As folds of wildfires continue to spread through the United States, devouring acres upon acres of land, another figurative wildfire has been unraveling on a neighboring continent. In Nigeria, the people—primarily youths from various organizations and institutions—have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality.
Police brutality and abuse of authoritative power is a tale we are all too familiar with, given the happenings of this year. We have previously discussed how police brutality is a rudimentary problem in the system of the United States, but today, let us pan our attention over to the African country that sits on the Gulf of Guinea.
While many people might mistake ‘SARS’ for severe acute respiratory syndrome, this article is referring to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Nigeria, one of fourteen units under the country’s police force umbrella. Established in 1992, SARS was originally founded to investigate and arrest those enmeshed in all sorts of crimes. However, adequate inference from the trending hashtag #EndSARS tells you that SARS units did anything but their duties.
Over the years of its establishment, many units have been accused of corruption and malpractice, their violation of duties reflected in public records, including extortion, extra-judicial killings, harassment, kidnapping, murder, rape, theft, torture, unlawful arrests, and more. These aren’t baseless accusations either; many Nigerians have come forth with videographic evidence to showcase the harsh reality many citizens go through when interacting with SARS.
The force is notorious for targeting young Nigerians, specifically profiling those who don or use branded possessions like iPhones, Nike, Adidas, or luxury vehicles. Most SARS units lock in on youths based on appearance; those who have piercings, tattoos, or chains are more susceptible to SARS harassment. SARS will forgo standard procedure and operate without warrants, set up illegal roadblocks, and extort youths.
Aside from preying on the youth and consequently abusing their power, SARS implements cruel and inhumane manners to punish and draw information from detainees and suspects as well.
For far too long, police authorities all around the world have basked in the impunity that governments allowed to slip through their fingers and grow weed-like. The tipping point for Nigeria, however, came when an estimated 91 lives were lost under illegal circumstances between 2019 and 2020. One life lost is too many lives lost, but for SARS to continuously get away unscathed more than ninety times is blatant foolishness on the government’s part.
You might be wondering: if Nigerians have been facing peril from SARS for all this time, why are citizens only taking action now? First off, remember that citizens should not have to fight for basic respect and rights; they look toward the politicians and leaders to safeguard a certain extent of their well-being, and that is expected. Secondly, on 3rd October, a video circulated the internet depicting a SARS officer shooting a young man in Delta State. Allegedly, the officer then proceeded to take the man’s vehicle.
When the matter was brought to the attention of Delta State Police Command, they denied all allegations and insisted on the video being fake. A few days later, the video-taker was arrested. No matter fictitious or legitimate, this flurry of events spiraled and ignited the fuse for public outcry. Making up the majority of SARS victims, the younger, tech-savvy population used Twitter to their advantage to broadcast the atrocity and within no time, the hashtag #EndSARS was trending. Protests grew across the country and eventually spread to cover Nigerians who were overseas as well. The younger generation appeared on streets peacefully, hundreds of them on foot shouting chants, slow-driving in cars while raising handwritten posters featuring the hashtag, every footfall and every stroke of the pen meant to seek attention from higher authorities.
Like every protest ever in history, lists of grievances were procured and demands produced. The people of Nigeria looked toward their government to scrap the police unit, investigate and chastise officers who have had a hand in the people’s suffering, and to compensate those who have come under the sadistic whips of SARS, both dead and alive.
One of the many videos I’ve watched regarding this event featured a brief interview with a young Nigerian who said: “We are saying end SARS now because the system is not working. They are not on the road to solve any crimes; they are on the road to take money from people, they are on the road to find who their next victim is going to be, who they are going to take to the station, who they are going to extort money from.”
When those who are supposed to protect you go to lengths to hurt you, when you walk the streets not fearing robbers or rapists but the police, something terribly wicked is infesting the system and has to be eradicated. And when citizens amidst a pandemic have to risk their health to go out in public and fight for their safety, you know the government has messed up—spectacularly, completely, and irreversibly.
