Just as the country celebrates its diamond jubilee, police brutality protests in Nigeria and the disbanding of a rogue unit.
Kunle Martins vividly recalls when he almost lost his life in Lagos because of an iPhone 6. The day started on a positive note. He received a delivery of the new phone sent by his family the night before, in celebration of his 25th birthday, to his flat in Surulere.
“This was my dream phone and I had been telling everyone how I was saving up to buy it and never expected my family to give me such a generous gift,” says the young man who works as a customer service operator for a leading bank in Lagos. After setting up his phone, he set off for work as he usually does around 5AM to catch the local bus to Victoria Island.
Then things took a sinister turn.
“As I was approaching the bus stop, an unmarked car pulled up in front of me and two men with guns forced me into the back of the car where there were another two men in the back seat. They tied my hands and let me lie down on the floor as they searched my pockets. I thought they were armed robbers initially but they said they were from SARS and they had been following me because they suspected me of being a Yahoo boy (internet fraudster).”
“I tried to protest and they slapped me with the back of their gun and broke my front teeth. There was blood everywhere. They asked me how a young boy like me could afford such an expensive phone. They drove me to an ATM and told me to log into my account to prove that I was not a criminal. I had only N40,000 ($104) in my bank account to take me to the end of the month. They cleared all my money and took my phone and left me by the side of the road,” says Martins.
This was not the first time he had been harassed by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigerian police force.
“I am always being stopped by SARS especially because I carry a laptop bag and they use that to determine whether I have money or not. I explain that I work with the bank, show them my work ID and I always ensure I have about N1,000 ($2) on me and my wallet hidden whenever I move around in Lagos. Most of the time, they push me about, slap me and take the N1,000 naira.”
This time he was not so lucky. His story is part of the ongoing outcry of young Nigerians against years of police brutality, kidnapping and even murder committed by the SARS unit. With protests breaking out across Nigeria over the past five days, the #EndSARS social media campaign has ignited widespread anger both locally and with the Nigerian expatriate communities around the world.
Established in 1992 with the mandate of putting an end to violent crime and the high prevalence of robbery in Lagos, SARS operated as faceless, tactical teams that traveled in unmarked vehicles.
“The idea was to create a special police unit that could blend into the community without being noticed and disrupt the growing criminal elements across Lagos who were known for carrying out violent armed robberies. They were created to act as a last line of defense to protect their fellow Nigerian brothers and sisters, not torture them,” says Obinna Johnson.
On a rainy night out with his friends, he was stopped by two SARS operatives who demanded they pay a bribe before they were allowed to proceed to the club. When he refused, the SARS officers opened fire in the air and asked them to step out of the car and lie face down on the muddy floor.
“They then proceeded to search our pockets to take our money and searched our cars to take the Hennessy bottles that we had bought for the party we were going to and left,” recalls Johnson.
Nobody ever files a police report mainly due to fear of reprisal and also because they believe nothing will ever be done. The anonymity was considered vital for taking on the criminals that terrorized Lagos at the time but over the years this has led to abuse against Nigerian youth. There have been widespread allegations of the SARS unit targeting well-dressed youths, those with tattoos and dreadlocks and harassing them for money, torturing and even killing those who resist.
Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria, puts the blame on the failure of the Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations carried out by SARS.
“This unit has consistently used torture and other ill treatment to carry out police investigations. We have also uncovered torture chambers within the Nigerian police as well as countless testimonies of people being detained and tortured which is against their fundamental human rights despite the 2017 anti-torture act,” says Ojigho.
The global human rights organization have documented some 82 cases of abuse and killings since January 2017 to May 2020 as highlighted in their report Nigeria: Horrific reign of impunity by SARS makes mockery of anti-torture law.
The widespread demonstrations have led to the government dissolving SARS this week but Nigerian youth and victims of this corrupt unit say this is only the beginning.
“We are demanding immediate release of all arrested protestors, 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 all police misconduct (within 10 days), a psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before being redeployed and an Increase in police salary so they are adequately compensated for protecting lives and property of citizens,” says Banky Wellington, a Nigerian singer and politician.
According to a report by Reuters, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has promised that the government would bring police officers responsible for misconduct to justice after protestors were met with a harsh response when police opened fire with live ammunition against demonstrators.
Young people between the ages of 17 and 30 are the most at risk of arrest, torture or extortion and are a significant population of the demonstrations taking place all over the country.
“It is unacceptable that the police will shoot with live bullets at peaceful protestors. One person lost their life and we must find those responsible and bring them to justice immediately,” says Tolu Ogunlesi, special assistant on digital media to the president of Nigeria.
The governor of Lagos state, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, in a recent tweet advised “we are setting up a trust fund to compensate the families of police brutality in Lagos state” even though no amount of money can reduce their pain. The trust fund will be supervised by a team appointed transparently by members of the public.
But will there be real change after the protests are over?
“Nigerians are always outraged but they now know that it never lasts. It is just a matter of time and people go on with their business. The victims are the ones who feel the pain. For those who have died at the hands of SARS, it is over, they have been killed. After trending the hashtag and being outraged for a few hours, they will move on but the families will never move on and then you are left thinking who is going to be the next victim,” says Aisha Yesufu, the hijab-wearing revolutionary leading the #EndSARS protest.
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