Nigeria: Leaderless movement #EndSARS may be missing ingredient to end police brutality

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.

SARS has long been on the radar of civilians but also 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

Demonstrations against police brutality have largely been organic, with protesters insisting that theirs is a leaderless movement, a seeming jab at a coordinated Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) driven largely by an older generation that hasn’t followed through with a single protest it called for since President Muhammadu Buhari began ruling Nigeria.

“What is most surprising is the coordination among everybody involved. It’s intriguing. I believe this has already sent a message to our leaders,” says Hammed Okunade, founder and CEO of Hingees, a clothing company in Lagos. He has been a vocal supporter of the campaign, being a young person himself.

Analysts say the leaderless campaign was a lesson from the past, specifically from the 2012 #OccupyNigeria protest that was reportedly hijacked by a group of individuals who were said to be leaders of the protest. “The consensus among many was the unions sold out the #OccupyNigeria movement. Today’s protesters seem determined to learn from this lesson,” wrote Ayodeji Rotinwa, deputy editor of African Arguments in an article entitled, #SARSMUSTEND: The first seven days.

“The fact that there are no clear leaders or organisers of this movement makes it particularly difficult for the government to quell this movement,” adds Abraham. And this is exactly what the young people want: no leader. That in turn allows for transparency and for the government to accede to their demands without a middleman seen to “stab us in the back,” says Abraham.

Government’s response, new wine in old skin

For the first time in more than a decade, Nigeria is not only witnessing nationwide protests calling for police reform and end to police brutality, it is also seeing a reconciliatory stance from the very government that has previously crushed multiple demonstrations.

On 11 October, two days after President Muhammadu Buhari said in a tweet that he had instructed the Inspector General of police, Mohammed Adamu, “to conclusively address the concerns of Nigerians” on police brutality, the Nigeria Police announced that it has disbanded the SARS unit.

But protesters who hit the streets the following day chanting “End SARS” say they’ve heard that particular song before.

A Feminist Coalition, a group of Nigerian feminists who are “fighting against the injustice of SARS through peaceful protests, fundraising, and social media organisation” say the disbandment is nothing to celebrate. “First, this is nothing new. In 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019, the same proclamations and declarations were made and nothing changed. These officials remained on the road; raping, beating, kidnapping and stealing from young Nigerians,” the group says in its website, in response to news that SARS would be disbanded.

Protesters want a “sincerity of purpose”, says Yesufu, on why protests continue days after the government disbanded SARS. According to her, the protesters are having a hard time believing the government given its penchant for opacity and untruths. The police for instance say it created a new unit, SWAT in replacement of SARS but protesters say the unit had been in existence since 2019, therefore, they find it extremely difficult to believe the government is taking their demands seriously.

Protesters are demanding:

  • An immediate release of all protesters.
  • Justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families.
  • Setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct.
  • Provision for psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed.
  • Increased salary for police officers.

Protesters say they have only seen some action surrounding two of their five demands, including the release of arrested protesters and psychological evaluation for disbanded officers before redeployment. “If the police arrests, dismisses and commits to the trial of the killer officers, I’d be the first to support an end to #ENDSWAT protests. We can always protest again if the commitments to #5for5 aren’t implemented within determined timeframes. But these arrests must be made!” tweeted political activist and analyst Japheth Omojuwa.

President Buhari said in a statement that: “The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people.”

The irony of protests demanding an end to police brutality

Meanwhile those protesting for the end of police brutality are still facing that very force.

“The violent dispersal of protesters by the Nigerian police is a gross violation of human rights by putting the life of young people in danger. The blatant show of force including firing bullets and teargas at peaceful protests shows the poor respect for human rights that the police have and this needs to be addressed by the authorities,” says Osai Ojigho, Country Director for Amnesty International Nigeria, after violent attacks from the police killed 10 protesters, including Isiaq Jimoh, an Ogbomoso, Oyo state resident.

Protesters say they have been attacked with wooden clubs, tear gassed and hit with water cannons.

President Buhari has since ordered a thorough investigation into the killing of Jimoh.

Members of the Nigeria Police Force were seen beating protesters in viral videos and have opened fire on unarmed protesters. Protesters say they have been attacked with wooden clubs, tear gassed and hit with water cannons. Many protesters have left the demonstrations grounds with fractured and dislocated bones.

“Protest is a human right. The protesters are expressing their dissatisfaction with the handling of complaints against police, especially SARS. The extrajudicial executions, torture, extortion and abuses committed by SARS has been going on without strong indication of abating. Young people want to be heard by the authorities as they have been the most affected. Our research shows that young men between 17 and 30 are targeted the most,” says Ojigho.

An olive branch?

While the Nigeria Police Force has put out a statement that many see as an extension of an olive branch from the government, analysts see the government playing a waiting game.

There’s no ‘olive branch’ yet from the presidency. A mere announcement isn’t an olive branch.

The police have said that no personnel of the defunct SARS will be selected into the new tactical team that will  “be strictly intelligence-driven,” adding: “Members of the new tactical team will by no means embark on routine patrols,” and are barred from “indiscriminate and unlawful search of phones, laptops and other smart devices,” according to Frank Mba, the police PRO. Operatives of the new tactical team, the police said, “must be free of any pending disciplinary matter, especially touching on misuse of firearms and abuse of human rights.”

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