The Greater Implications of #EndSARS

 /  Nov. 23, 2020, 9:08 p.m.

SARS Image
Nigerian protestors at an #EndSARS protest.

Even as Nigeria’s government attempts to silence #EndSARS protestors, young Nigerians have made clear that they are ready to lead Nigeria into the future. Young Nigerians are the core of the movement to end police brutality. For the youth, Nigeria’s future is a vision of collective justice and social prosperity that begins by reforming institutions and investing in communities. This is a vision that resonates with abolitionist movements worldwide, particularly those in the United States, and provides hope for the advancement of Nigerian and American society by way of disbanding and abolishing ruthless police forces that often pose a threat to the development of communities. By reinvesting government funds into community sectors outside of the police, hope for a prosperous future for Nigeria and the United States will become a possibility.

SARS: A History of Brutality

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was established by the Nigerian government in 1992, following a rise in crime and robbery after the temporary disappearance of police from Nigeria’s streets as army personnel hunted down the individual responsible for the shooting of an army colonel. Over the years, SARS has become an emblem of police brutality in Nigeria as squad agents openly terrorize, torture, rape, rob, and murder Nigerian citizens, especially young Nigerians. Between 2017 and 2020, Amnesty International documented at least eighty-two cases of torture, extrajudicial executions, and ill-treatment by SARS—mostly toward young men from poor and vulnerable groups. #EndSARS, a social movement and series of protests which began in 2017, surged to a national and international stage this October after a video was circulated widely online on October 5 showing a SARS unit killing a young man in Ughelli in Delta State. It struck a nerve for many Nigerians who had witnessed or experienced SARS abuses, and soon, Nigerians, Nigerians of the diaspora, and celebrities around the world were raising awareness about SARS brutality and protesting to #EndSARS, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in cities across Nigeria.

#EndSARS, a largely decentralized, leaderless movement, began with five straightforward demands that addressed the harms perpetrated by SARS: release detained protestors, provide compensation for victims’ families, set up enquiries into the operations and human rights violations of SARS, raise salaries and wages for police officers so that they are incentivized to do their jobs right and honestly because their poverty often leads them down a path of impunity and corruption, and finally, abolish SARS. Some of those demands thus far have been met, such as the release of detained citizens and the establishment of an Independent Investigation Panel for SARS by the National Human Rights Commission, which Nigeria’s Police Force has intimidated in the past. However, in recent weeks the government has not halted its violence and abuses against protestors, going so far as to freeze bank accounts and withhold a passport.

Though President Muhammadu Buhari has historically failed to appropriately hold SARS accountable for its crimes—the most forceful action the president has recently taken is cracking down, not on SARS, but on protestors and accusing them of terrorism—on October 12, he promised to disband SARS. But this is a promise the government has made multiple times in the past in response to protests in 2017, 2018, and 2019. After the most recent promise to disband SARS, head of police Mohammed Adamu promptly planned to replace SARS with a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) force, which would “fill in the gaps” from the dissolution. The new SWAT unit is prohibited from recruiting SARS personnel, conducting routine patrols, and unlawfully searching electronics. Yet many Nigerians do not trust that the new law enforcement will do its job properly, and as a result they have also protested to #EndSWAT, stating that SWAT would continue police brutality under another name, also likely wary by promises in the past to disband.

But while the initial demands were met with incomplete commitments, activists’ demands have only grown. Those demands now encompass seven pillars: institutional reforms around security, a reduction in cost of governance, constitutional reforms, education reforms, health reforms, youth affair programs, and public office reforms. Young Nigerians are asking for more representation in governance, monetary investments in education and health systems, and engagement programs, such as investing in sports, arts, and agriculture programs, that can support them as they work toward their aspirations. Young Nigerians are demanding the opportunity to thrive. They see and understand possibilities to improve their lives and the life of their country. 

Corruption Presents Challenges

Young Nigerians have many reasons to fight for their lives and for their futures, especially in a country where their ability to live and prosper is not only challenged by SARS violence, but also by Nigeria’s socio-economic and political conditions. The gap between the wealthy and the poor is ever growing in Nigeria, with well over 50 percent of Nigerians living in poverty. The proportion of the people living in poverty is only expected to grow due to the economic fallout of COVID-19. Nigeria’s youth make up the majority of the country’s population, as reflected in Nigeria’s median age of eighteen years, which means the youth are those most at risk of poverty and most impacted by unemployment. 

Nigeria’s economy, which is the largest on the African continent, has suffered not only from COVID-19, but from its overreliance on oil. The oil sector is a tremendous source of foreign corporate exploitation, as well as a great source of government corruption. Foreign corporate exploitation and government corruption have meant that over the years, billions of dollars of oil have occasionally gone missing in Nigeria—money which is often used to pay debts and bureaucratic salaries. Most money generated from oil revenue does not reach crucial social development sectors and programs. 