The protestors were received by the deputy commissioner of police, who assured them that their concerns have been heard and appropriate action will soon follow suit. Then, the Nigerian Police Force just had to take a page out of the United States’ playbook; bullets were fired into the skies and teargases were launched to disperse protestors, disrupting the movement in certain cities like Abuja and Osun. In Imo, one of the officers even pulled a gun on the crowd.
It seems like even when they are the subject of the protest, police officers will continue to violate their moral codes by harming and harassing rather than serving and protecting. SARS is not a unit that protects Nigerians; it is a unit of authorized criminals that forsakes its duties and holds a gun to the people they’re supposed to take a bullet for.
Muyideen Obe from the Ogun Police Command, captured in a discussion with a young Nigerian, said: “What is paramount to us [police] is law and order. There must be law and order in whatever we are doing. The laws are there to regulate human conduct.”
If human conduct were regulated effectively, shouldn’t police brutality vanish into thin air? If there were law and order in whatever the police force is doing, shouldn’t citizens trust and respect authorities rather than fear them?
Many law enforcement representatives who have been called on to comment tried to necessitate a SARS reformation, arguing that while the negatives of SARS are undeniable, so are their ‘immeasurable achievements’. While I can neither confirm nor deny that, I know this much to be true: holistic reformation doesn’t work. Nine times out of ten, government- or law enforcement-related reformations are merely temporary solutions to long-term problems.
When a cog in a machine no longer works, you don’t coat it with oil in hopes that it retains its original functionality and efficiency—you remove that cog completely. SARS is a to-the-bone-corrupted unit that does not represent law and order in any way, shape, or form, and should be abolished for the sake of all Nigerians.
Here’s where the story takes a different turn: on October 11, protestors reaped what they sowed—SARS was abolished. The government listened to the pleads of its people and decided to take action; Nigerians had won. The inspector general of police, Muhammed Adamu, said SARS was dissolved “with immediate effect in response to the yearnings of the Nigerian people.”
Adamu carried on to explain that the SARS officers would be redistributed to other police units, and therein lies the problem. These officers have abused the authority and power bestowed upon them to enforce justice in their country, a fact plain as day and evidence enough to suspend them from any law enforcement employment. Who is to say that once redistributed, they won’t keep up their amoral acts? News of this redeployment has upset protestors once again, many of them demanding the government hold SARS officers accountable for their countless crimes and wrongdoings.
Updated news indicates that the Nigerian police force shows interest in collaborating with civil rights groups to look into every case of human rights violation committed by former SARS officers, but promises can be empty. Amnesty International criticized the Nigerian government for not striking the hammer down hard enough, citing previous failed attempts to dissolve the force.
Whether or not Nigerians will receive complete justice for the damage that has been done to their society is uncertain, but slow progress is still progress.
This entire fiasco has taught me (and hopefully you) three things:
One, police brutality knows no boundaries. It creeps in every nook and cranny of the world and stems from the abuse of power—something not easily attained—as proven by the Stanford prison experiment. It has happened in the United States, Nigeria, Indonesia, and it could happen in any country—it doesn’t matter the development of the country, the welfare of the people, or the value of the currency.
Two, protests yield progress, if not results. Believe in the value of your voice. Do not forget that the function of the law and government is to serve the people. The land you live on is your country as much as it is theirs and you have the right to ask for fair treatments, rights, and respect. The world can run out of teargases and rubber bullets to catapult into crowds, but it will never run out of voices.
Three, governments need to put more effort into listening to the people. Nobody knows the wants, needs, pains, and sufferings of the people more than the people themselves. Although in some countries, leaders are still succeeded rather than elected in place, most government officials are voted into office by the people. These are leaders we look up to to guide our country into better days through better ways. If you’re not going to do that, don’t run for office, don’t become a politician. As for the people, stay informed, keep up with politics, and exercise your rights to vote; you deserve a government that represents the country’s best interests.
I am baffled by the fact that the people have to do the heavy lifting in most countries instead of the government.
Yet, I hope I won’t remain baffled forever.