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Explained: Why have the #EndSARS protests rocked Nigeria?

The SARS unit is Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad created in 1984. According to a New York Times report, the unit was created to deal with rising cases of violent crimes in the country.

In this photo taken on Saturday Nov. 14, 2020. Brig. Gen. Ahmed Taiwo, Commander of the 81 Military Intelligence Brigade, speaks to a judicial committee, in Nigeria. (AP)

What started as protests against police brutality in Nigeria in October, has since expanded into popular resistance against the country’s politicians, the government and corruption. Before it spilled out onto the streets of Nigeria, these protests started online with a simple hashtag #EndSARS, that in turn became the name by which the movement came to be identified.

What is the SARS unit?

The SARS unit is Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad created in 1984. According to a New York Times report, the unit was created to deal with rising cases of violent crimes in the country and in the first few years following its creation, statistics of crimes like kidnappings and robberies drastically reduced. However, observers say it did not take long for the unit to become a powerful entity, one that acted with impunity and without any accountability.

According to The New York Times, an Amnesty International report issued in June this year showed how SARS officers had been involved in at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extrajudicial executions between January 2017 and May 2020. The Amnesty report indicated that the victims were mostly men between the age group of 18 to 25 and belonged to low-income backgrounds.

How did #EndSARS start?

Observers trace the start of the protests to a video on October 3, that showed an unprovoked killing of a man by SARS officers in the town of Ughelli. After the video was shared across social media platforms, resulting in criticism of SARS officers, Nigerian government officials claimed that the video was fake and arrested the person who filmed it.

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Nigerian army has said after weeks of denial that its troop did fire shots into the air to disperse a large crowd at the Lekki Toll Plaza in Lagos where several peaceful protesters were killed late in October. (AP)

The government’s denials, particularly the arrest of the Nigerian citizen who had filmed the video, only served to further anger the public. In a largely youth driven initiative started using this hashtag across social media platforms, demonstrations erupted in cities and towns, demanding that the Nigerian government dismantle the SARS police unit.

As part of the #EndSARS movement, social media users across Nigeria began offering legal aid, food, shelter, healthcare and other services to people impacted by the government crackdown.

Then, on October 20, protestors who were engaged in a peaceful demonstration in the affluent Lekki district of the capital Lagos, were suppressed by the military and curfews were imposed. A Reuters report said protestors in Lekki were also shot at by military personnel, which injected violence into peaceful demonstrations. This deployment of the military and the suppression of protests by the government increased anger and hostility towards the Nigerian government. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram


What do protestors want?

Surprised by the intensity of the protests, the Nigerian government had initially promised to investigate reports of impunity and the lack of accountability enjoyed by the SARS unit. The government also pledged to disband this unit following reports of corruption.

The protestors are also demanding accountability from the government and want an end to the practise of corruption and bribery. In addition to the issues that the protesters say have been plaguing Nigeria, they have also used the protests to criticise the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic. The protests have allowed Nigerians to talk about problems plaguing the country’s ordinary citizens.

How has the government responded?

According to a New York Times report, the government said it would redeploy members of the SARS unit to other units in the police system. However, protesters say this does little to address the problem and are demanding that the most violent, corrupt and brutal officers of the SARS unit be fired altogether to clean up the system.


Protestors have also accused the government of targeting critics and protesters and of trying to supress the #EndSARS movement. In the capital Lagos, demonstrations have been banned and in several parts of the country, particularly in the north, the government has placed restrictions on social media platforms that were being used by protesters to spur the movement and highlight instances of police brutality.

The protestors, a large section of whom are young Nigerians, have dismissed Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari’s promises. According to a Reuters report this week, the country’s police minister said President Buhari “will do what it takes to prevent a repeat of demonstrations against police brutality last month.” According to this report, while the unrest has subsided for now, at its peak, it had resulted in the killings of dozens of protesters and police and more than 200 buildings in the country were torched.

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First published on: 20-11-2020 at 03:32:16 pm
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