The first time someone pointed a gun at Ebube Okechukwu, a marketing specialist in Nigeria, it was in July 2018, when a plain-clothed officer from Nigeria’s Special Anti Robbery Squad, or SARS, accused him of being an online scammer. “It was a Sunday and I was walking out of church, with my parents not so far behind, when I was stopped by a plain-clothed SARS police officer,” he says.
Okechukwu was unsure whether he was being kidnapped or getting arrested, given that the man accosting him, a pistol in his hand, gave no name, nor presented any ID. Okechukwu was accused on the spot of being a “Yahoo Boy” – a Nigerian informal term for an online scammer – and his phone was searched with no warrant. “They searched my phone and saw personal messages with my boss, who happens to be a popular wealthy man in Nigeria, and asked what my relationship with him was and I told them I worked for him. Only then did they let me go”.
The encounter left a mark on Okechukwu. Once home, he sent out a tweet calling for an end to SARS. He wasn’t the only one: over the next few weeks, and then months, indignation about SARS grew like a tidal wave, and the hashtag kept mushrooming. By October 9, 2020, according to an analysis by Nigerian news website Neusroom, #EndSARS would be seen more than seven billion times, with an estimated 2.2 million tweets from about 1.8 million Twitter users. More importantly, Nigerians’ outrage at SARS’s actions had by then spilled out of the internet and onto the streets, quickly gathering momentum and kicking off a mass protest movement with global resonance.
The history of SARS is long and chequered. It was founded in 1992 by former police commissioner Simeon Danladi Midenda for the sole purpose of tackling Nigeria’s then-rising highway robbery crises. The unit was given autonomy to act outside of police rules, patrolling plain-clothed and heavily armed. It didn’t take long for SARS to transmogrify from crime-fighting force to road users’ worst nightmare.
The first report of abuse of power and police brutality by SARS came barely a year after the unit was formed. In 1993, Ayotunde Adesola, a University of Lagos graduate, was accused of being a gang member based on his looks alone. There was a pending murder case and the a fall guy was needed. In a rush to solve a pending case with little investigation Adesola was tortured till he “confessed”. Stories like Adesola’s became commonplace, and worse with each passing year. Some of the torture methods included an ancient method called tabay (recently documented in a BBC Africa Eye investigation), where victims arms are forced all the way to back and tied at the elbow and wrists till blood stops flowing through the arms.
In the early 2000s, SARS decided to change its target. Nigeria was witnessing a cybercrime boom, with the ascent of dating scams, phishing schemes, and “Nigerian Prince” email frauds – where unsuspecting victims part with thousands of dollars in hopes of benefiting from a non-existent inheritance. By 2016, cybercrime amounted to 43 per cent of all the money Nigerians were defrauded of.
With the government committed to cracking down on cybercrime, SARS’s new shtick was stopping the so-called Yahoo Boys, singling out and shaking down young people under the guise of clamping down on internet fraudsters and assorted gangsters. Nigerian Prince jokes have certainly had a negative effect on Nigerians’ international reputation; once SARS began to cash in on the trope, Nigerian youths also started suffering profiling from their own police force – and paying heavily for it.
“A SARS officer could look at you, decide you were a criminal, and treat you as such. People have been stopped and abused for driving a flashy car, sporting dreadlocks or tattoos, or owning an iPhone,” says a resident of capital city Abuja who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. She remembers feeling anxious in late 2019 when the taxi she was in got stopped by a group of SARS officers in the middle of 69 Road, a busy road in Abuja, and a SARS hotspot.
“You never know what will happen next and I was afraid for my life” she says. “They looked through my phone and saw some naked pictures, passed it around while laughing at me. I can’t get the laughter out of my head.” She claims that the SARS officers accused her cab driver of being a scammer and did not let them go until he came back from an ATM with 12,000 naira (£24) – all the money he had made from a day of work. “We were both silent the rest of the journey and I just went back home to sleep. I felt powerless”.
In a country such as Nigeria, a lack of police transparency makes it hard to track and map out cases of police brutality. But according to Human Rights Watch, between 2000 and 2007, the Nigerian police were responsible for more than 10,000 civilian deaths, although the actual numbers could be higher. Young Nigerians have become scared of moving about with their laptop, in case SARS accuse them of being internet scammers. In some cases people have bribed their way out of scrutiny. Over the years, Nigerian social media users have reported countless instances of getting brutalised by SARS .
