SARS is the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a special unit within the Nigerian Police Force. Contrary to its intended purpose and similar to its counterpart in the medical field, SARS is a disease that has been eating into the freedom and justice and even the fundamental human rights of the Nigerian youth. Thus, the need to EndSARS.
SARS was founded in 1992 by Simeon Danladi Midenda, the then Police Commissioner. SARS was one of the 14 units in the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, which was established to detain, investigate, and prosecute people involved in crimes like armed robbery, kidnapping, and other violent crimes. It was part of the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID), headed by Deputy Inspector General of Police Anthony Ogbizi.
The major reason SARS was formed was when Col. Rindam of the Nigerian Army was killed by police officers at a checkpoint in Lagos in September 1992, later leading to the arrest of three officers. When the information reached the army, soldiers were dispatched into the streets of Lagos in search of any police officer.
The Nigerian police withdrew from checkpoints, security areas, and other points of interest for criminals; some police officers were said to have resigned while others fled for their lives. Due to the absence of police for two weeks, the crime rate increased and SARS was formed with only 15 officers operating in the shadows without knowledge of the army while monitoring police radio chatters.
Due to the existence of three already established anti-robbery squads that were operational at that time, Midenda needed to distinguish his squad from the already existing teams. Midenda named his team Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). After months of dialogue, the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force came to an understanding and official police duties began again in Lagos. The SARS unit was officially commissioned in Lagos following a ceasefire by the army after settlement.
In the early days of the unit, combat-ready SARS officers operated undercover in plain clothes and plain vehicles without any security or government insignia and did not carry arms in public. Their main job was to monitor radio communications and facilitate successful arrests of criminals and armed robbers. For 10 years, SARS only operated in Lagos, but by 2002, it had spread to all 36 states of the federation as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
Emboldened by its new powers, the unit moved on from its main function of carrying out covert operations and began to set up roadblocks, extorting money from citizens. Officers remained in plain clothes but started to carry arms in public. Over time, the unit has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and extortion. Amnesty International released a report in June 2020 detailing 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and killings perpetrated by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.
SARS officers then allegedly moved on to targeting and detaining young men for cybercrime or being “online fraudsters”, simply on the evidence of their owning a laptop or smartphone, and then demanding excessive bail fees to let them go.
Many young people have shared their stories of police brutality on social media. Now, Nigerians say they have had enough. Since 2017, protests have been building momentum across Nigeria, stemming from online advocacy to street protests. The anger about the unit’s activities culminated in a nationwide protest on the streets of 21 states this month after a SARS officer allegedly shot a young man in Delta State.
On Wednesday, 7th October 2020, young people in Lagos took to the streets and began protesting for the end of SARS. However, the complaints of Nigerian youth over police reforms did not start today. The fact that it escalated in recent times does not mean it is a recent uprising. Nigerian youths have simply had enough of the oppression. Thus, the reason for the mass unending protests this month.
The hashtag #EndSARS started in 2017 as a Twitter campaign to demand the Nigerian government to disband the police unit. After experiencing a revitalisation in October 2020, mass demonstrations were occurring throughout Nigeria in major cities, and the hashtag had 28 million tweets. Nigerians shared stories and video evidence of how members of SARS were engaged in kidnapping, murder, theft, rape, torture, unlawful arrests, humiliation, unlawful detention, extrajudicial killings, and extortion in Nigeria.
SARS officers have been alleged to profile youths based on fashion choices, mount illegal roadblocks and searches, conduct unwarranted temperature checks, arrest without warrant, rape women, and extort young Nigerians for driving luxury cars and using expensive electronics.
Nigeria’s police chief has announced the dissolution of a notorious anti-robbery unit following days of widespread protests against police brutality. In a statement on Sunday, Muhammed Adamu, inspector general of police, said the unit had been abolished “with immediate effect”, a move that was “in response to the yearnings of the Nigerian people”.
He added, however, that all SARS officers would be redeployed to other police commands, formations and units, drawing condemnation by some activists online who pledged to keep up their campaign demanding accountability and justice for the victims of police brutality. The Nigerian presidency also said in a Twitter post that the police unit, which was founded in 1992 in a bid to combat robbery, would be disbanded immediately.
But this has not quelled the protests as young people continue to occupy the streets in large numbers demanding the immediate release of arrested protesters, justice for victims of police brutality, the prosecution of accused officers as well as a general salary increase for the police force to reduce corruption.
Young protesters say they have heard it all before. This is not the first time the government had disbanded SARS and promised reforms. This time, the call to annihilate the entire system of police brutality. The cry goes beyond EndSARS.
According to Amnesty International, shortly before the shooting, CCTV cameras were allegedly removed from the toll gate. In addition, Nigerian authorities cut the electricity to the toll gate so that it would be dark and filmed evidence of the shooting would not emerge, the advertisement billboards at the toll gate which is owned and maintained by Loatsad Media were also turned off.
Loatsad Media stated, “On 20th October, when the curfew was announced we heeded the governor’s warnings and didn’t want our staff in any danger, hence by 3 pm our staff had been ordered to leave the site and the board was switched off based on the governor’s curfew request.”
It was also reported that network providers switched off the network antennas in that area as protesters who used MTN and Airtel as their network providers reported that they were unable to make phone calls or use the internet at that time, MTN Nigeria released a statement later that night apologizing for the loss of network coverage in that area as at the time of the shooting.
According to one witness, after the lights were switched off at the toll gate, soldiers arrived and allegedly began shooting directly at the crowd. Another witness stated that the shooting continued for fifteen to thirty minutes and that after the shooting he observed multiple bodies on the ground. The soldiers were said to have walked in a formation towards the protesters with trucks flashing lights before they opened fire.
Two weeks after #EndSARS protests against police brutality began, president Muhammadu Buhari finally gave a national address. But what should have been an opportunity to unify the country and, more significantly, empathize with grieving families, proved to be anything but. President Buhari’s speech also came with demand—and a thinly veiled threat—for protesters to call off street demonstrations that have seen thousands gather at different locations across the country.
“For you to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation. Under no circumstances will this be tolerated,” he said. He also called for the non-interference of international powers and bodies.
Keeping with his long-running style as a former military general and dictator, president Buhari’s speech came off instead as high-handed and tough, made no mention of troubling events at Lekki toll gate in Lagos on Oct. 20 when numerous witnesses say Nigerian soldiers fired into a crowd of peaceful, unarmed protesters who had remained at the toll gate following a hastily announced curfew. It simply lacked empathy and brought about more confusion and frustration.
The battle never ends until there is change.