“More Than Just A Hashtag: What #EndSARS Means For Nigeria?”

“We are determined to continue these protests until justice is served.” – Judith Caleb


Following the formation of the unified Nigerian Police Force in 1930, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was created in 1992 to combat the rising number of robbers and criminals in Lagos and southern Nigeria. At the beginning of SARS’ existence, officers dressed in plainclothes, conducted their duties unarmed, and were responsible solely with arresting criminals and robbers. As SARS gradually expanded outside of Lagos to address more widespread crime, however, its responsibilities grew to include arresting armed robbers, violent criminals, etc. and investigating/ prosecuting such people. SARS’ increased power led to extrajudicial killings, beatings, random arrests, extortion at roadblocks, and other human rights abuses. SARS officers began carrying guns, and many abused their control over civilian populations. 

The social media movement started with a single tweet from user @yabakid on 2 December 2017 who wrote: “A SARS officer just shot a boy in the head right in front of me [expletive]!!!! I’m so SHOOK!!!!!” This tweet resulted in a mass inflow of tweets that brought to light the shared trauma that many Nigerians experienced at the hands of SARS. Within 5 days of the tweet, Al Jazeera reported that 1 million #EndSARS tweets had been shared and a unified protest was planned for 11 December 2017 in 10 cities across Nigeria. In response, Public Relations Officers for both the Lagos state police and the SARS headquarters denied that a problem exists and reaffirmed that SARS was, in fact, doing their job well and that the social media outrage was primarily a misconception. Contrary to the government’s opinion, Amnesty International’s 2016 report detailed that SARS, “is responsible for widespread torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (other ill-treatment) of detainees in their custody.”

Since 2017, the Nigerian public has put up a fight against the violence and abuses imparted by the police force and SARS specifically.  While the government has promised to reform or disband SARS four times already, most of this “reform” has extended to simply moving officers around from one unit to another, and allowing the human rights violations and abuses of power to continue. This past October saw an increasing level of violence from SARS officers against protesters in the form of shootings, tear-gassing, and using water cannons on groups.

SARS was disbanded on 11 October after a recent upsurge in protests in October, but as suspected, SARS officers have been reassigned to other police units. Protests are, however, still occurring because of the history of reforming the unit, the continued seeking for justice for victims of the violence caused by SARS, and a push for larger systemic reform. Shortly after the disbanding, the Lekki toll Gate Massacre occurred where Amnesty International reports that Nigeria security forces shot and killed 12 people (they also remarked that the death toll is likely to be higher). Despite this, the Nigerian Government has continued to threaten that they will deploy the military. The government has also cracked down on the supposed leaders of #EndSARS as they have placed them on a no-fly list and as of 12 November, the government has succeeded in freezing the accounts of 20 #EndSARS campaigners after telling the federal high court in Abuja that the accounts are linked to terrorist activities.

SARS has primarily targeted young people, especially those who appear Westernized and well-off, “flashy,” have tattoos, dreadlocks, drive cars, and carry laptops and smartphones, labeling them as internet fraudsters. Targeting young Nigerians is particularly problematic as young people under 30 make up more than half of Nigeria’s population and are also the worst affected by unemployment (14.2% unemployment rate; World Bank Data). In March 2017, SARS arrested 23-year-old Miracle Ifeanyichukwu Okpara and detained him on a charge of having stolen a laptop. Amnesty International reported that he was tortured and hardly given any food during 40 days of detention before being taken to court and charged with armed robbery. The court discharged the case for lack of evidence. 

A notable element of the movement is that it has declined to select leaders, stating that they do not want anyone negotiating with the government behind their backs. This decentralized approach to the movement has been a key function that has “democratized the #EndSARS movement”, and stands in contrast to the manner in which Nigeria’s public institutions are run. This is one of the ways that he #EndSARS movement has highlighted the disconnect between Nigeria’s tech-savvy young generation and the older patronage-driven Nigerians, as the former calls for a change.

#EndSARS has become more than just protesting SARS but has become a movement representing people that stand firmly against the many dysfunctional Nigerian institutions that reproduce its extreme poverty numbers (World Poverty Clock currently reports that Nigeria has the highest number of people living in extreme poverty). A restructuring of society is needed that moves away from nepotism, cronyism, corruption, and other government, cultural, and religious systems that reproduce inequality and protect the abuse of power (physical and figurative). This movement links to a larger problem that many developing, resource rich, former colonial states face: how does a nation restructure its public and private institutions that are, in most cases, remnants of colonial-era extractive institutions that served the sole purpose of oppressing the majority for the unjust benefit of the few. There are still many legal changes that have to be made and regarding police brutality, Nigeria’s Constitution and the Nigeria Police Force Order 237 (Rules for guidance in use of firearms by the police) still permits any person attempting to escape arrest to be shot. Perhaps the democratic nature and hard work of the #EndSARS social movement is a step in the direction of restructuring a nation, but a lot of time and hard work is still needed to get on that path.

Africa Unite supports the #EndSARS movement and countersigns the notion that the government of Nigeria must be held accountable for not upholding the obligations derived from the many international treaties that they are party to. These treaties include: International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and its Optional Protocol (OPCAT), the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights.

Resources to follow and donate to the #EndSARS Movement

Social Media Accounts


https://www.instagram.com/seuntheactivist/?igshid=1hiedcljbyuxs
https://endsars.carrd.co/#socials

Organizations to donate to and keep you updated


https://endsars.carrd.co/#donate

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