In our second piece on Nigeria, Efadel explores the catalogue of brutality by the Nigerian state through Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). It makes for worrying reading. Endemic and numerous stories of violence, rape and down-right oppression. In its wake a trail of emotional traumatised victims or in some cases dead victims.
Efadel leads us to the obvious conclusion: this state violence and abuse of power must cease. But one cannot help but wonder. How does change happen when the very people meant to protect are in fact the ones carrying out the violence?
Pelumi Onifade a second-year student at the Department of History at Tai Solarin University of Education, Ijagun, Ogun State was arrested on October 24, 2020, while on duty as a journalist. He ended up 35 kilometres away from where he was arrested in a mortuary. His body was found in the morgue on October 30, 2020. Pelumi was just twenty years old.
The death of the young reporter (who was interning with Gboah TV in Lagos), is a typical example of the type of injustices that sparked the ENDSARS protest. He is not the first to die. Pelumi’s family joins a long queue of families with grief and unanswered questions. Many families are seeking a justice (that seems far away) for the death of their loved ones in the custody of security operatives.
Modupe Odele, who coordinated free legal aid for protesters who were unjustly arrested during the #EndSARS protests was prevented from travelling abroad by the Nigerian Immigration Service, and her international passport seized. Families are still missing loved ones they may never see. Government representatives are fraudulently labelling accounts of these events as “fake new”. The Nigerian legislative arm has enriched their arsenal with another weapon to drive two anti-social media bills: Protection from Internet Falsehood, the Manipulation Bill, and the National Commission for the Prohibition of Hate Speech Bill. These are bills threatening freedom of speech.
The Nigerian Police Force has been responsible for anti-robbery activities since its creation. Perhaps the nation did not notice the increase in robbery activities with the disbandment of the local police forces by the military government in 1966 because the atrocious Civil War evidently took centre stage.
At the end of the Nigerian civil war in 1970, with each successive military coup, and with the underfunding and the neglect of the police force, violent crime increased. In 1984, specific anti-robbery units were created as part of criminal investigation. By the 1990’s, whatever reprieve the anti-robbery activities created was eroded especially in Lagos and Southern Nigeria.
In 1992, in Lagos, the anti-robbery squads were consolidated into one unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which spread to other parts of Nigeria. The unit was set-up as an undercover unit investigating crime and facilitating the arrest of criminals. Somehow they have evolved from covert operations to mounting roadblocks, extortion, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, torture, and extrajudicial killings.
In Nigeria, you could be a suspect for many reasons, including (but not limited to) having tattoos, having dread-locks, wearing shiny jewellery, driving a clean car, using an expensive mobile phone, owning a laptop, or making a phone call in front of SARS officers. Amnesty International has documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions by SARS officers between January 2017 and May 2020 alone.
In 2017, Nigerians took to social media and trended #EndSARS for the first time, sharing stories of abuse and assault. In December 2017, the Inspector General of Police ordered the immediate re-organisation of SARS across the country. This announcement was repeated barely one year after, in August 2018. Professor Yemi Osinbajo who was the acting president (in the absence of the President, Muhammadu Buhari at the time) ordered the overhaul of SARS. A few months later, in January 2019, the Inspector General of Police ordered the disbandment of the Federal SARS, Special Investigation Panel and Special Tactical Squad.
Each of these announcements was in response to reports of the brutal activities of SARS. Nigerians took to social media several times to trend hashtags like #JusticeforTina, #JusticeForChineduObi, #JusticeforChijioke, and #JusticeforKoladeJohnson, just to list a few.
People had assumed that staying on the right side of the law would protect them from the predatory character of SARS. However, smartphones and social media amplified the reality: mere existence in Nigeria is a risk factor. Even popular individuals with large social media followings were not spared from SARS.
In September 2020, Ifeoma Stella Abugu was arrested by SARS operatives in Abuja, in place of her fiancé. Four days after her arrest, her family received the news of her death by the police. Autopsy results reportedly revealed that she was raped and tortured before she died. Two days after Nigeria’s 60th Independence Day Anniversary, a video went viral of a young man shot by suspected SARS officers and left for dead by the roadside in Ughelli. Police authorities claimed that the report was false, but by then, many young Nigerians had taken to social media and engaged in conversations using the hashtag #EndSARS.
By October 8th, 2020, the peaceful demonstrations started, gradually spreading across Nigeria and beyond. The protesters were frequently harassed by state, and there were fatalities such as Jimoh Isiaq, a bystander in Ogbomosho.
For twelve consecutive days, young Nigerians protested without violence. They raised funds, cleaned up, coordinated free medical and legal services. This was a contrast to the violence they received from the police and sponsored thugs in some protest locations. The Inspector-General of Police announced the abolition of SARS. In its place a new unit – Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). The young Nigerians insisted they wanted an end to SARS, not a rebranding. They also articulated and circulated their #5 for5 demands, which included; justice for victims of police brutality and reform of the police apparatus, including a salary increase for the police officers.
The culture of human rights violations and blatant brutality is not limited to SARS; it pervades all the arms of government and all the security operative outfits in Nigeria. In September 2018, Mary Ekere, a journalist with The Post Newspaper in Uyo, was assaulted by officials of the Akwa Ibom State Environmental Protection and Waste Management Agency. She had filmed their brutality against street traders in the city with her mobile phone.
In November 2020, in Ibadan, soldiers shaved the hair of men on the streets, because their hairstyle was considered indecent. One soldier flogged a woman in public because he considered her attire indecent.
Amnesty International has reported about war crimes committed by Nigerian military forces in north-east Nigeria. Nigeria has a legacy of unresolved massacres perpetrated by state actors: the Asaba Massacre (1967), Ogoni Massacre (1993), Odi Massacre (1999), Zaki Biam Massacre (2001), Gbaramatu Massacre in (2009), Shiites Massacre (2015), and most recently Lekki Toll Gate and the Oyigbo Massacre in October 2020.
#EndSARS is a metaphor. It is often accompanied by another hashtag – #EndBadGovernanceinNigeria. It represents an end to all forms of state-sponsored brutality. The brutality however continues despite the Nigerian Government stating the unit has been disbanded. Some protesters gave the acronym a new meaning, where the letters represent different demands.
For these demands, the government’s response was violence, massacres, gaslighting, blackmail from the police, more arrests, bullying, empty speeches, and more lies!
When SARS is ended, the Nigerian people will not need to be told by any announcements. All will see and experience the transformation. Then we will know that the reign of SARS, in every possible form, is over. When will we hear the final word on SARS? When will state-sponsored brutality, and massacres be confined to history?
No one knows, because, in Nigeria, the culture is impunity.
Featured image by Stephen Tayo