no easy victories

Nigeria: #EndSARS movement avoids pitfalls of ‘leadership’

By Ruth Olurounbi

Posted on October 15, 2020 21:06

Nigeria Police Protest
People hold banners as they demonstrate on the street to protest against police brutality in Lagos, Nigeria, Thursday Oct. 15, 2020. (AP Photo/Sunday Alamba)

Five days after Nigeria celebrated its 60th independence anniversary, an event that is shaping up to be the biggest since Nigeria returned to democracy hit the scene: a leaderless protest against police brutality galvanised by mostly gen Z (youth in their 20s) and a feminist coalition.

The police in question are members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS for short. The squad was set up in 1992 as a way to push-back a rise in violent crime. But over the years, the unit has been accused of becoming the very groups it was meant to stop.

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SARS has long been on the radar of civilians and NGOs for its mistreatment of the very people it’s meant to be protecting.

In June this year, Amnesty International released a report entitled Time to end Impunity that listed 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by the unit between January 2017 and May 2020.

The protest has since spread to at least a third of the nation’s states including the commercial hub of Lagos, the nation’s capital of Abuja and the oil hub of Rivers.

And, just maybe, the campaign is pushing ordinary citizens to hold police more accountable.

But how did the campaign to end police brutality pull together an ad hoc coalition across the country, into a leaderless movement?

#EndSARS protests

The #EndSARS protest resurged on 6 October after a video showing members of SARS allegedly shoot a man at point blank range and drive away in his car. The viral video rekindled an #EndSARs protest that has been years in the making, this time only on social media.

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“What has happened with this movement has been beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, more so, the government’s”, says Edwin Abraham, a 28-year-old fitness trainer who says he was harassed by the police multiple times.

For years, young people have called for an end to the police unit that has profiled young people who are seen as living above the poverty line as fraudsters. The police are accused of robbing or in worst cases killing people unprovoked.

Amnesty International says SARS: “Is responsible for widespread torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment (other ill-treatment) of detainees in their custody.” In an earlier report dating from 2016 entitled You Have Signed Your Death Warrant’: Torture and other Ill Treatment By Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, Amnesty says it found SARS used methods including “severe beating, hanging, starvation, shooting in the legs, mock executions and threats of execution.”

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The victims have been “predominantly male between the ages of 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups.” To date, no SARS officers involved in torture and other ill-treatments have been brought to justice, says the human rights group.

Organic, leaderless protests

“This is their protest. I went there as a fellow citizen to give my moral support,” Aisha Yesufu, an activist and one of the allies at the centre of the movement writes in a text message to The Africa Report. She has been vocal in saying that she is only a supporter of the movement that belongs to the youth, who are the major driver of the protest.