Updated: Dec 1, 2020
By Bren Bartol
Image via EPA
Born in Nigeria, one of the most populous nations in Africa, #EndSARS is a globally trending hashtag led by young people - but it is much more than just a hashtag. The police unit SARS, standing for Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was founded in 1992 by Fulani Kwajafa (who now opposes what the unit has transformed into). In the first few years, it did what it was supposed to do - lower crime like robberies and kidnappings. But this ended soon after.
SARS is notorious for its brutality as a police unit. They are known for being torturers, kidnappers, and extortionists. They require little means for arrest, attack for seemingly no reason, and have refused IDs, other proof of persons, and other witness accounts. In addition, they have tortured innocent people to force confessions (at least 82 people have been confirmed tortured from January 2017 to May 2020), people have gone missing under their care, and they ask for unrealistically high “bails” to extort their detainees further.
Since their decline in integrity and spiral into corruption, the people of Nigeria have been calling for reform and abolishment for decades. The government has been spouting empty promises over the last three decades in response. The corruption in the government and poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic (which has crippled Nigeria economically) has led not only to skepticism of the police unit, but of the government itself.
SARS targets young men with tattoos and dreadlocks - things that may signify money. They also target people who play into “gay” stereotypes. Recently in Benin, police went door to door to harass and arrest feminine men, regardless of their sexual orientation. Over half the country of Nigeria is 19 or younger. They are leading the protests!
Protests have been occurring since 2016, but they erupted on October 3, 2020 after a video on social media showed a young man in Delta being killed by the police with nothing done to provoke them. The Nigerian government claimed it was fake news, but arrested the person who recorded and posted it. Since then, thousands have been protesting peacefully.
President Muhammadu Buhari came out and promised on October 12th, like those before him, that SARS will be disbanded, yet SARS agents were redeployed after his statement. The Nigerian government says SARS will be replaced with SWAT, the Special Weapons and Tactics unit, and SARS agents will be allowed to join with a medical and psychological examination.
Protestors have a simple message: Disband SARS and reform the police as a whole. Unlike the Black Lives Matter Movement in the US, Nigerians lean away from the abolishment or defunding of the police and are demanding simply a better police force, one that will be held accountable. They also want to put a stop to government corruption. Thugs are no new facet of politics, and it is common for politicians to hire them. A few people at the protests that turned violent have confessed to being paid to attend and incite violence.
Protests were, for the most part, peaceful, until October 20th. On the 20th, a 24-hour curfew was instated, starting at four o'clock. This curfew was announced only hours before it was enforced. With the massive population and some of the worst traffic jams in the world, it was setting people up to be out after the curfew was set. On the night of October 20th, now known as the Lekki Massacre to many Nigerians, the government shut off street lights, security cameras, and left protestors in the dark. One of the most well-known videos for this movement shows the after-effects. Protestors are peacefully sitting in the street when Nigerian soldiers pull up and start firing on them. It is reported the soldiers kept shooting well into the morning, took bodies, and tried to keep ambulance’s away. This was after turning live ammunition, tear gas, and water cannons on protestors. After this event, violence increased on the protestor's side. Despite all the beatings and hospitalizations, Nigerian citizens fought back after the 20th. Seventeen police stations in Lagos have been burned down. In addition to this, SARS agents and the police have been harassing reporters and journalists and destroying their supplies, like their cameras, in attempts to keep news from spreading.
Twelve protestors, twelve people, have been confirmed dead in these protests. It is highly likely that more have been killed. Many more have been wounded.
#EndSARS may just be a hashtag to you, but protests have occurred worldwide in support of the people of Nigeria. Some may try and alienate this instance from the rest of the world, claiming something along the lines of, “What do you expect? It’s Africa!” The people of fifty-four nations and two independent states in Africa are not savages, or inferior. They are people facing a crisis that is killing people. The people of Nigeria are people. It is the least we can do to educate ourselves and support them in their fight against injustice.
Written by writer Bren Bartol