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Human Rights Abuses Still Persist Six Months on from Nigeria’s #EndSARS Movement

Hannah Uguru 08 July 21

Human Rights Abuses Still Persist Six Months on from Nigeria’s #EndSARS Movement

Human Rights Abuses Still Persist Six Months on from Nigeria’s #EndSARS Movement

** TRIGGER WARNING: SEXUAL CONTENT **

In the wake of the 20/10/20 Lekki toll gate massacre, we interviewed six young Nigerian Women to gain an insight into the extent of brutality faced by civilians at the hands of the government. Over the course of a six-month period, stories of sexual violence, extortion and murder emerged. Despite claims from President Buhari that the Special Armed Robbery Squad had been disbanded nine days prior to the state-funded slaughter, we were confronted by harrowing reports that the officers still roam the streets in 2021.

Names of interviewees have been changed for their personal protection, besides those of Adaeze Feyisayo and Angel Nduka-Nwosu who want to remain public.

*   *   *

“SARS was established to tackle armed robbery, but over the years, they themselves became the rogue unit – one people fear to come across”.

“There’s never been a time in Nigeria where they’ve actually done their job”.

“They try to extort and exploit [young people]. If they don’t get their way, they shoot”.

“SARS is supposed to be the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Nigeria, but unfortunately, they have become the robbers themselves”.

“It’s literally a rogue police unit that harasses young Nigerians and gender non-conforming Nigerians. They not only harass them, they assault them. In cases of Women there’s a lot of sexual harassment, oftentimes there’s sexual assault and rape”.

“SARS is a unit of the Nigerian Police, that one is focused on robbery. But the problem is they do the exact opposite of what they are asked to do”.

“What is your understanding of SARS?” is all we asked. These were the responses we received.

In conversation with six Women based in Nigeria, aged 20 to 25, they individually expressed a disturbing reality that forms one collective nightmare. Within the, supposedly now disbanded, Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) existed a culture of hyper-surveillance, terror and bigotry that arrested the psyche of a generation of young men and Women across the country. Hearing from those in Lagos, Umuahia, Calabar, Abuja and Ibadan, the sentiments remained the same – reformation of the unit is impossible, and Buhari’s administration is not to be trusted.

The villain origin story…

Officially, SARS was founded in 1992 by former police commissioner Simeon Danladi Midenda in direct response to the sudden spike of lawlessness that occurred for a two-week period – following police withdrawals across the country. The death of Colonel Israel Rindam (Nigerian army) by police officers at a checkpoint in Lagos in September of that year, sparked a military witch hunt against Nigerian police, leading to many going into hiding.

However, SARS’ true origins date back as far as 1984, with the creation of the Anti-Robbery Squad during Mohammed Buhari’s first presidency. Again, the units were brought in as a solution to a violent crime epidemic, including robberies, carjackings and kidnappings. The rise in these acts of illegality came at the heal of intense political unrest and economic crisis. In order to fully recognise the nature of the unit, we must interrogate the context in which it arose.

Regarding political factors, Nigeria’s constitution had adopted a US-like presidential system in place of the old British-style parliamentary one in 1979, transforming the nation into a Second Republic under Shehu Shagari. Within this arrangement, the president could only assume office after winning one-quarter of the votes in two-thirds of the federation’s states. This structure was implemented with the aim of providing “genuine and truly national” representation within a leadership that had recently been crippled under the destructive Igbo-Yoruba-Hausa ethnic tensions of the 1967 – 1970 Biafran war.

Despite these noble aspirations, Shagari’s administration quickly fell foul to claims of corruption. They came amid appropriations of public funds by party leaders to sustain cronyism; and a landslide re-election victory in August-September of 1983, which was attributed to gross voting irregularities.

“Violent crime rates expressed public discontentment, as people were left unemployed, destitute and feeling cheated by their leaders”

Economically, the oil boom of the 1960s and 1970s saw the value of petroleum exports dramatically increase from 189 million USD in 1964 to 24 billion USD by 1981. Accordingly, oil accounted for 90% of Nigeria’s foreign exchange by 1980, which had previously been at just 2% in the late 1950s. Though this immensely aided the growth of Nigeria’s economy, the rapid influx of foreign exchange led to intense class stratification within the nation’s society. By the early 1980s, Nigeria had effectively become a banana republic, abandoning diverse agricultural and manufacturing exports in favour of exploiting new-found oil reserves. Consequently, the government entered a “self-perpetuating cycle of hyperinflation”, as academic Daniel G. Matthews states, by which cheap imports were allowed to undercut domestic producers.

