End SARS is a movement against police brutality in Nigeria which has seen daily protests since early October. The campaign initially called for the dissolution of a brutal police unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) but the protests are now also about major issues in the country, such as the immense economic inequality, governmental abuse of power and corruption.
The movement has gained worldwide attention, especially after the Nigerian military opened fire on protesters on October 20 in Lagos, the largest city in Nigeria, killing at least 12 according to witnesses and rights group Amnesty International. The Lagos state government said only one person died while the Nigerian Army called news reports about the shooting “fake news.”
The 2016 World Internal Security and Police Index, published by the International Police Science Association, found that Nigeria was the country with the worst police force. Factors considered in the index included the homicide rate per capita, the size of the police force, corruption and internal conflict. The SARS unit in particular has been heavily criticized by Amnesty International and Nigerians have called for an end to the unit for years.
Here’s what you need to know about the End SARS protests in Nigeria:
1. SARS Is a Specialized Unit of the Nigerian Police Force Which Became Known for Its Human Rights Abuses & Unlawful Activities
Our report released in June detailed among others; failure of Nigerian authorities to bring to justice the senior police officer behind horrific atrocities at Awkuzu SARS #EndSARS https://t.co/zIjou1WXKP
— Amnesty International Nigeria (@AmnestyNigeria) July 10, 2020
In 1984, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS as it is commonly known, was created in Nigeria in response to a proliferation of violent crime in the country: armed robberies, kidnappings and carjackings. While the unit addressed some of these issues in its early days, as The New York Times pointed out, it eventually grew into a corrupt organization responsible for unlawful actions and abuses of power.
Amnesty International released a report in June 2020 titled “Time to End Impunity” in which the organization detailed “at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020,” according to a summary of the report (the full PDF report is available here). The report found that the victims of SARS brutality were primarily men aged 18 to 35 from “low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups.” The report stated:
The Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute a single officer from the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), despite anti-torture legislation passed in 2017 and evidence that its members continue to use torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish and extract information from suspects.
The June 2020 report came after another report published in 2016 by Amnesty International which also highlighted torture and human rights violations perpetrated by SARS. That report led to promises from the Nigerian government that reforms would take place, but the 2020 report concluded that “shocking violations committed by the unit have continued.”
The SARS unit’s founder, Fulani Kwajafa, recently spoke to the BBC and shared his feelings of sadness and guilt over what the unit had become and how it “turned into banditry.” He added, “I always tell my wife I am sad [that] what I created with good purpose and good direction has been turned into banditry now.”
2. The Most Recent Wave of Protests Began This Month After a Video Went Viral Claiming to Show a Man Dying After Being Shot By SARS Officers
SARS just shot a young boy dead at Ughelli, Delta state as we speak. In front of Wetland hotels. They left him for dead on the road side and drove away with the deceased Lexus jeep.
I have videos…
— Chinyelugo (@AfricaOfficial2) October 3, 2020
Although the hashtag #EndSARS has been used since 2017 to highlight abuses by the police unit and to call for its disbanding, the End SARS movement gained momentum after a video was posted to social media earlier in October. The graphic video claimed to show SARS officers fatally shooting a man in southern Delta state and it soon went viral. The first mention of the incident was on October 3, as the BBC pointed out, and appeared on Twitter user Chinyelugo’s account (see above).
The tweet reads, “SARS just shot a young boy dead at Ughelli, Delta state as we speak. In front of Wetland hotels. They left him for dead on the road side and drove away with the deceased Lexus jeep. I have videos…” The user later uploaded the video showing who he said was the victim of the SARS shooting. The initial tweet was picked up by social media influencers in Nigeria and protests began in earnest in the following days, with many people sharing their own stories of violence or corruption experienced at the hands of SARS, as TIME pointed out.
The Delta Police Command denied the validity of the video after it began circulating and a spokesperson told Pulse Nigeria in a statement:
The allegations in the online video about SARS operatives killing a young man in Ughelli are not only false, malicious and erroneous, but also misleading. The victim was neither shot nor killed by the policemen. The policemen involved are not SARS operatives as earlier reported. The allegation is the handiwork of criminally-minded people who do not see anything good in the Police, but want Delta State to be in turmoil.
The spokesperson said that two men were arrested after a police chase. When police officers were driving the two men to the police station, one of the men “jumped out of the moving police patrol vehicle and sustained body and head injuries,” according to the statement. On October 6, the Delta State Police arrested the person who took the viral video, according to local media reports, which sparked more anger toward officials.
3. The SARS Unit Was Disbanded by the President of Nigeria on October 11 But Protesters Said the Move Wasn’t Enough
The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people. pic.twitter.com/XjQMSr3jlm
— Muhammadu Buhari (@MBuhari) October 12, 2020
Following nationwide protests in Nigeria and calls on social media to end SARS, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced on October 11 that the unit would be dissolved. The statement, posted to the office of the president’s official Twitter account, indicated that the SARS unit would be disbanded immediately and officers would be redeployed.
