The #ENDSARS Movement: Why Nigeria must reform its policing

Content Warning: This article contains mention of disturbing images, physical violence and death. 

On Oct. 3, 2020, operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shot a young man at Wetland Hotel in Ughelli, Delta State, Nigeria. The victim was one of two men assaulted by officers before being dragged from the hotel and shot in the street. Unbeknownst to the officers involved, the incident was filmed and later, went viral on the Internet. This viral moment sparked the  movement that is known today as #EndSARS. Beyond just a hashtag, #EndSARS became a rallying cry for nationwide protests and demonstrations across Nigeria.

While the viral incident is one of many in a recent upsurge in police violence in Nigeria, it also represents one of many tragic stories in the extensive history of torture, corruption and extortion within the Nigerian Police Force (NPF), which dates back to the establishment of the force in 1999.

The Nigerian Police Force 

The NPF is a federal organization created in 1999 under Section 214 of the Nigerian Constitution. The force was also active during the colonial era to suppress anti-colonial movements, but rebranded its initiative to combat crime and to conduct anti-robbery investigations across the country. 

The unit operates under the direction of Nigeria’s president, as well as  the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), who is responsible for police command and ensuring both public safety and public order. However, a lack of structural integrity and resources turned the force into a breeding ground for corruption and abuse of authority. 

In a 2009 report by Amnesty International, the organization found numerous structural inefficiencies within the NPF that cultivated an environment with little accountability and redress for officer misconduct. Budget discrepancies, undertrained and unqualified staff, an inadequate distribution of the budget and overall police mistrust were among some of the issues reported. 

As a result of these inefficiencies, officers with little training, accountability and resources become the very criminals that they set out to apprehend and reform. Incidents of extortion, forced imprisonment and officer involved shootings were all noted. However, the most damning information from these reports centers on the extent of extrajudicial killings carried out by the Nigerian police. 

An extrajudicial killing refers to an unlawful and deliberate killing carried out by the order of a government or with its complicity. Within the NPF, extrajudicial killings are an ongoing issue, with police officers using their authority to operate with impunity when actively killing innocent civilians and falsely labeling them as “armed robbers” and “criminals” to cover their tracks.

In a report from Open Society Justice Initiative, official statistics acquired from the NPF found that between 2000 and 2006, 2,983 alleged robbers were killed during police encounters. Further accounts for police officers killed (930) and police injured (584) were outlined in the report, however, no category or data for “injured robbers” was noted — highlighting what Open Society called a “take no prisoners” mindset when officers encountered alleged robbers. This is supported by Sec. 33 of Nigeria’s Constitution and Police Force Order 237, which gives police officers extended liberties to use force and or fire against individuals and to deprive them of their right to life in the process of arrest. 

The Oct. 3 killing is an example of an unauthorized death carried out by the Nigerian police, but now under the jurisdiction of a specialized unit of officers — the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). 

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad 

SARS is one of several Special Forces under the authority of the Nigerian Police Force. The unit was founded in 1992 to combat armed robberies and other serious crimes within Lagos. In the initial days of the SARS, the unit was successful and well received by the public in its work to combat crime. This success was attributed to the effective use of plain clothes officers to conduct undercover operations and thwart crime. 

By 2002, the units expanded to all 36 of Nigeria’s states and the capital of Abuja with a mandate to investigate and prosecute suspected armed robbers, murders, kidnappers, hired assasins and other suspected violent criminals. However, with extended authority came new opportunities for unchecked abuses of power. 

Seven years after the initial 2009 Amnesty International report condemning human rights violations by the NPF, the organization released another report against members of SARS — outlining  more accounts of unjust imprisonment, torture and extradjudicial killings carried out by officers. 

In the face of these allegations of misconduct, the Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, on  Oct. 11, 2020 announced that the SARS unit would be disbanded. But this was the fifth time since 2015 that Nigerian authorities had pledged to reform, rebrand and or disband the unit.

The object of SARS harassment now focuses on young Nigerians who are mislabeled and falsely accused of fraud, armed robbery or prostitution by officers, simply for possessing expensive items like smartphones and laptops or for dressing inapprorately. Since 2017, Nigerian youth have taken to the streets to protest police brutality, but not without extensive harassment by government backed forces. However, the events that took place on the tollgate in Lekki, Lagos showed the movement at its deadliest.

On the night of Oct. 20, 2020, under the direction of the Nigerian government, the military fired on unarmed protestors, killing many in what became known as the Lekki massacre. While the Nigerian army initially denied responsibility for the massacre, a report from the Lagos Judicial Panel of Inquiry on Restitution for Victims of SARS-Related Abuses and other matters found the army culpable for the event. 

As protests rage on in Nigeria, the Lekki massacre continues to haunt young Nigerians. Thus, the question of policing in Nigeria is now more than ever up for debate.

How can Nigeria address its policing problem? 

The best answer is the most straightforward — listen to the demands of protestors. #EndSARS leaders made five demands to the Nigerian government in 2020 that have yet to be adequately fulfilled. They include:

  • Immediate release of all arrested protesters
  • Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and compensation for their families
  • Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct
  • Psychological evaluations and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of disbanded SARs offices before they can be redeployed in alignment with the new Police Act
  • Increase police salaries so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and the property of citizens

Leaders’ demands center on the need for a complete overhaul of Nigeria’s policing system, beginning with increasing systems and mechanisms for police accountability and attempts to retrain and reform officers all the while moving towards the eventual decentralization of policing in Nigeria.

While these demands are credible, many believe they fall short of truly addressing the core issues of governmental inaction that have allowed poverty, crime and violence to rage on in Nigeria. 

Originally created to oppress Nigerians during colonialism, policing in Nigeria continues to restrict and withhold the freedoms of its citizens. Thus, reforming an institution that is staying true to its original purpose is a counterproductive and futile strategy. 

Instead, a growing number of Nigerians believe that nothing short of abolition is acceptable in order to ensure that the rights of Nigerian citizens are protected. Furthermore, initiatives focused on community restoration and empowerment are essential. The biggest challenge facing Nigeria today is joblessness, as bleak job prospects contribute to rising insecurity and poverty across the country. 

As of 2020, the unemployment rate in Nigeria reached 33.28% — the highest in over 13 years — alongside upticks in violence and crime. Rather than investing money into police reforms, governmental resources  should be directed towards providing the necessary economic opportunities required to quell unrest and the economic strain that breeds crime. 

Addressing crime after the fact is no longer enough. Rather, what Nigerians believe they need is a functioning government that provides for them, rather than polices them.

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