The global recession of the early 80s, which saw a substantial fall in worldwide oil prices, had disastrous effects on Nigeria’s singular export-dependent economy. It resulted in a 29.53% decline in labour productivity in 1981; further depreciation occurred until Buhari’s takeover in 1984. To place this into perspective, annual growth rates typically range from -5 to 5%, so these financial consequences were truly grave.

With such a volatile climate, it’s no wonder that incidences of lawlessness broke out across the country. Violent crime rates expressed public discontentment, as people were left unemployed, destitute and feeling cheated by their leaders. These issues were used to justify the armed coup of December 1983, which saw the overthrow of the Second Nigerian Republic in favour of a military government. For instance, General Sani Abacha linked an “inept and corrupt leadership” with a general economic decline during the military’s first broadcast after the takeover. He also held these qualities responsible for the rise in civil disobedience and social immorality. In turn, the coup was justified as a means to “restore order” to Shagari’s chaotic society.

The dispatch of SARS officers, from 1984 onwards, was ordered with an iron fist under Buhari’s new regime. The heavy-handed approach proved to have been successful in reducing brash lawlessness in its initial years. However, the propensity for violence soon ushered in a wave of criminality of its own.

From Lagos to Abuja and everywhere in between, brutality dominates the landscape…

On the evening of the 20th of October, at around 6:50pm, members of the Nigerian army opened fire on peaceful End SARS protestors at Lagos State’s Lekki toll gate. The official civilian death count is 12, though this figure is widely disputed and said to be much higher. The events of that night rocked the nation and international supporters of the campaign alike, becoming memorialised at the ‘Lekki toll gate massacre’ in popular media. Subsequently, it became the face of SARS brutality on the global front.

But the casualties were not limited to Lagos; a further 26 (official) deaths occurred elsewhere across the country on that night due to police brutality. 69 people in total – with 51 civilians – allegedly died during the unrest of 20/10/20, though, again, witnesses claim the actual death toll is significantly higher.

Indeed, although much of the conversation regarding police brutality centres on Lagos, SARS officials have been known to abuse their authority across the country. Of the six Women we interviewed, three were from Lagos – Yewande, Abiola and Angel. The other three – Adaeze, Nancy, Simisola – were from Umuahia, Calabar, Ibadan, respectively. It was imperative that we connected with a geographically broad range of Women, so as to accurately capture national thoughts.

Focusing on accounts from the latter three Women, we gained insight into past SARS activity outside of Nigeria’s megacity.

“…they arrest you and take you to their station. Most people that go there don’t ever get out. They kill them and sell their body parts…”

Adaeze is a 24-year-old queer activist living in Umuahia. Though from an area that’s rarely profiled in mainstream discussions regarding this issue, she alleges persecution from SARS officials is frequent: “This police unit literally commits crimes against persons, and it’s gone on for years […] I have had experiences of harassment with Nigerian police. I have witnessed friends and dates get harassed by SARS”.

Adaeze often rocks a blonde coloured buzzcut and enjoys form-fitting clothing; she feels her visual expression has heightened the negative attention: “I’ve been stopped, singled out for my hair, my dye colour, my short dress. They went searching my bags to find condoms so they could arrest me for prostitution or for suspicion of prostitution. It’s insane”.

While this account may seem alarming, she notes: “that’s a nice story compared to other stories other Women have”, indicating a wider culture of abuse, regionally and nationally.

Nancy, a 20-year-old student from Calabar, says that her only ever personal run-in with SARS took place in Lagos, quoting a story similar to Adaeze: “They stopped my Uber and asked the driver to open the boot so they could check its contents. I was with my friend, and they also searched our purses. Fortunately, nothing else happened”.

Though she says, from her experience, officials from this unit are rarely ever seen in Calabar, she does admit many others in the city have had poor dealings with them: “During the protests, a lot of people here in Calabar came out to say that they’ve had a lot of horrible experiences with them”.

