Nigerians protesting police brutality have hit the streets across Africa’s most populous nation for more than a week, and the hashtag #EndSARS trended on Twitter even after the police promised to dismantle the controversial unit on Oct. 11. What is SARS, what attempts have been made to address police abuses in Nigeria and what do protesters want?
WHAT WAS ‘SARS’?
- Police formed the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in 1992 to tackle violent crime such as car-jackings, armed robbery and kidnapping. Because SARS was initially designed as a covert force, officers did not wear uniforms – a practice known locally as “mufti”.
- The unit developed a reputation for brutality, with Amnesty International here accusing it of harassment, extortion, rape, extrajudicial killings and torture. Nigerians said it frequently targeted young men with tattoos, dreadlocks or expensive cars or phones.
- The police force has repeatedly denied the accusations against SARS, though it said earlier this month that “unruly and unprofessional” officers had been arrested and were facing disciplinary actions.
WHAT SPARKED THE CURRENT PROTESTS?
- A video allegedly showing SARS officers shooting a man in Delta state before driving off in his car began circulating in early October, sparking the current protests. Police denied the incident.
- Police responded to protests with force initially, including tear gas, water cannons and live rounds. At least two were killed in Lagos and at least three killed in Oyo state here. Amnesty International has said at least 10 were killed nationwide.
HOW HAS THE GOVERNMENT RESPONDED?
- Police initially banned SARS from routine patrols and ordered them to wear uniforms. After continued protests, police disbanded SARS with immediate effect on Oct. 11.
- President Muhammadu Buhari pledged police reform, and a federal council ordered states to set up compensation funds for victims of police brutality.
- On Oct. 13, police announced that a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team would “fill the gaps arising from the dissolution of the defunct SARS”.
- Authorities in Abuja said protests were banned due to coronavirus concerns, and in Lagos, videos are circulating on Tiwtter of men armed with knives, clubs and other weapons attacking demonstrators.
WHY ARE PROTESTERS SCEPTICAL
- The government has pledged to reform, disband or investigate SARS on multiple occasions, including a promised 2017 Senate investigation here and a 2018 overhaul and investigation here.
- Nigerians and observers say little changed. Protesters say SWAT teams could simply become SARS under a new name, and now they carry #EndSwat signs.
WHAT DO PROTESTERS WANT
- Protesters have five main demands:
- Immediate release of all arrested protesters;
- “Justice” for those killed by police and compensation for their families;
- An independent body to investigate and prosecute police misconduct within 10 days of a claim;
- Independent psychological evaluation of disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed;
- Increased salaries for police so they are “adequately compensated” for protecting lives and property.