THE GOOD: Recognizing that there is a problem and demanding that it is fixed.

SARS didn’t always start off as a nuisance. The tactical unit was created in 1991, in response to the incessant and brazen armed robbery attacks that plagued Lagos state at the time. Armed robbers attacked policemen in uniform, stationed at checkpoints. In response to this, SARS operatives were armed and tasked to patrol the streets in in civilian clothing to catch the armed robbers unawares. This strategy was effective in reducing the spate of armed robbery in Lagos and soon other SARS units were created in other states across Nigeria.

Over time it soon became difficult to distinguish between SARS operatives and actual criminals, as civilians began complaining about armed men in plain clothes harassing innocent civilians, beating, extorting and illegally detaining them until they marched up to an ATM machine to cough out a huge sum as bribe as a mandatory condition for release.

In 2017, social media helped put the spotlight on the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad and allegations of their misconduct. A social media campaign #EndSARS was created and the internet was soon awash with eye witness reports and victim accounts NPF SARS misconduct.

Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)

Amnesty International documented at least 82 cases of torture, extrajudicial killings, extortion and rape by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. According to their report, victims held in SARS custody have been subjected to “mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.” Arrests and cases are rarely investigated.

The #EndSARS and “Police Reform” campaigns, garnered national and international attention, and by August 2018, a year after the campaign began, the Acting President, Vice President Osinbajo called for an overhaul of the SARS program due to excessive reports of violation of Human Rights violations.

Like many other things, the government promises to tackle the menace, but speaks about the issue while it is trending and once the hashtag is no longer trending, things slip back to their status quo. There have been numerous bans which are not adhered to. Which is exactly what transpired.

Recent killings of unarmed civilians by the Nigerian Police Force (Interestingly, not from the SARS unit), brought about massive national protests, let by Nigerian youths. This time around, the President of Nigeria permanently banned SARS, but this has not brought about any respite to the spate of protests because:

  1. Nigerian’s have seen it all and heard it all before. Even several days after the presidential ban on SARS, operatives of the tactical unit were seen harassing unarmed civilians. The aggrieved protesters needed to see “actions” not just “announcements”.
  • There was a 5-point request that was laid out, of which banning of SARS was just one. As far as the youth were concerned, their requests had not been fully answered.
  • The protests represent deeper grievances than just EndSARS. It is subliminally young people venting their pent-up frustration of institutional police misconduct and bad governance
  • Law enforcement personnel began responding to the protests with more violence, leading to increased protests.
Demands of the protesters at the start date

Demands of the protesters after the disbandment of SARS

THE BAD: Organic and Hijacked protests

The protests started peacefully. Young Nigerians showed their resourcefulness. Raising close to $200,000, providing food and refreshments for protesters, providing medical care, hotlines for emergencies, legal support for protesters arrested, and even cleaning up trash on the protest grounds. This has been an incredibly organized protests for an organic movement with no visible leaders/representation.

Protesters at the Lekki Toll gate.

The protests showed that the Nigerian youth had found their voice and were now aware of their power and influence. Within a few days, they had brought about the disbandment of the dreaded SARS, brought the town to a standstill and gotten the attention of the political leaders.

Violent Protests

There have been allegations that police leadership benefit from the proceeds of monies extorted from citizens. Either way, it is often found that those benefiting from the status quo are rarely in support of change.

Hoodlums attacking protesters during a peaceful protest

Some protest locations became violent as eyewitness reports showed some government security officials were seen attacking protesters. On 12th October, policemen fired shots at protesters in Surulere, Lagos state. On 13th Oct, soldiers confiscated cameras from activists and pressmen.

By the second week of the protests, hoodlums and thugs had been released and unleashed on peaceful protesters. This was seen in Lagos, Abuja, Jos, Osun, Benin and other Nigerian states.

This tactic was expected. Thugs will be released to attack the protesters, since government personnel couldn’t be seen as doing the same. This would lead to protests being declared as violent and justify the deployment of law enforcement personnel, or the declaration of a curfew, which would ultimately ban widespread protests.

Physical Ban will equal Cyber Attacks

A physical ban on protests however, will not entirely stop the young people’s resolve to put pressure on the Nigerian government to EndSARS and implement the 5For5. When funds were raised by Flutterwave (a Nigerian payment gateway), to fund medical bills of those injured in the protests, the Nigerian government shutdown their bank accounts. Activist group Feminist Coalition solicited donations via bitcoin and were able to continue raising funds for the protests. A physical ban will only generate a cyber protest that will hamper/affect government communications and increase global knowledge of the protests.

Anonymous Hackers

So far there has been widespread support of the movement by prominent personalities on social media, including anonymous who conducted several cyber attacks and denial of service attacks against government websites and social media handles.

These include: Releasing confidential information of some Nigerian police personnel, Hacking the twitter account of the Nigerian Broadcasting Commission, Disrupting the Central Bank of Nigeria website, Disrupting the Web version of the Nigerian Police Force website. 

THE UGLY: Government crackdown through the military

What people should be asking “what next”? So far, protests have morphed from organized and inspirational, to hijacked by violent hoodlums. Many believe these hoodlums are setting the stage for the Nigerian government’s deployment of military and other armed government security operatives.

Nigerian Military

There are 3 possible scenarios:

Scenario A:

  1. The government continues to allow the protests go on.
    1. Simmers out
    1. Grows until strong reforms are made
    1. Turns violent/uncontrollable

Scenario B:

  1. Hoodlums continue mobilizing and attacking protests and protesters.
    1. Businesses become attacked and looted
    1. Leads to the Nigerian government calling for a mandatory 24hr curfew, enforced by the military and other armed security officials
    1. Protests continue online
      1. Government shuts down the internet
      1. Things quiet down
      1. Reforms are made
    1. Protests continue online
      1. Things quiet down
      1. Reforms are made
    1. Protests continue online
      1. Things quiet down physically
      1. Businesses and government is disrupted online
      1. Reforms are made
      1. Things quiet down

Scenario C:

  1. The government deploys the military and other GSF to quell the protests
    1. It turns even more violent and they can’t keep up
      1. Likely coup or government overthrow
      1. Things turn violent
        1. Civil conflict
    1. Protests quiet down
      1. Small reforms are made
      1. Dissent and crackdowns commence
        1. Increased fatalities
        1. International community sanctions
        1. International business community pulls out

What remains clear, is that the government must:

  • Desist for deploying the military to “quell” the protests and crack down on protesters, instead, if GSF are to be deployed, they must “protect” the protesters who are within their democratic rights to demonstrate.
  • GSF should crack down instead on armed protesters (hoodlums) who are sent to disrupt the protests. GSF must be seen as upholding constitutional rights, not the rights of politicians.
  • The government should accelerate their resolve to accomplish the 5For5 demands, apprehend and charge all officers who have been found guilty of misconduct and violence against citizens. This should be done publicly with transparency to foster the call for equality.

Security Forces must:

  • Abstain from using excessive use of force against unarmed civilians who have the right to peaceful assembly.
  • Ensure all personnel deployed for demonstration response are identifiable
  • Never use firearms and other weapons for the purpose of dispersing a crowd.
  • Non-lethal equipment such as water cannons, batons, rubber bullets etc must be carefully considered and used only when necessary. And any use of force should be subject to review and investigations.