Buhari also released a video address on October 12, available above, in which he said that dissolving SARS was “only the first step” but added that he did not want the overall police force’s reputation to be tarnished because of a “few bad eggs.” Mohammed Adamu, the head of the police, announced the creation of a new unit, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), that would replace SARS.
However, protesters said the change wasn’t enough and accused the government of simply renaming the police unit. The End SARS movement, which is mostly leaderless, shared a list of five core demands published by Vanguard. These demands are:
Immediate release of all arrested protesters
Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families
Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of Police misconduct (within 10days)
In line with police act, psychological evaluation and retaining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed
Increase Police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens
Many protesters are also calling for more widespread changes in Nigeria beyond police reforms, and are asking for measures targeting bad government, nationwide corruption and the extremely high unemployment rate among youths, as Al Jazeera pointed out.
Annie Olaloku-Teriba, a Nigerian affairs analyst, told the outlet: “It became very clear very quickly that the protest cannot just be about SARS, because the kind of abuses that are documented with SARS squad are also something that has become part of everyday life of Nigerians in their contact with figures of authority across the board.”
4. On October 20, Protests in Lagos Turned Deadly When Witnesses Said Law Enforcement Opened Fire on Protesters
— Amnesty International Nigeria (@AmnestyNigeria) October 21, 2020
Protests continued after the government’s announcement disbanding SARS, with many turning violent. On October 20, the Lagos state governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu announced a 24-hour curfew in an attempt to stop the protests. That evening, two shootings took place in Lagos, at Alausa and Lekki Toll Gate, during which Amnesty International said that the Nigerian Army shot and killed at least 12 peaceful protesters.
The rights group posted on its website that they conducted an on-the-ground investigation, collecting video footage and hospital reports and interviewing eyewitnesses. It wrote that “between 6:45pm and 9:00pm on Tuesday 20 October, the Nigerian military opened fire on thousands of people who were peacefully calling for good governance and an end to police brutality.”
Many videos showing the shooting at Lekki toll gate have been widely shared on Twitter. Witnesses who were at the Lekki toll gate told the rights group that soldiers in uniform arrived and began shooting without warning. Amnesty also received information that the CCTV cameras at that location were removed before the shootings and the electricity was cut in an attempt to hide evidence. The report stated, “some of those killed and injured at both grounds were allegedly taken away by the military.”
The following day, Sanwo-Olu said in a series of tweets that about 25 people were wounded in the “unfortunate shooting incident” but that only one person had died, of “blunt force trauma to the head.” He said, “This is an isolated case. We are still investigating if he was a protester.” The Nigerian Army Twitter account shared screenshots of news articles about the shooting, writing “fake news” over each article.
The Amnesty International report issued on October 21 stated that since the protests began in earnest on October 8, at least 56 people have died, with 38 of those deaths coming on October 20.
5. The Movement Has Been Getting Worldwide Support, Especially After the October 20 Protest
Pray for NIGERIA🇳🇬✊🏿 pic.twitter.com/V7i4Ngs9qd
— Odion Jude Ighalo (@ighalojude) October 20, 2020
The End SARS movement has received worldwide support and attention, which only increased after the shootings on October 20. End SARS protests have also taken place globally in solidarity, with some in Canada, Germany, the U.K. and the U.S., as CTV News reported.
The United Nations’ Secretary-General issued a statement calling for an end to police brutality in Nigeria. “He condemns the violent escalation on 20 October in Lagos which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries,” the statement reads in part. “He expresses his condolences to the bereaved families and wishes a speedy recovery to those injured. He calls on the Nigerian authorities to investigate these incidents and hold the perpetrators accountable.”
Joe Biden issued a statement on his campaign website calling on the Nigerian government and military to “cease the violent crackdown.” Hillary Clinton tweeted:
— Hillary Clinton (@HillaryClinton) October 20, 2020
Celebrities like Beyonce, Rihanna and Kanye West also expressed their support. John Boyega, who has been speaking up about the protests in Nigeria since they began earlier this month, posted on his Instagram: “I don’t know what to say. To wage such war on your own people…They must pay,” alongside a text image with the words “Lekki Toll-Gate Massacre, 20-10-2020.”
Many Nigerian athletes also used their platforms to protest against the events taking place in Nigeria and draw people’s attention to the police brutality. Manchester United player Odion Ighalo posted a video message about the October 20 shooting, UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman urged the Nigerian president to take action and Los Angeles Sparks forward Chiney Ogwumike posted a message to her Instagram, to name just a few.
The situation has escalated, the violence and killings are horrendous. All because of people saying they want to live in peace?
— Anthony Joshua (@anthonyfjoshua) October 21, 2020