The most high-profile incident in the region, as of late, concerns the murder of sex detainees that were killed in custody on the 17th of April 2014, one of which was a young man named Derek Maurice – an undergraduate at the University of Calabar (UNICAL). Officers claimed that they were acting in self-defence and killed them in a gun duel. To cover up the extra-judicial murders, the officers involved sold the corpses of the victims to the Anatomy Department of UNICAL allegedly for 11,000 NGN each – around £20. 14 policemen were placed under investigation regarding the accusation but were, eventually, acquitted of all charges by the Cross River State High Court in 2017.

Many of those critical of the unit, and the Nigerian establishment in general, stood in opposition to the ruling.

One Facebook user commented: “Police and court [sic] are the most corrupt institution in nigeria [sic]. They two organs have contributed to 96% for corruption increase in the govt [sic]”.

Screenshot of Facebook comment on the Maurice case court hearing from a displeased commentator

Simisola, a 21-year-old student from Ibadan, made a harrowing claim about the fate of those arrested under supposedly false pretences, which further raises questions of foul play within the unit.

She said: “They demand so much money, and you have to provide it, else they arrest you and take you to their station. Most people that go there don’t ever get out. They kill them and sell their body parts or just for the fun of it”.

“One of the officers used an exhaust pipe to hit me on my teeth, breaking my teeth”

Furthermore, in June 2020, Amnesty International issued a report on 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial executions by SARS officers between January 2017 and May 2020.

An additional accuser within another under-discussed region, in Anambra State, gave an account in the review as follows: “Their leader directed them to go and hang me. They took me to the back of the hall and tied me with ropes. Then they started using all manner of items to beat me, including machetes, sticks, inflicting me with all kinds of injuries. One of the officers used an exhaust pipe to hit me on my teeth, breaking my teeth. I was left on that hanger for more than three hours”.

With such damning accusations, stories and evidence nationwide, SARS brutality represents a systemic problem that entangles law enforcers, the courts and the government alike.

Young, middle-class students are their prime targets…

Initially, we had assumed that young, working-class men were the primary targets of abuse from SARS officials.

Our assumption was upheld by Amnesty International’s aforementioned report: “The victims of the police unit, set up to fight violent crimes, are predominantly male between the ages of 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups”.

However, when we spoke to our six respondents, we were confronted with a more complex image of the situation.

“Although both genders are harassed, they tend to harass young boys more because they feel they have more money to offer”

When asked which areas of Calabar was police mistreatment the rifest, Nancy named Calabar South and Satellite Town (in Calabar Municipal) as the worst. The former region hosts a largely working-class population and is visibly less affluent than the middle-class student hot spot of Satellite Town, in which the University of Calabar is situated.

Much needed roadworks take place in Calabar South

The University of Calabar, which is in Satellite Town, Calabar Municipal

From this claim, it would appear that both working and middle-class young men are subject to similar levels of hyper-surveillance. In fact, from the qualitative data our respondents provided us, it would seem that middle-class young men are the prime targets.

Nancy claimed they tend to hyper-focus on young men who appear monied, using possessions such as cars, laptops and iPhones to identify targets: “Although both genders are harassed, they tend to harass young boys more because they feel they have more money to offer”.

Others reiterated this opinion.

Angel, a 21-year-old freelance journalist from Lagos, had this to say: “They usually harass mostly young men […] who are suspected to be ‘fraudsters’”.

She explained that those seen carrying a laptop, wearing dreadlocks or dressed in branded clothing were defined as fraudsters and scammers, according to the metrics of the Nigerian police.

Abiola, a 25-year-old University of Lagos graduate, also from Lagos, chimed in: “They’ve always targeted young people, attacking young people that look good, that dress well, that use good phones. They try to extort and exploit them. If they don’t get their way, they shoot”.

After evaluating these accounts against the data, the reason for the discrepancy became clear. Amnesty International failed to compile similar figures on those from middle-class backgrounds because this demographic has the means to pay their way out of police custody, working-class youths do not.

Simisola recounted an experience of one of her male friends who, she claims, was arrested on unfounded charges for the purpose of extortion: “He and his friend were stopped because they had dreads. [SARS] took them to their police station and started accusing them of things. They then asked them to pay about 150,000 naira”.

