In early 1990s, armed robbers and bandits were terrorizing Lagos and southern Nigeria. In 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was formed to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes.
Before that, anti-robbery was the responsibility of the Nigerian Police Force generally although, from 1984, anti-robbery units existed separately as part of different states’ criminal investigation departments.
In the early days of the unit, combat-ready SARS officers operated undercover in plain clothes and plain vehicles without any security or government insignia and did not carry arms in public.
Their main job was to monitor radio communications and facilitate successful arrests of criminals and armed robbers such as Chukwudi Onuamadike – best known as “Evans” – who was arrested in 2017 after the police spent five years tracking him and placed a 30 million naira ($80,000) reward on his head.
For 10 years, SARS only operated in Lagos, but by 2002, it had spread to all 36 states of the federation as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.
Emboldened by its new powers, the unit moved on from its main function of carrying out covert operations and began to set up roadblocks, extorting money from citizens. Officers remained in plain clothes but started to carry arms in public.
Over time, the unit has been implicated in widespread human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and extortion.
SARS officers then allegedly moved on to targeting and detaining young men for cybercrime or being “online fraudsters”, simply on the evidence of their owning a laptop or smartphone, and then demanding excessive bail fees to let them go.
In 2006 and 2008, presidential committees proposed recommendations for reforming the Nigeria Police.
In 2009, the Nigerian minister of justice and attorney general of the federation convened a National Committee on Torture to examine allegations of torture and unlawful killings but made little headway. In October 2010, the then Nigerian President, Goodluck Jonathan, allocated 71 billion naira ($196m) for police reforms.
In 2016, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force announced broad reforms to correct SARS units’ use of excessive force and failure to follow due process.
In 2016, Amnesty International documented its own visit to one of the SARS detention centres in Abuja, situated in a disused abattoir. There, it found 130 detainees living in overcrowded cells and being regularly subjected to methods of torture including hanging, starvations, beatings, shootings and mock executions.
In March 2017, SARS arrested 23-year-old Miracle Ifeanyichukwu Okpara and detained him in Anambra State, eastern Nigeria, on a charge of having stolen a laptop. Amnesty International reported that he was tortured and hardly given any food during 40 days of detention before he was taken to court and charged with armed robbery. The court discharged the case for lack of evidence.
Finally, in 2017, Nigerians launched a social media campaign with the hashtag #EndSARS to document abuse and extortion by SARS officers and demanded the total overhaul or disbandment of the unit.
Promises from government flowed in again. In December 2017, the inspector general of the Nigeria Police Force announced plans to reorganize SARS units. In August 2018, Nigeria’s vice-president and then acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, ordered the overhaul of SARS but allegations of abuse by SARS agents continued throughout the year.
Now, Nigerians say they have had enough. Since 2017, protests have been building momentum across Nigeria, stemming from online advocacy to street protests. The anger about the unit’s activities culminated in a nationwide protest on the streets of 21 states this month after a SARS officer allegedly shot a young man in Delta State.
While demonstrations across Nigeria have remained peaceful, security forces have responded with more brutality. The police have shot tear gas, water cannon and live rounds at protesters across the country. Armed men have also disrupted rallies and attacked protesters, forcing the organisers to hire private security to repel the attacks.
Jimoh Isiaq, a 20-year-old university student, was shot dead on October 11, 2020, during an #EndSARS protest in Oyo State, southwestern Nigeria. Isiaq was killed when a police team monitoring the protest allegedly opened fire at demonstrators with live bullets.
On October 12, police officers in Lagos allegedly opened fire to disperse protesters, killing 55-year-old Ikechukwu Ilohamauzo, and arresting dozens of protesters. On October 16, police teargassed and used water cannon on a group of protesters in Abuja.
Police officers attacked journalist Gimba Kakanda, injuring him, smashing his phone and slashing the tyres of his car. In a piece for Time about his experience, Kakanda wrote: “I was saying my last prayers. I really thought my life was going to end.”
Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, has decried the use of excessive force against peaceful protesters and said that it makes claims of any commitment to ending violations of human rights by the Nigerian police redundant.
Again violent protests have erupted in Lagos over open shooting by the Police leading to death of estimated 12 people. President assured that SARS would be disbanded and has warned the protestors to return home or else face the consequences.
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