When Nigeria created the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS, in 1984, it was supposed to solve rampant crime, robbery, and kidnapping in the West African country. But many Nigerians now believe that their country’s police force has become a vehicle for the exact violence and exploitation it was supposed to counter.
On October 4th, a video was circulated online of a man killed by SARS officers without any evidence of provocation. The Nigerian government claimed it was fake and placed the individual who took the video under arrest. This series of events proved to be the last straw for many Nigerian residents, who took to the streets to protest what Amnesty International, a human rights organization, called in June “an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”
SARS has now been officially dissolved in response to the demonstrations, and two officers were fired. “Your voice has been heard loud and clear, and we are responding,” Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari said in a speech. But the rest of the former SARS agents have been redeployed in other sectors of the government, which protesters say makes the government’s dissolution of the squad meaningless.
Tensions have only increased since. On October 20th, according to protesters and human rights groups, members of the Nigerian military fired on peaceful demonstrators in Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city; the army denies its officers were at the scene. This prompted even further international outcry: the office of United Nations secretary general António Guterres released a statement that he “condemns the violent escalation on 20 October in Lagos which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries”; Democratic President-Elect Joe Biden said on October 22nd that “[t]he United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy.” Protesters have called it a “massacre”.
Messaging has spread to social media, where the hashtag #EndSARS has gained traction and has served to organize and unite an otherwise decentralized movement. Some have drawn parallels between the SARS protests and protests in the United States over the killing of George Floyd earlier this year, though some, like Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, say the two are fundamentally different. While U.S. protests featured calls to “defund the police”, “[Nigerian protesters] are saying police brutality cannot stand, and at the same time they’re saying the police are underfunded and poorly equipped,” he told The New York Times. “This is a systemic problem — to get a better Nigeria, we need better police.”
Protesters say that police should have higher salaries, to prevent officers’ attempts to use their position to exploit residents financially, and that former SARS agents should undergo psychological evaluations. They are also advocating for financial compensation for victims, and families of victims, of police brutality.