150,000 NGN converts to around £280, just under half of the median salary of 339,000 NGN per month. Along with the young man’s parents, Nancy received a phone call from the victim, scrambling to get the ‘bail’ money. Fortunately, he was able to fund his release, though he did not get his money back.

State authority and male violence are inextricably linked…

 

The death of Ifeoma Abugu signifies the gendered nature of sexual violence within custodial settings and, more broadly, among Nigeria’s institutional authorities.

On the 11th of September 2020, 28-year-old NYSC (Nigerian Youth Service Corps) member Ifeoma Abugu was pronounced dead at Gwagwalada Specialist Hospital, Abuja. The incident came after an illegal arrest was made at her home by three SARS officers the day before. The officers who took her into custody had allegedly arrived at her Abuja apartment in search of her fiancé, Afam Ugwunwa, who was not present at the scene. Several sources claim they were in search of Ugwunwa under the suspicion that he was a drug dealer. Subsequently, Abugu was arrested in connection to the drug dealing charges, with police initially reporting that she died of a cocaine overdose while under remand.

“There is glaring evidence that proved my sister was raped and strangled to death”

A later story emerged that Abugu was discovered already dead in her apartment, upon which SARS officials rushed her to hospital, first in Maitama and then in Gwagwalada. Notwithstanding, both accounts maintained that her cause of death was a cocaine overdose.

Statements from Abugu’s loved ones and an autopsy report, however, paint a drastically different picture of events.

Abugu’s brother, Alex Abugu, claims he had never known his sister to even finish an alcoholic beverage, let alone take hard drugs, denying police accusations of illegal substance abuse.

He went onto voice his thoughts on the cause of his sister’s death, saying: “When my uncles saw the picture of her corpse, there were signs that she was sexually assaulted”.

In response to the autopsy report that was later issued, he said: “There is glaring evidence that proved my sister was raped and strangled to death”.

Indeed, the inquiry in question suggested anoxia as a cause of death, an extreme form of hypoxia whereby the body is deprived of oxygen. A pathologist found an accumulation of fluid in her lungs, causing pulmonary congestion. Furthermore, Abugu’s fingernails, lips and tongue posthumously took on a bluish colour, indicating respiratory problems at the time of death.

When attributing these signs to a cause of death, Dr Abimiku, who carried out the autopsy, told an eleven-person investigative panel: “this can come about as a result of strangulation, choking or suffocation”.

Further contradicting police claims of a fatal cocaine overdose, a drug test on Abugu’s bodily fluid came back negative for not only cocaine but also Rohypnol, diazepam, barbiturate, marijuana, narcotics, cannabis, tranquillisers and amphetamines. Ifeoma Abugu’s system was completely clean at the point of death.

Perhaps most damningly, a vaginal swab found traces of dead sperm. Unfortunately, it was taken after 72 hours, meaning it’s impossible to determine the culprit with a DNA test, but all other evidence points towards one of the three officers on illegal duty. As it stands, however, the policemen are yet to stand trial.

“Women in the country function under a constant threat of male belligerence”

The injustice demonstrated in this case reflects a recurring thread of systematic abuse against Women in Nigeria. In 2018, the Women at Risk International Foundation estimated that more than 10,000 Women and girls are raped every day in the country. Furthermore, the Nigeria National Bureau of Statistics disclosed that Nigeria’s police had reported no rape convictions in 2017, in the face of 2279 reported incidents of rape and indecent assault.

Evidently, Women in the country function under a constant threat of male belligerence, as further exhibited by a nationally declared state of emergency on rape and gender-based violence on the 11th of June 2020. We gained further insight on the extent of SARS’ role in upholding this from some of our respondents.

Speaking on an event of sexual assault that happened in Ikeja, Lagos, in March 2018, Abiola said that SARS officers arrested her hotel and molested her while she was detained at the station.

22 at the time, Abiola had booked a hotel room in Ikeja and was attending a birthday party at a nearby restaurant with her friends when police officers interrupted: “These men just came, they were not in uniform, no identification, they had guns. They just came and grabbed us”, she recounted.

She continued, saying: “The first thought was, ‘What is going on? Are we getting kidnapped?’. It was night, but people were around.

“They just grabbed us. They were dragging us, and they were saying, ‘Ashawo! You’re Ashawo!’”

