The Cry of a Generation: What will it take to end SARS in Nigeria?

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“The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force has been dissolved with immediate effect.” With these words, the government of Nigeria on 11th October, 2020 abolished the notorious Unit of the Police Force following days of a nationwide protest against extrajudicial killings, rape, unlawful arrest, extortion, torture, oppression, and intimidation perpetrated by SARS.[i]

The activities of SARS were mostly targeted at young people who were often robbed, killed, or maimed by the squad meant to protect their lives and safeguard them from “robbery”. Effectively, having a nice car, iPhone, laptop, tattoo, or dreadlocks potentially places young Nigerians at risk of SARS brutality as they were often profiled and treated as criminals without evidence or investigation by the squad. According to a report by Amnesty International, between January 2017 and May 2020, 82 cases of abuses and extrajudicial killings had been carried out by SARS.[ii]

Protests against SARS and general police brutality started in 2017 and the latest ongoing 2020 demonstrations were sparked when graphic footage went viral and people started sharing experiences of abuses by the squad on social media. During 9 – 11 October, 2020, the #ENDSARS hashtag had up to 28 million tweets. Significantly, protests were not limited to social media and spread on the streets of major Nigerian cities like Lagos and Abuja, mostly led by young people in their twenties and thirties.[iii]

However, despite the dissolutions of SARS and the announcement of a new Unit known as Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), the ENDSARS protests continued across the country.[iv] The ENDSARS hashtag continued to trend and attract national and international attention from artists, footballers, social entrepreneurs, and other notable public figures.[v]  The situation left many to wonder, “What will it take to truly end SARS and pacify the youths of Nigeria?”

The ENDSARS ritual and 5-for-5 demand

The young people of Nigeria have branded the dissolution of SARS and the announcement of SWAT as merely a change of name and a case of putting old wine in a new bottle. The distrust between the citizens and government on this matter is not unfounded. This is not the first time the government has made statements on ending SARS brutality or reforming the police, it has become a yearly ritual with little or no effect.[vi]

Despite the latest dissolution of SARS and an apology by Nigeria’s Vice President,[vii] police brutality has continued unhindered and even targeted peaceful protesters who are protesting against the same brutality.[viii]  For many, 20th October, 2020 will be long remembered as the day when security operatives opened fire on unarmed protesters waving the national flag in the night at Lekki toll gate in Lagos.[ix] The gruesome killing of the protesters has fuelled further outrage and showed that brutality was still very much alive despite the so-called disbandment of SARS.[x]

The protesting youths are demanding total reforms and actions that transcend the realm of press releases and conferences. Consequently, they have itemized and presented their request to the government in a document tagged 5 for 5.[xi]

The requests are:

  • Immediate release of all arrested 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 (within 10 days).
  • In line with the new Police Act, psychological evaluation, and retraining (to be confirmed by an independent body) of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed.
  • Increase Police salary so that they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens.

A new Nigeria – the only way to truly end SARS

Even if the 5 for 5 requests are met by the government, the youths of Nigeria will likely continue to soro-soke (a Yoruba word that means “speak up” and has become the mantra of the ENDSARS movement)[xii]. This is because ENDSARS movement is symbolic and has gone beyond merely abolishing a unit of the police to calling for an end to bad governance.

The rate of development in Nigeria does not reflect the enormous resources the country is blessed with. The reason behind this is the mismanagement and under-utilisation of the country’s resources over the years.[xiii] Hence, the current generation of Nigeria’s youth has capitalized on the ENDSARS movement to call for a change from the old way of doing things in order to ensure that Nigeria’s resources are properly managed for the benefit of the “common” Nigerian.  It is said that insanity is doing the same thing, the same way, over and over again, and expecting a different result. In other words, the continual mismanagement of Nigeria’s natural resources is madness, which has to stop.

To achieve this, Nigerian leaders must ensure that resources are channeled to the proper use, leakages are blocked, and wastage is minimized. Corrupt practices in awarding and executing contracts, money laundering, bogus allocations for running government activities must be checkmated.

Another important strategy is to put in place a practical and effective reward and penalty system for those who are in charge of the country’s resources. This means that anyone who performs creditably while charged with handling public resources should be accorded some form of reward and recognition in order to encourage transparent and accountable acts from other citizens. In the same vein, Nigeria must have strong anti-corruption institutions backed by law and devoid of political interference to deal with anyone found guilty of mismanaging the country’s resources. If this system is fully operational, it will also ensure that public office holders are accountable to the people.

