in the region, others peacefully marched through the streets, and some camped out in front of the homes of local politicians demanding support. On October 11th, a mere week after the protests began, President Buhari announced the dissolution of the SARS unit as well as agreed to create an investigative body dedicated to punishing perpetrators of police brutality. Yet, protests within Nigeria didn’t slow down. Due to the precedent of empty promises surrounding reformation around SARS and a lack of concrete measures towards accountability for the crimes committed by SARS officers, the Nigerian youth continued to take to the streets.
The violence reached a disturbing level on October 20th, when the Nigerian army stepped in to disperse a protest at the Lekki Toll Bridge in Lagos. Thousands of protestors had peacefully blocked the toll bridge, giving speeches, singing songs, and chanting for justice. Due to a curfew being announced in place that day, workers at the booth were ordered to shut off the lights and go home, and cameras at the site were also allegedly removed. As the sunset, the protestors found themselves in the darkness of night. A message was spread to the protestors through social media saying that if they sang the Nigerian national anthem and waved the Nigerian flag they wouldn’t be harmed by military officers . Sitting on the ground with their arms locked, the protestors began singing the Nigerian national anthem. As a platoon of around twenty military officers started approaching the group, the protestors began singing louder. Their voices were suddenly cut off by the sounds of gunfire coming from the soldiers. In a powerful video posted to Twitter, one can hear the voice of a man continuing to sing, his voice quavering, even as the Nigerian army opens fire on the crowd, eventually his voice falls silent. By the time the shooting ceased, a dozen protestors were killed.
In the aftermath of the massacre, the government denied any deaths occurred claiming that the army used only blanks to disperse the protestors. The Lekki Toll Bridge Massacre served as the bloody end for most of the larger #endSARS protests, but the voice of the Soro Soke (Yoruba for “Speak Up”) generation, as the youth call themselves, has not been conquered. They witnessed first-hand the power that their generation holds, with the type of a Tweet they created a global movement and had several of their demands met within a week of protesting. In addition, the protests caught the attention of the International Criminal Court which began a preliminary examination into the government’s violent response. Yet, even with these victories, young Nigerians acknowledge that there is still work to be done. Many still feel that not enough was done and that the government has covered up many of the extrajudicial killings and crimes of SARS members. While SARS may have been defeated, the battle for accountability has only just begun.
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