By Raphael Ejime*
In one of the few times from recent memory, Nigerian youths are united not along political, ethnic, gang, or religious lines, but standing together and speaking with one voice on issues related to their future. The trigger of the latest youth protest is police brutality and extra-judicial killings.
This is happening in a ‘Netizens’ era, which has witnessed several other demonstrations by citizens against unacceptable conditions/situations in Africa’s most populous nation. Recent examples include the #Bringbackourgirls campaign for the release of the more than 270 Chibok Schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in 2014 and the #NottooyoungtoRun campaign for political inclusivity. There is also the #FreeLeah campaign, about Leah Shaibu, one of the 110 Dapchi schoolgirls abducted in February 2018 by the same Boko Haram group.
However, the on-going #EndSARS and #EndPoliceBrutality demonstrations/protests are against atrocities perpetrated by the ‘Special Anti-Robbery Squad’ – a special unit established in 1992 by the Police to deal with armed robbery and similar violent crimes.
A retired Commissioner of Police, Fulani Kwajafa, claims he established the SARS unit in 1984 acting on the instructions of then Inspector General of Police during Gen. Muhammdu Buhari’s military regime. However, another account has it that in 1992, a Colonel of the Nigerian military was killed at a Police checkpoint, prompting military officers to take to the streets in retaliation against the Police. For the period that Police personnel retreated from their posts out of fear, the rate of armed robbery and other crimes rose sharply, prompting the setting up of SARS to curb the crime wave.
The Police later returned to their checkpoints following an agreement with the military, but the SARS took on a life of its own. By 2009, SARS was already a large unit boasting great control in the handling of robbery and similar cases. The unit soon extended its control to perceived ‘Internet fraudsters.’ SARS operatives, who are usually dressed in plain clothes, are accused of brandishing different types of weapons, driving in unmarked vehicles, or ‘commandeering’ public transports and harassing innocent Nigerians.
Their favourite targets reportedly include youths with ‘distinguishing hairstyles’ or ‘flashy cars,’ whom they subject to inhumane treatment and torture under the guise of investigating fraudulent practices, which are sometimes unfounded. In other cases, unsuspecting youths were made to part with their gadgets such as mobile phones and computer laptops, or forced to transfer huge sums of money from their personal bank accounts to the SARS operatives. Allegations abound of extra-ordinary killings for non-compliance.
The year 2016 saw the first #EndSARS campaign, and by 2019, the Police claimed there had been some reforms, but without any remarkable changes to the SARS’ modus operandi. On the 8 of October 2020, a more serious #EndSARS campaign erupted, following reports of extortions and death of innocent civilians, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic lockdown.
The apparent last straw was the footage of police officers dragging two men out of a hotel complex in Lagos into the street with one of them being shot. The footage quickly gained traction on social media, provoking public outrage and recall of several other alleged SARS’ brutality.
The latest campaign has gained international attention, with celebrities and even the daughters of President Muhammadu Buhari and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, joining the protests in Nigeria and abroad, seeking SARS’ abolition, among other demands. The charter of demands by the demonstrators has since expanded to include the release of arrested protesters, justice for police brutality victims, prosecution of police ‘bad eggs,’ improvement of police service conditions, to and end to restructuring of Nigeria, and an end to corruption and bad governance.
Nigeria’s Young Progressives Party (YPP), a democratic socialist political party is among groups rallying support for the cause of the youth protests.
In response, President Muhammadu Buhari, on 12 October 2020, announced the scrapping of the SARS Unit and promised police reforms. But while Nigerians were yet to digest that presidential announcement, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, has rolled plans to form wha he called the police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team.
However, the indication that members of the disbanded SARS would be part of the SWAT appears unacceptable by the protesting youths, whose cause now enjoys the sympathy of civil society activists and groups. Reno Omokiri, an aide to former Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, argues that changing SARS to SWAT is similar to when NEPA (Nigeria’s notoriously ineffective electricity power agency) changed its name to PHCN in the late 2000s. According to him, power supply has not improved in Nigeria even with the name change.