The National Honours Award is one of such avenues for rewarding and providing recognition for deserving citizens. However, the pertinent question that needs to be asked is “are the recipients of these awards persons who can inspire other citizens to carry out transparent acts for Nigeria?” or are these awards granted to political heavyweights, traditional rulers, and “big men” in the society by virtue of their privileged positions?

Another reason the agitation has continued through the EndSARS movement is that the Nigerian youths have been silenced for too long and the protest is an expression of that anger. The political set-up in Nigeria has been impaired over the years to leave it at the mercy of the older generation. Nigeria’s youth who form most of the country’s population is tired of playing second fiddle. They are demanding a better country and higher stakes in decision-making.

In conclusion, Nigeria is a great country blessed with abundant resources capable of turning around the fortune of its citizens. The cry of this generation of young Nigerians through the ENDSARS movement will lead to the end of police brutality. It will also result in the emergence of a new Nigeria where leaders and citizens are driven by patriotism and a will to do what is right in a country where uprightness and integrity are promoted, not corruption and impunity.

“The views represented in this opinion piece do not necessarily represent those of the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy.”

[i] Akinwotu, E. (2020, October 11). Nigeria to disband Sars police unit accused of killings and brutality. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/11/nigeria-to-disband-sars-police-unit-accused-of-killings-and-brutality.

[ii] Aljazeera (2020, October 11). #EndSARS: Nigeria says Special Anti-Robbery Squad dissolved. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/11/endsars-nigeria-dissolves-special-anti-robbery-squad

[iii] Kazeem, Y. (2020, October 13).  How a youth-led digital movement is driving Nigeria’s largest protests in a decade. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://qz.com/africa/1916319/how-nigerians-use-social-media-to-organize-endsars-protests/

[iv] BBC (2020, October 14). End Swat: Nigerians reject police unit replacing hated Sars. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54531449

[v] BBC (2020, October 21). End Sars protests: Growing list of celebrities pledge support for demonstrators. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54629449

[vi] Chow, A. (2020, October 28). The Nigerian Government Has Pledged to #EndSARS and Reform the Police. This Isn’t the First Time They’ve Made That Promise. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://time.com/5904345/endsars-history-nigeria/

[vii] Nwachukwu, J. (2020, October 17). End SARS: Osinbajo apologizes to Nigerians, admits govt’s fault. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://dailypost.ng/2020/10/17/end-sars-osinbajo-apologizes-to-nigerians-admits-govts-fault/

[viii] BBC (2020, October 12). Sars ban: Two dead in Nigeria police brutality protests. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54506567

[ix] Ibekwe, N. (2020, October 31). INVESTIGATION: Bullets, Blood & Death: Untold Story of what happened at Lekki Toll Gate. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.premiumtimesng.com/news/headlines/423823-investigation-bullets-blood-death-untold-story-of-what-happened-at-lekki-toll-gate.html

[x] Norbook, N. (2020, October 21). Lagos burns after army accused of ‘Lekki massacre’. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.theafricareport.com/46910/lagos-burns-after-army-accused-of-lekki-massacre/

[xi] Vanguard (2020, October 12). Five demands from #EndSARS protesters. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://www.vanguardngr.com/2020/10/five-demands-from-endsars-protesters/

[xii] Atiko, R. (2020, October 19). “What’s the meaning of “Soro Soke” ?- Tyler Perry Asks Nigerians As He Joins The EndSARS Protest (Photo). Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://ab-tc.com/whats-the-meaning-of-soro-soke-tyler-perry-asks-nigerians-as-he-joins-the-endsars-protest-photo/

[xiii] Okoye, R. (2012, August 31). Nigeria has lost $400bn oil revenue to corruption since Independence – Ezekwesili. Retrieved November 1, 2020, from https://dailypost.ng/2012/08/31/nigeria-lost-400bn-oil-revenue-corruption-since-independence-ezekwesili/

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Damilola Adeniran is a multi-award-winning writer and Policy Advocate. A PPGG scholar and MPP Candidate (2020-2022), he is also a 2019 Paradigm Initiative Digital Rights and Inclusion Fellow and 2019 ONE Champion. He is the first Nigerian in history to win the blog4dev writing contest organized by the World Bank Group. Also, Damilola's written work on violent extremism and sustainable peace in Nigeria won a PeaceWriteNow prize, presented by the Embassy of Ireland in 2018. His articles have been published in Nigeria and the United States of America, in English and in French. An alumnus of ViMP at the prestigious Lagos Business School, Damilola Adeniran represents Nigeria in the Youth Transforming Africa Program.