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17 October 2020updated 28 Jul 2021 12:54pm

End Sars: Why Nigerians are protesting the hated police unit

With the Nigerian economy struggling and universities closed, allegations of human rights abuses by police have outraged the country’s young people.

By Ido Vock

One of Wole Olubanji’s friends had left a wedding party one evening when he was stopped by officers from Nigeria’s notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars), a specialist police unit. The officers didn’t like the look of the young man, who wears his hair in dreadlocks. They marched him to a cash machine and ordered him to withdraw 40,000 naira ($100), leaving him with 3,000 naira (less than $10) in his bank account. Olubanji says his friend was powerless to resist, fearing a beating or worse were he to refuse to pay off the goons.

The episode epitomises discontent with Sars, a unit of the Nigerian police created nearly 30 years ago to combat violent crimes such as kidnappings and robberies. Originally welcomed in some communities scarred by crime, its methods – alleged torture, unlawful arrests, extra-judicial killings – began to resemble those of the criminals it purported to be fighting. A notorious Abuja detention centre run by the unit is nicknamed “the abattoir”. Between January 2017 and May 2020, a report by Amnesty International found there were more than 80 alleged cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by Sars, not a single one of which resulted in prosecution. Olubanji is now one of thousands of Nigerians to have joined protests calling for the unit to be disbanded. The protests, in which, according to Amnesty, at least ten people have been killed, were triggered by a string of viral videos showing Sars use brutal and likely illegal tactics, with one clip apparently showing a man being badly beaten.

The government has given in to pressure from demonstrators and has announced that the unit will be dissolved, though the army subsequently issued a veiled warning, ordering protestors to “desist”. Some observers, including Leena Koni Hoffmann, an associate fellow of the Africa Programme at the think tank Chatham House, warn that reform of the security services is frequently promised but rarely delivered. “Even while the Inspector General of Police was announcing that Sars would be disbanded, police were shooting live ammunition and water cannons at peaceful protestors. So this will be an uphill struggle,” Hoffmann says.

Anger with law enforcement is nothing new in Nigeria. The country’s police force evolved from colonial era institutions and still perceives its role as protecting the interests of the ruling regime rather than citizens themselves, says Lanre Ikuteyijo, a researcher at Obafemi Awolowo University in southwestern Nigeria. But this year, young Nigerians are angry and bored. Universities have been closed to slow the spread of coronavirus, leaving students to stew at home. “The economy is not smiling,” Ikuteyijo adds – an understatement. Nigeria is forecast to suffer its worst recession for four decades this year. Grainy videos of police brutality crystallised young people’s worries, and fit within a global mood of simmering rage at law enforcement, triggered by the killing of George Floyd in the US in May this year.

Whether the government can succeed in disbanding Sars and tackling police brutality will serve as a test for Nigeria’s fledgling democracy, which experienced its first democratic transfer of power five years ago. Activists fear officers will merely be reallocated to other units without being retrained or disciplined, and that this will simply spread a culture of abuse around rather than curbing it. Nigeria’s track record on institutional reform suggests they are right to be sceptical.

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[See also: How the protests swept the world]