Corruption has existed as a signature mark of Nigerian governance, which is plagued by the tribalism of whichever ethnic group (usually distinguished and divided by geographical North and South) is in power. Buhari, a Northerner, is guilty of tribalism himself, given that 81 percent of his appointed officials are Northerners. Tribalism often helps contribute to corruption and levels of impunity as money and resources for social services are unevenly distributed across the country or pocketed by officials.

These are only some of the myriad of conditions young Nigerians are confronted with day to day, yet they find ways to overcome these conditions—and may become SARS victims because of it. Young people are most often targeted by SARS because of the clothing they wear, the iPhones they carry, or the tattoos they display, which are signs of their social and economic mobility. Therefore, though the young are making strides to socially and economically empower themselves in a landscape already fraught with challenges, they are definitively met with harassment, torture, or death at the hands of SARS without a government to protect or advocate for them. 

For those reasons, young Nigerians’ vision for reform in government, security, education, health, among other sectors, is a powerful and inspiring one. Though the Nigerian government has failed to adequately address protestors demands and chosen to attack the young, those decisions prove their fear of the power of youth organizing. Perhaps the most tragic example of this is the massacre of October 20, now infamously forever known as Black Tuesday, in which SARS officials turned off the street lights, removed cameras, and opened fire on protestors who had blocked the Lekki bridge. Dozens of people were murdered.

Looking Forward

The Black Tuesday tragedy has admittedly slowed down the #EndSARS movement for now, but still, young Nigerians are shaping up to be a formidable force in driving meaningful actions that could influence the future of Nigeria by way of reforms. Those reforms could not only benefit communities affected by the corruption of government that leaves them without necessary resources, as well as the victims of SARS, but also hold the government accountable for its corruption and inaction and finally, properly disband SARS.

This is not to say that realizing the visions of their demands will be a simple and straightforward process for the young. There are still obstacles ahead. For one, SARS has continued their reign of terror, harassing and killing people even while the protests were taking place. Additionally, some activists and experts have said that the abolitionist movement is still in its beginning stages; people have to learn to accept abolition over reforms, reimagine the structure and support of their communities without the presence of police, and educate themselves about the process of abolition and what it can look like. Aside from those issues, some people have also mentioned that Nigerians have to confront other societal problems, such as discrimination against women and the LGBTQ+ community. But the fact that conversations and awareness around police brutality and a future of reform are being promoted is enough to provide hope for the moment.

In the United States, protestors and activists have been fighting police brutality for many years, and like Nigeria, this summer saw a boiling over of frustration, anger, and determination. Among the calls to abolish the police and affirmations that Black Lives Matter, seedlings of a larger vision and movement, like in Nigeria, began to sprout, though with some slight differences. In the city of Chicago, for example, when residents were surveyed about how they would like to see the city budget allocated, an overwhelming nine in ten of the residents who responded supported investments in communities and away from police. (The city of Chicago chose instead to allow CPD to keep their $1.8 billion, despite cuts in other sectors the city is forced to make next year.) Disinvested communities are disproportionately inhabited by Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color who lack access to basic social services and resources. 

Healthcare is a pertinent example of a service Americans are not receiving at the level that they need, even though the United States is one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Once again, this issue disproportionately impacts Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color. Why do these problems exist in the first place? The United States invests billions of dollars into racist and violent police departments rather than in health systems, among other social services. Liberal politicians make empty promises of reform with no accountability, rather than divesting from policing and investing in the future of the country: young people of color. 

American educational and socio-economic conditions very much mirror those in Nigeria—with some differences of course. In 2019, the United States was ranked seventeenth out of eighty countries in quality of life, which is particularly low for a developed country like the United States. By comparison, Nigeria did not make the list. Every year brings new headlines stating that the United States is slipping in health, education, and other sectors, despite the country considering itself to be the most powerful in the world. It is clear in both countries that police brutality and broader support from the government for violent institutions is a threat to young people, who will inherit a broken country if action is not taken. It can be a future that they can inherit prepared and well-resourced through programs that allow them to freely develop themselves; or it can be a future they can inherit still repressed and in fear of their lives. There is only one option that will guarantee the success of young citizens, and therefore the nation. That option is the one for which young Nigerians and Americans are now fighting, the abolition of police and reinvestment of funds into social services. Until the governments accept that young citizens ought to hold political power and enjoy shared prosperity, neither Nigeria nor the United States will be truly just.

This image is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, which can be found here. No changes were made to the original image, which is attributed to TobiJamesCandids and can be found here.

Fernanda Ponce


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