Ashawo (also sometimes spelt as ‘ashewo’) is a derogatory term for a female sex worker, typically one who is street-based. It’s often wielded against any Woman deemed promiscuous.

In addition to verbal abuse, Abiola and her friends were also subject to rough handling. The group was thrown into the police van and taken to the station; other young Women were also taken in for questioning. They took their shoes, jewellery, bags, ID and phones.

Abiola said: “They just took everything”.

Apparently, SARS officers questioned each of them individually, under the suspicion that they were selling sex. Such actions echo Adaeze’s earlier account of being stopped and questioned on the street under the assumption that she was selling sex.

The legality of sex work in Southern Nigeria remains ambiguous, with legislation only explicitly targeting those who run brothels or seduce the under-aged into prostitution, the latter of which comes with two years of imprisonment under the Nigeria Criminal Code. Within this framework, it seems that SARS officers have no warrant to stop and question suspected sex workers, indicating a clear abuse of power.

The phenomenon is so widespread that, in 2010, the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN) went as far as to note that the ease of access to sex workers was perceived as “one of the fringe benefits” for night patrol officers. Moreover, a qualitative study by the International Journal of Police Practice and Research identified a trend of policemen arresting roadside prostitutes and imposing “a punishment of free sex”. In 2006, Amnesty International also reported incidents of officers policing streets known to be frequented by commercial sex workers, harassing, raping and gang-raping them before releasing them without charge.

In February 2006, the then Executive Director of the National Human Rights Commission said: “Police often arrest prostitutes, have sexual intercourse with them and then release them”.

Abiola’s experience mirrors these allegations. While at the station, Abiola was denied from making any phone calls and was extorted for money in exchange for her freedom. She was unable to oblige as she was not carrying cash. Accordingly, they threatened to keep her there all weekend.

“Abiola could be classed as one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Unlike Ifeoma Abugu and countless others, she made it out alive”

She said: “The officers were on a power trip, arresting us on a Friday and threatening to take us to court on Monday, meaning we’d have to spend the whole weekend behind bars”.

In the absence of money to be able to buy her way out, Abiola spoke of her molestation by a police officer as a bribe: “He started groping my breast, calling my ‘ashawo’. I just froze. I was so scared.

“The other man sat down across and was smiling whilst this one was groping my breast, talking about ‘ha, this one is sweet oh! This small breast, but it be sweet oh!’

“I was just crying. I was shaking, I was crying”.

Abiola was left motionless as the two officers continued to grope, leer and jeer within the confined of their empty office in the dead of night. Defenceless against two middle-aged armed men, all she could do was silently pray that things “wouldn’t go further”.

She reflected: “That particular experience was very traumatic because there was no way I was going to fight. I could not even shout. I could not scream. I was completely helpless. I’ve never been so helpless in my adult life”.

Abiola and her friends were eventually released upon their hotel manager’s arrival to the station, where he was able to confirm that they were indeed paying guests and not soliciting sex. Devastatingly, this haunting narrative is a common occurrence and has been for decades. In fact, Abiola could be classed as one of the ‘lucky’ ones. Unlike Ifeoma Abugu and countless others, she made it out alive.

#EndSARS and the digitisation of resistance…

Though not to the gravity of Abiola’s ordeal, the majority of the Women we interviewed cited experiences of street harassment from SARS officials. In Adaeze’s instance, she drew from her experience as a young, plus-sized and openly queer Woman, as well as from those in her proximity, to launch her journey into anti-police brutality activism.

She said: “It’s literally a rogue police unit that harasses young Nigerians and gender non-conforming Nigerians. They not only harass them, they assault them. In cases of Women, there’s a lot of sexual harassment. Oftentimes there’s sexual assault and rape.

“I have had experiences of harassment with Nigerian police. I have witness friends, and dates get harassed on SARS”.

“I joined the protests because I needed to speak up for my experience as a Woman, how it affected me”.

With this insight, Adaeze turned to social media to organise, joining online protests from the perspective of an intersectional feminist. Her aim was to profile the gender-based violence directed at Women, especially sex workers, and queerphobia. This was after getting online requests from Women and gender non-conforming people who needed money to pay off SARS officers who had stopped them on the roads.

