Nigeria: From #EndSARS to #EndSWAT

Featured Illustration: NIYIOKEOWO

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A video surfaced online on October 3rd, 2020 showing officers from Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit dragging two men out of a hotel and shooting one of them. It has since sparked nationwide outrage and protests. The #EndSARS hashtag, first created in 2017, has been used and trending on social media since the start of this month to denounce Nigerian police brutality and document the ongoing protests.

#EndSARS: Why Nigerians Are Protesting

SARS was created in 1992 and aimed to “fight violent crimes including armed robbery and kidnapping.” Although officers in SARS supposedly receive special training which includes some pertaining to human rights, they have allegedly been repeatedly implicated in human rights abuses: at least 82 cases of police brutality have been recorded by Amnesty International from 2017 to this May.

A report by Amnesty International which details some of the ill-treatments perpetuated by SARS states that “[it] has found numerous credible allegations that Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officers continue to perpetrate acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment against detainees in their custody on a regular basis. Human rights defenders and lawyers informed Amnesty International that many police officers cited by victims as being involved in the torture or ill-treatment of suspects were found to have been transferred to another station. Constitutional and legal safeguards to prevent torture and other ill-treatment in police custody are often ignored. Nigerian police internal mechanisms are weak and inadequate to stop torture being used or to punish perpetrators.”

The latest peaceful protests started on October 8th, 2020. Protestor Feyikemi Abudu told CNN: “There are many demands, but the main one is to scrap SARS, not to reform it but to completely end it. Another demand is compensation for victims of SARS brutality, both alive and dead. We also want a committee that will investigate and look into the present and past grievances around SARS brutality, an end to police brutality.” Videos uploaded by protesters have shown “police officers forcefully dispersing [them], dismantling their sleeping tents, turning on the street lights, and making verbal threats.” Some of the biggest Nigerian celebrities such as Tiwa Savage, Falz, and Segalink have also joined the protests.

According to Amnesty International, at least ten people have died in the protests as of October 10th although these numbers aren’t confirmed by other reports.

SWAT: Ending and Replacing SARS

On October 11th, 2020, the disbandment of SARS was announced by the Inspector General of Police Mohammed Amadu. He has since “ordered the personnel of the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to report to the force headquarters in Abuja for debriefing, psychological, and medical examination” before they are redeployed into a newly founded Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) police unit, which has already started training this week. Adamu also requested the release of all detained protesters after a meeting with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and ordered the police force to stop using force against them. No measures have been taken so far to hold former SARS officers accountable for past ill-treatment, although the meeting with the NHRC agreed for the set-up of an independent panel to investigate allegations against SARS and other police units.

#EndSWAT: Protests Continue

This isn’t the first attempt at reforming SARS in response to opposition expressed towards its repeated violations of human rights: in 2017, Nigeria’s police chief had already announced a reorganization of SARS along with former Inspector General of Police Ibrahim Idris ordering an “instant investigation into all the allegations, complaints, and infractions leveled against the personnel of the Special Anti Robbery Squad across the country” — an investigation which has yet to reveal its findings. In 2018, Nigeria’s Acting President Yemi Osinbajo ordered an immediate overhaul of SARS and in 2019 directed the setting up of a three-man committee that aimed to reform SARS, and prosecute officers who had been accused of abuse. Although the president gave the head of police three months to start implementing new recommendations, it appears that little has changed. To this day, not a single SARS officer has been prosecuted.

Nigerians are thus disillusioned by the latest promises of change and reform which largely feel like déjà-vu. A new hashtag, #EndSWAT, has been used to disapprove of the new police unit which has begun training before any former problematic SARS officer has been legally held accountable. Protests have since escalated, and as of late, have closed down several roads in Lagos (Africa’s largest city) and Abuja. Police stations have been attacked, and about an estimated 200+ inmates have been freed in Benin City after a prison was stormed into by a crowd. Concerns of “escalating violence” have been communicated by Amnesty International, with a 17-year-old teenager who died in police custody in northern Kano state this Monday, October 19th. How the protests will develop is still unclear.

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