When the video of a young man in Ughelli in Delta State being harassed and eventually shot dead by members of a unit of the Nigeria Police Force, the so-called special anti-robbery squad (Sars) went viral on social media last week, little did anyone know it would lead to the biggest protests in the country since the return of democracy in 1999.
Nationwide protests have roiled the country for days as Nigerian youths took to the streets to demand the abolishment of Sars. Protesters have come out in their numbers in Lagos, the nation’s economic capital, and in Abuja, the seat of federal power, to ask for Sars to be disbanded. Citizens in regional hubs such as Port Harcourt, Ibadan and Kano have also made their voices heard. Nigerians, prolific travellers, also took their protests to the nation’s high commissions in London, Pretoria and Berlin over the weekend. Their demand is as simple as a hashtag: #EndSars.
As a Nigerian in my twenties, I am proud of the protesters, many of whom are in my age group, for rising to the moment. I am proud of those on the streets putting themselves in harm’s way to demand a more just Nigeria, proud of those donating their money and resources to provide legal aid to arrested protesters, and those amplifying the message on all social media platforms.
In a country of more than 180-million people, and with more languages than the tower of Babel, my generation of Nigerians is showing that we can achieve more when we stay united.
Sars was established in 1992 to tackle a rise in armed robbery with the “element of surprise” according to its founder, Simeon Danladi Midenda. Instead, the only people who have been surprised are unarmed young Nigerians trying to earn a living despite the economic odds being firmly stacked against them.
Sars officers, who are supposed to work undercover and only swoop in as and when required, like a Nigerian version of America’s Swat (special weapons and tactics) teams, have become a permanent fixture on roads, stopping cars and demanding answers from potential victims.
In the world’s most populous black nation, profiling is based not on the colour of your skin, but on the clothes you wear and the hairstyle you have. Young men with dreadlocks are routinely targeted. Those with tattoos are not left out. So are those with gadgets such as iPhones and MacBooks. Driving an expensive car is a sure-fire way to get yourself questioned or detained by men of the force.
Once, in December 2016, the squad stopped me in Ibadan, my home town, to search my iPhone and ask me ignorant questions. In comparison to many others, I got off lightly.
The special anti-robbery squad’s argument for stopping its victims is as simple as it is illogical: because Nigeria has its fair share of cybercriminals, any young person displaying any form of wealth is to be viewed suspiciously.
Never mind that Nigeria has an agency, namely the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, that is tasked with dealing with corruption and financial crimes, as the name boldly spells out. Sars still reads the emails and text messages of those they stop. Messages from foreigners will almost certainly get its recipients in trouble, as a young technology investor found to his dismay last year.
Then the extortion begins. Sars officials demand bribes from their prey while threatening to kill them if they refuse to cooperate. Through a toxic mix of fear, coercion, and potential for tragic outcomes, the men of the Sars unit usually get their way.
Many have not been lucky enough to escape with their lives. Kolade Johnson, a 36-year-old father of one, was killed last year while leaving one of the many viewing centres in Lagos where he had gone to watch a soccer game. His crime? He was in the same vicinity as another man, whom the police had deemed a “Yahoo boy”, local slang for an internet fraudster.
Kazeem Tiamiyu, a professional soccer player in Nigeria’s domestic league, was killed in February by the same unit.
Young women are not safe from the clutches of Sars either. Tina Ezekwe, a 16-year-old high-schooler, was killed in May when a police officer shot indiscriminately at a bus stop.
The names of those killed are enough to fill this page. There are reports of women being sexually assaulted while in their custody.
Despite the clamour that began in late 2017, police authorities and government leaders have done nothing but pay lip service to the cries of the Nigerian youth. In June, a report from Amnesty’s Nigeria office detailed at least 82 “cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by Sars between January 2017 and May 2020”. The report found that no Sars officer has been held accountable for human rights violations.
The sheer impunity of the police and the deafening silence of Nigeria’s elected leaders drove the nation’s youth onto the streets to demand justice. In a country where 30.7%, of young people are unemployed and basic amenities are sorely lacking, young people are simply demanding a chance to live a dignified life.
They’re not asking for the government to provide them with employment, healthcare or education. They just don’t want to be shot to death in state-sanctioned acts of violence.
Nigeria’s youth are industrious, with many taking up positions in the burgeoning technology sector, the arts and other creative spaces. Yet, it is the same gadgets they use for their craft that often put them in danger at the hands of trigger-happy police.
On Sunday, the Nigerian police finally seemed to have acquiesced to the demands of the protesters. The police chief announced on live television that the rogue unit would be disbanded and its officers redeployed.
It may have been intended to sound like a victory, but we’ve been here before. Similar pronouncements have been made on at least four occasions with no tangible effect. There’s little reason to trust the words of a police chief whose officers attacked peaceful protesters in Abuja, while his speech was ongoing, with water cannons, tear gas and live bullets, proving the point of the protests in real time.
On Saturday, at least one protester, Jimoh Isiaq, was killed in the southwestern town of Ogbomoso. Videos on social media have also shown the police shooting at protesters in Lagos, with at least one person confirmed dead. The death toll is steadily climbing: at least ten were reported killed on Monday.
Yet in the face of the violence coming from the same police force people are protesting, the response from Nigerian leaders is to tell the youth to stand down from protesting. One governor, Nyesom Wike, of the oil-rich Rivers State, even went as far to declare he had banned protests in his state.
One would think that Wike, a lawyer by training, would recognise that peaceful protests are an inalienable right of every Nigerian, enshrined in the same constitution that allows him to serve as governor.
But that’s not the only attack on the protests by the authorities: the bank account of the Feminist Coalition, a grassroots women’s organisation helping to pay for bail and other needs of the protesters, was deactivated on Tuesday, presumably on the orders of the Central Bank of Nigeria.
The response of Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari has been woefully inadequate, too. As protests went on around the country, he stayed silent, hiding behind tone-deaf tweets written by his media aides. He did not address a nation in turmoil until Monday afternoon in a short clip posted on Twitter, as he is wont to do.
This is the same man who, in July, found time to visit Bamako when soldiers deposed the Malian president in a coup. Yet his response at home can charitably be called shamefully muted at best. A more accurate description would be that he has been negligent; on the same day of the deadly assaults by the police, the president was busy commissioning tricycles as part of a “youth empowerment scheme”.
And so the protests go on. The current order that Sars officers will be redeployed fails to meet the simple demands of the people. Protesters on the streets of Lagos, Abuja and elsewhere are clamouring for the immediate release of all arrested protesters, an investigation and prosecution of misconduct as well as compensation for the families of those killed by police.
This movement has power — long may it continue.