She declared: “On the 16th of October, I created SAFE HQUSE, which was initially just offering two-days temporary housing to queer Nigerians, because a lot of queer Nigerians were getting brutalised, beaten, harassed, assaulted at protests by other protesters, and then on their way homes by still-rogue SARS officials and by the police”.

SAFE HQUSE provides safe, temporary housing for queer Nigerian protestors, encompassing those who are non-binary, trans and HIV positive.

Published on the 18th of October 2020, their mission statement reads as follows: “The #EndSARS protests ongoing [sic] in Nigeria has left many Queer Youth [sic] who experience police brutality [sic] vulnerable to more homophobic violence. SAFE HQUSE is providing 2 DAYS TEMPORARY SAFE HOUSES [sic] for Queer Protesters through donations made to us. Our Safe House is accessible to Transgender, Non-binary, HIV+ Queer Nigerians during the ongoing #EndSARS protests in Nigeria”.

Within just four days of inception, Adaeze’s organisation had housed, fed and transported fourteen LGBTQ+ Nigerians in Lagos and disbursed donations to over fifty queer protesters in the country. Post-20/10/20 at Lekki toll gate, SAFE HQUSE has expanded its services, assisting with rent, mobile phone credit, urgent medical care, vocational training for queer youth and therapy sessions for those left affected by the traumatic shootings across eight of the nation’s states.

Another female-led organisation that’s been at the forefront of online resistance has been Feminist Coalition. The group was founded in July 2020 by Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi, with the vision of both institutionalising and socialising gender equality in Nigeria. In total, fourteen Women comprise the formation.

Its three pillars are defined as the following: “Women’s right & safety; financial equality for Women; and political & legislative power for Women”.

Modified Feminist Coalition logo, with hashtags #EndSARS and #EndSWAT

Their activism proved integral last year, as detailed through the words of the Women we spoke to that worked with them. Nancy attended three out of the five official protests in Calabar, collaborating with Feminist Coalition to organise the demonstrations. She used WhatsApp to connect and strategise with local youth before requesting funding from Feminist Coalition through an online form, which the organisation had tweeted for people to access. She received NGN 25,000, which she spent on drinks, snacks, first aids kits and cardboard.

One the experience, Nancy said: “It was a good experience. [Feminist Coalition] were very transparent.

“I think they were really transparent because they had a link showing how much money they’d dispersed, to whom and from what state”.

In order to access more funding, organisers were required to post pictures from the protests in their state on Twitter and tag @feminist_co. This initiative proved excellent in increasing momentum for the movement, as evidenced by several viral tweets reaching the tens of thousands in terms of likes and retweets.

A protest organiser in Ibadan citing expenses from protests in Ibadan and the funding received from Feminist Coalition to cover them

A viral tweet of Lagos’ Oriental Hotel standing in solidarity with the protests

“social media apps like Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, were pivotal to the widespread nature of the campaign”

Simisola also worked with Feminist Coalition, organising two protests and attending three in Ibadan. She received NGN 60,000 from them. The first demonstration she organised had a turn-out of around 200 people.

On the experience, she said: “The turn-out was good. And the effect we made on those days were [sic] incredible.

“It was amazing. The rush, the energy, completely pure. I loved that Women came out and actually led as well”.

Unfortunately, not every Woman’s experience was as wholesome. We spoke to Yewande, a 22-year-old microbiology student from Lagos, who touched on the sexism she faced when trying to lead. At first, no one wanted to listen to her or follow her orders. Moreover, the protests were in her area were supposed to be a collaborative effort, yet she was left doing the bulk of the work.

She said: “I had to really stand her ground and make some noise in order to make people take notice, so in that sense, my gender has impacted my approach to protesting”.

Overall, social media apps like Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp, were pivotal to the widespread nature of the campaign. In addition to Nigeria, protests were, most notably, held in the UK, Canada and the US. The #EndSARS hashtag defines a moment of digital resistance in Nigeria’s political timeline, with Women at the forefront of these efforts.

SARS are still out there…

On the 11th of October 2020, Nigeria Police Force (NPF) took to Twitter to announce that the government had disbanded the Special Armed Robbery Squad. The tweet featured a picture of a five-step course of dissolution for the unit. They can be summarised as involving a complete cessation of SARS activity across all of Nigeria’s 36 states; a transfer of SARS officers to other police commands, formations and units; a new policing formation to tackle the issue of armed robbery (Special Weapons and Tactics Unit – SWAT); the creation of a Citizens and Strategic Stakeholders Forum for civilians to have their say on police matters; a national investigation into reported accusations of police brutality.

