Growing demand for police reform mounts in Nigeria

The Nigerian government faces backlash from internal and international social movements among Nigerians and their expatriate communities who are peacefully protesting against decades of police brutality. The protests began as a call for the abolishment of the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad police unit after public outcry over the emergence of graphic footage showing SARS police shooting a young Nigerian man.

Protests have been ongoing throughout the country since October 3, the day the video hit the internet, with a 24-hour curfew being imposed in Lagos on October 20. While Mohammed Adanu, the inspector general of Nigeria’s police force is said to have barred police from using force against peaceful protestors, the protests were met with Nigerian soldiers openly firing at a key protest site in Lagos

SARS was first established in 1992, under Nigeria’s criminal investigation and intelligence department, with the purpose of tackling violent crimes in Lagos, primarily perpetrated by gangs and those involved in fraud, armed robbery, and kidnapping. It has, however, repeatedly been accused of violating human rights. Videos of SARS’ brutality have surfaced with the growth of the #ENDSARS campaign. One shows the SARS force dragging two men from a hotel in Lagos and shooting one of them in the street. Another video shows a man seemingly standing unarmed against a parked bus surrounded by SARS officers who then gun him down. 

The inspector general of the Nigerian police responded to these protests by promising to ban SARS and other tactical units from conducting their delegated routines, such as stop and search, checkpoints and roadblocks. Many Nigerians were, however, dissatisfied with this decision, demanding further reforms, as they expect the government to only redeploy SARS personnel elsewhere in Nigeria’s police system.

While SARS has periodically been banned from conducting its routines since 2017, its officers are still on the streets with the same roles, but often in different clothing. Despite an anti-torture act passed in 2017 to criminalize torture in Nigeria, Amnesty International has reported that “not a single police officer has been charged under the act.” On October 11, various media outlets reported that SARS officers fired live rounds of ammunition, as well as employed teargas and the use of beatings, on peaceful #ENDSARS demonstrators. 

The lack of funding to the police force has allowed its officers to continue their actions with a concerning absence of an organizational structure to monitor and hold these officers accountable. SARS have let very few victims have the choice to walk away after being confronted with almost all victims having been forced to hand over their money, being beaten, or even being killed. Reports have shown that citizens who confront SARS are arrested and jailed on trumped-up charges, while others have even been killed. 

Men, typically ages 18 to 35 have largely been approached by SARS, especially those regarded for their “flashy” appearances, such as driving cars, owning laptops and even those styled with “dreadlocks.” To maintain their covert operations, SARS officers often do not wear police clothing, nor do they operate in police cars. Amnesty International documented more than 82 cases of abuse and extrajudicial killings by SARS officers from January 2017 to May 2020.

Protests ensued with growing demand for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to issue an executive order dissolving SARS. This movement succeeded, with Buhari agreeing to disband the police unit and promising to redeploy SARS police to other units, saying that a “new policing arrangement” to replace SARS would soon be announced. However, the arrangement was to replace SARS with a Special Weapons and Tactics Unit (SWAT) that agreed to be trained by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Protesters are further imploring their government to enact better protections and accountability measures against police brutality, which includes “independent oversight and a consistent psychological evaluation of officers.” 

The growth of the SARS police force throughout Nigeria has created a pathway for widespread corruption, while complicating the ability to hold rogue officers accountable, “emboldening them to act with impunity.” Clear action must be taken to not just disband SARS but to address the weak and corrupt underlying structures of governance that permit systemic violence while, preventing law enforcement from being held accountable in Nigeria.

With the consistent failure of law enforcement in serving and protecting Nigerians, the many necessary government reforms must include increased dialogue for civil society so that the government can be mort representative of the change needed.

For further reading, check out these articles:

Nigeria’s SARS: A brief history of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad – AlJazeera

Nigeria Abolishes Loathed federal special police unit – BBC News

Nigeria Forces Fire on Protestors – The New York Times

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