On the 15 of October 2020, Lagos State Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu commissioned a seven-man Judicial Panel of Enquiry and Restitution to investigate police brutality cases and human rights violations linked to the dissolved SARS operatives. While identifying with the youths, he called for restraint and orderliness, urging the protesters not to disrupt economic life in Lagos, which is also experiencing a spike in Covid-19 cases.
Human rights lawyer Femi Falana and others share the same views with the youths, noting that what is required is more far-reaching police reform. A police force that should operate according to international best practices, in maintaining law, order, and public peace. The clamour is for a police force that must respect and protect citizens’ rights, a disciplined force under a system that prescribes consequences/punishments for offenders no matter their status. Training and retraining is also advocated, to bring the police personnel in line with the dynamic international policing trends.
Meanwhile, global rights group, Amnesty International has reported the deaths of at least 10 unarmed civilian protesters since the latest #EndSARS campaign began, amid chaos and confusion from the besieging of public buildings, destruction of property, and blocking of roads resulting in traffic jams in Lagos, Abuja, and other major Nigerian cities.
The Law Students Association of Nigeria (LAWSAN) has raised the protest bar by calling for the resignation of IGP Adamu for alleged ‘incompetence,’ and with the Nigerian Bar Association (NBA), offering free legal services to #EndSARS protesters.
Interestingly, while some State governors, mainly from Southern Nigeria have spoken out in support of the protesting youths, their colleagues from Northern have declared their support for the disbanded SARS, arguing that the operatives have been useful in the fight against insecurity in the region, and should be reformed if anything.
For its part, a youth wing of the Ohanaeze Ndigbo, from Eastern Nigeria, says the SARS Unit should restrict its operations to the northern region if it is to exist.
There are also reports of alleged pro-SARS groups infiltrating the campaign, attacking the #EndSARS protesters, and destroying public property. So, #EndSARS protesters have had to repel attacks from thugs with cutlasses and axes, especially in Lagos state. Consequently, private security operatives, including bouncers, have reportedly been hired to protect the protesters, who also appear to be enjoying tremendous financial support, going by the publication of their activities on social media.
A number of questions arise from the unfolding senario: What are the security and crime control implications when the same members of disbanded SARS are rebranded as SWAT members? What consultations took place before the decision to change SARS to SWAT? Is this name change the answer to police harassment, brutality, kidnapping, under-funding, poor training, and unsatisfactory performance of the Nigerian police?
From all indications, Nigerian youths feel that the SWAT is not the desired response to their demands hence the hashtag, #EndSWAT, as part of the new demands.
Given the “hunger and anger in the land,” other groups of Nigerians are using the anti-SARS campaign to vent their disaffection and frustration with government policies. For instance, some protesters are now demanding the withdrawal of the recent increases in the pump price of fuel and electricity tariffs. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) had threatened a national strike over the increases, which have compounded life for long-suffering Nigerians. But the Congress later backed down and is now engaged in long-drawn negotiations with the government. Some critics have even accused the labour movement of being a ‘sell-out.’ Nigeria Universities’ teachers Union or ASUU and the Association of Medical Doctors all have on-going disputes with the government over conditions of service and alleged unsatisfactory working environment
Successive Nigerian governments are not known to have appetites for demonstrations. A recent case in point is the #RevolutionNow campaign led by journalist and publisher Omoyele Sowore, who is still facing trial for that campaign after several weeks in detention.
The undeniable truth is that all is not well with the governance system in Nigeria. The #EndSARS protests could represent just a platform for citizens to vent their general frustrations, because as one protester said: “There is hunger and anger in the land.”
Citizens have a constitutional right to a peaceful demonstration, and the protesters also have a duty to make their case without resorting to violence or breaking the law. The government, on the other hand, must address the legitimate demands of the citizens and not wait until the escalation of matters. Conventional wisdom has shown that those who make peaceful change impossible only invite violence, and Nigeria can ill-afford unnecessary disruptions or destabilisation of its national progress and development.
Raphael Ejime is a Ph.D. researcher, lecturer, & an Intelligence & Security Analyst/Consultant to International Political Think-Tanks*