Naturally, many Nigerians responded to this news with cynicism, pointing out glaring inadequacies within this plan. The scepticism proved valid, given SARS’ maintained action post their alleged disbandment on the 11th, which should have been “with immediate effect”.

It was not until the 22nd of October 2020, when Muhammadu Buhari publicly announced he had disbanded the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad via a nationally addressed speech, did the unit adopt some type of discrepancy. This came two days after the shooting of protestors, which Nigeria’s president failed to address in his speech. Instead, his words came with a thinly veiled demand for compliance from civilians, labelling the protests as an “undermining [of] national security and the law and order situation”. He went onto warn that “[u]nder no circumstances will this be tolerated”.

“Every year institutional powers promise positive change and an end to brutality; every year these claims go unfulfilled”

The threatening language not only expresses a disconnect between the country’s authoritative institutions and its people, but it also signals an unwillingness to compromise, as supported by a history of failed promises of reform, abolition and justice. 2020 is the fourth year in a row that the government has promised institutional change, accordingly, dating back to as early as 2017 where Buhari’s administration adopted an anti-torture law. Unfortunately, to date, no SARS officer has been convicted of torture in a Nigerian court. In 2018, Nigeria’s Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, ordered an immediate reform of SARS, citing the widespread public outcry against their conduct. In 2019, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammad Adamu, decentralised SARS from its original headquarters in Abuja, dispersing police forces across all 36 states.

According to the Daily Post, Adamu said that the essence of the reorganisation was to restore order and stop the current slide in policing standards.

Every year, institutional powers promise positive change and an end to brutality; every year, these assurances go unfulfilled. Has 2020 proved any different? Unfortunately, no.

“Though SARS have been disbanded, according to the government, I’ve heard a few cases where they’re still operating”

Speaking in as late as March of 2021, Yewande said: “Funny enough, I don’t think anything has really been done about SARS, because until today we still hear stories. We still hear news about them being on the road. We still hear stories of them arresting people. There are #EndSARS protesters that are still in detention until now. There are #EndSARS protestors that are still missing until now. There are some of them whose bodies are still missing from the Lekki massacre. So, I do not think the government is working on anything about SARS at all. I do not believe they’re doing anything about it at all”.

Simisola reiterated this wariness, saying: “Though SARS have been disbanded, according to the government, I’ve heard a few cases where they’re still operating”.

Even considering Nigeria’s police force within the framework that SARS has truly been disbanded, police brutality still remains a critical issue in Nigeria society, as evidenced by the events at Lekki toll gate’s reopening in February of this year. Following the Lagos State Judicial Panel’s decision to reopen the toll gate, activist groups and protestors gathered at last year’s site of massacre to express disapproval. The movement went by the name of #OccupyLekkiTollGate

One activist said: “Lekki toll gate should be made a museum of resistance and not a monument for money-making”.

“President Buhari issued a country-wide Twitter ban

In response, police officers arrested at least 28 people, some of whom were simply passers by. Videos of officers beating both witnesses and protestors at Lekki toll gate have also circulated – a painful reminder of the violence that took place last year and sad confirmation of Nigerian authorities’ unwillingness to change.

As of the time of publishing, some protestors remain imprisoned without trial and have had their bank accounts frozen. Even more alarmingly, on the 4th of June 2021, President Buhari issued a country-wide Twitter ban, after the social media company deleted one of his tweets. The Federal Ministry of Information of Nigeria made a series of tweets explaining the course of action and the government’s decision. Correspondingly, no other activity has emerged from the Twitter account since. Several of our respondents in Nigeria confirm that they’ve been unable to access their own accounts since the ban as well.

Nigeria descends further and further into a state of tyrannical dictatorship, under the pretence of a democracy. With such chaos continuing in the wake of global outrage, we remain hyper-vigilant to continued instances of injustice.

Investigation conducted and written by: Hannah Uguru our Commissioning Editor. She is an award-winning writer who is passionate about discussions centring Black Women and the nuances within this identity. Connect with her on Instagram and on her blog.

Header Illustration by Olaloye Bunmi

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