SARS’s picking out tech-savvy youngsters was not only about choosing easy targets or building on tired stereotypes: it was also lucrative. Between 2012 and 2020, Nigeria slowly became home to the biggest and wealthiest tech scene in Africa. Taking a leaf out of Silicon Valley’s book of hipsterism and informal work culture, tech companies such as Paystack and BuyCoins started to offer young Nigerians in their employ a comfortable lifestyle, which ended up placing a bullseye on their back.
That is what happened to Allen Oloruntobi, a software engineer at Paystack, a fintech startup. His encounter with SARS in January 2019 started with a gun pointed at his face on a drive to the restaurant. “I wasn’t the one driving that day so it took some time before I noticed the shiny metal pointed at us”. He claims that the SARS officer immediately accused Oloruntobi and friends of being internet fraudsters. “They took our phones, looked through our messages and launched my banking mobile app. I was scared.”
Stories of people having money extorted after an encounter with SARS are so commonplace, that Allen and his friends already anticipated having to pay a bribe to be let go. “We were luckily saved by another [driver] that sped past us and helped divert their attention from us. To have a gun pointed at your face like that not because you’re a criminal or about to get robbed, but because you’re a young person driving a car can be traumatising,” he recalls.
Twitter accounts such as @sars_watch and the now suspended @sarsishere first popped up on Twitter around October 2020. These handles relied on user-generated information to map out live locations of SARS checkpoints, thus helping drivers avoid them. A creator and admin of @sars_watch, speaking anonymously out of concerns for their safety, says that they set this account up as a kind of neighbourhood watch.
“I’m not a Yahoo Boy, yet I’ve experienced SARS about four times,” says Tolu Ogundepo, a data scientist and creator of the StopSARSnowTwitter bot. “Tech is all I know and if that’s how I fight police brutality, so be it.” Tolu says he built the bot by combining the Twitter API with Python scripts to automatically check through Twitter accounts belonging to political leaders such as the President of Nigeria and reply to their tweets with the hashtag #EndSARS.
Social media was an important catalyst to the End SARS protests that followed. On October 3, 2020, a video purporting to show the aftermath of a SARS killing in Ughelli, Delta State, went viral. Just two days later, a report of SARS officers killing a 20-year-old musical artist called Sleek in September 2019 resurfaced on the internet. Sleek was reportedly shot and killed in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, by SARS officers. The officers accused Sleek and his friends of robbery and opened fire on the spot killing Sleek and arresting the others. Spurred to action by these stories, on October 8, dozens of Nigerian youths marched to the Lagos State Governor’s Office in the Alausa district in protest.
The crowd of young Nigerians, which included social media personalities such as activist Rinu Oduala and comedian Mr Macaroni, protested all day. Later that night, the police came by and seized protesters tents, which sparked further outrage on social media. Soon after, the protesters grew to hundreds, then thousands. The protests spread far and wide and were held across 23 of Nigeria’s 36 states. More locations started to get occupied by protesters, peacefully demanding an end to SARS
In response to people protesting against police brutality, the police responded with brutality, crushing down on the protesters and even killing them. In Abuja, the police used teargas and water cannons on peaceful protesters near Unity Fountain, a landmark near the government buildings. In a separate incident, five protesters were reportedly shot and killed at another busy junction in Abuja called Sokale. The police claimed the people who had been killed and injured were hoodlums. This was a nationwide pattern. In Benin City, protesters peacefully demonstrating outside the Edo State House of Assembly were attacked by suspected hired thugs posing as protesters; two people were killed and many more were injured following the assault.
After four days of protests, on October 11, the Nigerian government announced the dissolution of SARS. Only two days after this announcement, the country’s chief of police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the creation of a new police unit called the Special Weapons and Tactics team or SWAT. SARS officers would be redeployed to other police teams, rather than fired or prosecuted.
To many, the decision felt like a déjà vu. Back in 2017, following an online petition demanding the disbandment of SARS, the inspector of the Nigeria Police Force, Ibrahim Idris, announced that it would be forbidden from setting up road barricades and conducting random searches, “except when necessary”. A year later, not much had changed. SARS continued to carry out illegal searches, some of which were caught on tape and shared widely on social media. Nigerian police officials were forced to put out another statement announcing the dissolution of SARS. Shortly afterwards, they announced that it would be renamed Federal Special Anti Robbery Squad, or F-SARS, and that it would get new leadership. Very little changed, as F-SARS continued to conduct unwarranted searches and acts of violence. In 2019, Adamu proclaimed the disbandment of F-SARS, ordering that each unit be put under the direct supervision of their state’s police commissioner.
