What is the EndSARS Movement?
If you’ve been paying attention to trending Twitter hashtags or looked at your friends’ Instagram stories (or maybe even watched the news) in the past few weeks, you may have noticed that the EndSARS movement has been gaining some traction. Whether you heard about it from a post about H.E.R. using her Saturday Night Live music performance to promote it, an online news article about police brutality in Nigeria, or that Instagram post that seemingly everyone from Edgemont shared, you may be wondering, what exactly is it and why does everybody suddenly seem to care about it?
Before you can delve into the EndSARS movement, you have to define SARS itself. SARS, or Special Anti-Robbery Squad, was a Nigerian police unit created in 1992 to combat a rise in the Nigerian crime rate associated with firearms, robbery, vehicle theft, and kidnapping. It was part of the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID) and headed by Deputy Inspector General Anthony Ogbizi. SARS has a reputation for abusing its power and has been known in Nigeria for evolving into the same problem it was designed to stop: a criminal enterprise.
When SARS was founded, controlling the Nigerian people through extreme force was already the norm. After British colonizers arrived in the 19th century, they controlled and plundered the Nigerian land, people, and resources, leaving their mark by establishing a culture of violence and corruption. After Nigeria won independence in 1960 and the military took power, armed robbery was rampant in cities like Lagos. In 1992, the Superintendent of Police, Simeon Danladi Midenda, was tasked with creating a special force that would act independently to deal with robbers. In 2017, Midenda told the Vanguard, a Lagos-based newspaper, that “the secret behind the successes of the original SARS was its facelessness and its mode of operation. We operated in plain clothes and used plain vehicles that could not be associated with security or any government agency.”
Although the unit did have some early successes, it wasn't long before there were instances of abuse. Throughout the 1990s, there were numerous reports of victims (mainly young men, particularly those in university) who were abused in SARS custody, sometimes to the point of death, while others were shot at checkpoints. To silence reporters, SARS officers frequently raided journalists’ homes and attacked their families, often in the middle of the night.
In the early 2000s, when cybercrime became more rampant in Nigeria, SARS officers profiled those on the streets and harassed anyone they deemed suspicious. The most common targets were young men with nice clothes and watches or dreadlocks. A presidential committee was formed in 2008 to help reform the Nigerian Police Force but no proposals were seriously implemented. Two years later, President Goodluck Jonathan pledged 71 billion nairas (186 million dollars) to police reform but little changed. In 2012, Inspector General of Police Mohammed Dikko Abubakar described SARS as “killer teams engaging in deals for land speculators and debt collection” in an interview and promised to “purge the system of corruption, which crippled and frustrates every honest attempt at reforming the police.”
In 2016, the Nigerian Police Force was ranked the world’s worst in a survey of 127 countries, which should come as no shock when you learn that 81% of Nigerian respondents said they’d bribed a police officer in the past year. #EndSARS began trending in 2017 when Nigerians took to social media to pour out their frustrations and spread the call for reform. In December that year, President Buhari signed the Anti-Torture Act, which criminalized torture, but Amnesty International says that not a single officer has been charged under it. In the coming year, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo forced the Inspector General to restructure SARS, ban stop-and-search raids, and require officers to wear uniforms with full identification. Although a spokesperson for the police told The Nation that the police had “fully complied with the directives for the overhaul and reformation of SARS,” Amnesty International continued to document abuse cases involving SARS, and between January 2017 and May 2020, observed at least 82. These cases included beatings, hangings, sexual assault, general torture and ill-treatment, and even extrajudicial killings. Amnesty International has also said that the victims were predominantly men aged 18-25 from low-income backgrounds and that the Nigerian government's failure to address the issue showed “an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”
That brings us to this year and the situation at hand. On October 3rd, a video that appeared to show the unprovoked killing of a man in Ughelli at the hands of a SARS officer went viral on social media. Nigerian officials claimed it was fake and arrested the person who took it, which incited more anger. The hashtag #EndSARS topped global trends on Twitter and protests erupted in Nigeria’s major cities. In Lagos, hundreds of youths gathered with signs and banners reading “Respect for Human Rights” and “A More Equal Society.”
However, in the midst of these protests, tear gas was used by police against civilians in areas like Abuja. Celebrities like Drake, Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Kanye West have voiced support for the movement and protests. On October 12th, President Muhammadu Buhari agreed to disband SARS and called his decision “only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection and livelihood of our people.”
However, the Nigerian people were not mollified with this measure. Bulama Bukarti, a London-based Nigerian lawyer, says that leaders have promised reform “four times in the past four years” and that “people are tired of lip service.” President Buhari’s subordinates also said that the SARS officers would be redeployed elsewhere in the Nigerian police system, which only served to further the people’s dissatisfaction. Thousands of protestors filled the streets of Lagos, even after officials implemented a curfew and deployed the military.
Although protestors made it clear that peace was their goal, Lagos authorities accused them of torching, looting buildings, and “unleashing terror on citizens.” On October 20th, another hashtag emerged: #LekkiMassacre. Protestors in the Lekki toll gate plaza said that the streetlights suddenly went out at dusk and, while the crowd was singing the national anthem, Nigerian security forces approached and opened fire. Amnesty International says it has received “credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protestors” and claims at least 12 were killed and hundreds were wounded. The group has also said that CCTV cameras at the location were removed by the government in a clear attempt to hide evidence. On Twitter, the Nigerian army denied that soldiers had been on the scene and Vice President Yemi Osinbajo said that he visited the victims in the hospital. After the violence, protestors returned to the streets of Lagos, where witnesses said they were met with riot officers and tear gas.
What’s next for Nigeria is hard to say. The situation seems unclear and many are doubtful that President Buhari will enact any serious police reform. What we can say, however, is that EndSARS is the biggest and longest-running series of protests in a generation in Nigeria. For young Nigerians, these protests have become about more than just police brutality. They have become about fixing government corruption and weakness and forcing the government to take responsibility for its actions. Although the country is in a difficult place, young Nigerians will pull it toward away from corruption and toward fair treatment under the law.