Fast forward to October 2020 – and to the #EndSARS protests – and the government announced that SARS would be abolished and replaced by SWAT. “There is an evident distrust in the political rhetoric of the Nigerian government, specifically to the End SARS movement and this can be traced to the number of times the government has claimed to end SARS in the past three years alone” says Ayo Sogunro, a human rights lawyer based at the University of Pretoria. He believes that the swiftness with which the government announced the new SWAT unit, shortly after claiming to have ended SARS, points to the disconnect between the agitations from the people and the government’s perception of what the protests truly symbolise.
“There is a deeper issue here, which is the fact the Nigerians are tired of having a police system that is wrapped around the ideology of violence as a means of interacting with the population,” he explains. SARS may have been the most blatant manifestation of brutality, but violence is still a blueprint for achieving social control across the whole Nigeria Police Force. Sogunro says that protesters expected the government to take a step back, and to inculcate democracy and respect for human rights in the police force as a whole, rather than recreate a problematic unit under a new name.
SWAT’s creation didn’t end unrest – with #EndSWAT trending alongside #EndSARS. On October 14, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey showed his support by tweeting the hashtag and a host of American celebrities added their voices to the End SARS movement. This was a leaderless movement, making it hard to control by the Nigerian government. Following the SARS playbook, other police units started to arrest protesters on fraud charges.
Organisations and individuals involved in planning and conducting protests – such as the Feminist Coalition or Public affairs firm Gatefield, which supported local journalists covering the protest – had their bank accounts blocked. “The ideal scenario for the Nigerian government is to perpetuate its various atrocities against the people without getting apprehended. It’s clear that the only way that will be possible is by ensuring a media blackout,” says Adewunmi Emoruwa, Gatefield’s lead strategist. Nigeria’s Central Bank accused the affected organisations of financing terrorism.
Violence continued to mar peaceful protests, and on October 20 the governor of Lagos declared a state-wide 24 hour curfew. A few hours later, Nigerian police and army officers arrived at the Lekki toll gates – one of the protests’ key locations – and opened fire, killing at least ten people, according to Amnesty International, which also reported two more police killings at a protest elsewhere in Lagos. Some of the events of what is now referred to as the Lekki massacre were live streamed on Instagram by one of the protesters.
The president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, finally addressed the country, exactly two weeks after the protests began. In his speech, he called on the youth to discontinue the street protests and focus on dialogue. Following the President’s speech, state governments were tasked with setting up panels of inquiry to investigate cases of victims of SARS brutality across Nigeria, starting with Lagos State, Nigeria’s economic powerhouse.
Editi Effiong, a filmmaker who has been attending the End SARS Lagos Panel of Inquiry on Police brutality is hopeful but worried. “With every passing day, there’s that chipping away at confidence young Nigerians have in the judicial process, There are so many things that go against the interest of the people and the state government’s personal interest might provide a conflict.” Effiong has been live-tweeting the events of the End SARS hearings, becoming the eyes and ears of many Nigerian youths unable to attend. This is a sliver of hope for young people that perhaps accountability is near.
Meanwhile, a lawyer’s collective under the name of End SARS Response is still fighting to free protesters from illegal arrests and the situation is volatile. Online conversation indicates that there might be a second wave of protests but even the whiff of any sign of resistance from the general public has the Nigerian police snuffing out and shutting down plans prematurely.
Young people are exasperated but there’s still some fight left in them. “This is a fight for our lives” says Ezra Olubi, CTO and cofounder of Paystack, one of the bigger employers of youth in Nigeria’s financial technology sector. “There is so much potential in every young Nigerian and having that taken away due to either police brutality or cybercrime hurts us all: our reputation, the economy, and our development as a Nation”.
Olubi believes that It’s in everyone’s best interest that the Nigeria Police Force is technologically equipped to fight cyber crimes beyond unfair profiling. “Things like investigating cyber crimes or even everyday policing should not involve heavy militarisation and dehumanising treatments of Nigerians, criminal or not. We must End SARS but we must also end everything in between that enables SARS”.
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