#EndSARS protesters have been demanding the abolition of a renegade element in Nigeria’s police force. Government-sponsored thugs killed ten peaceful dissidents yesterday. Find out more.
It’s been a while since I took part in a demonstration. I was part of quite a few when I was in my twenties. Most of them were against the arms race during the Cold War. Others were about environmental issues.
None of these protests were violent. That was true of ourselves and the authorities. In fact, with the peace movement, there was an odd affinity between activists and law enforcement. We seemed to have common ground, realizing that we were each trying to keep the peace in our own way.
It’s not always like that. That’s why I’ve been disturbed to hear the news from Lagos, the biggest city in Africa, this morning. People in that Nigerian metropolis have been protesting against a unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The activists call themselves the #EndSARS protesters.
Activists Call Themselves #EndSARS Protesters
Then police commissioner Simeon Danladi Midenda founded SARS back in 1992. It was founded in chaos, and it has a very checkered past. Three police officers had murdered a colonel in the Nigerian Army.
Military authorities dispatched soldiers to Lagos to go after any and all police officers. The police either quit or fled in terror. As always, when law enforcement walks off the job anywhere, all of this anarchy led to looting and violence.
To combat the robbery and widespread violent crime, Midenda set up SARS. It took a few months, but eventually, the Army and the police settled their differences. Order returned to the community. Although the mayhem faded away, SARS did not. The #EndSARS protesters say they became part of the problem instead of the solution.
SARS Became Part of the Problem Instead of the Solution
We’ll fast forward now to 2016, although I should mention that there were reports of unlawful killings and police brutality before that. That September, Amnesty International reported widespread cases of SARS officers torturing, starving, forcing confessions and detaining people without trials.
In August 2019, #EndSARS protesters managed to catch four SARS members roughing up and then shooting two alleged phone thieves on video. They’d already subdued and arrested the two suspects, yet they proceeded to shoot and kill them.
The following month, SARS operatives allegedly kidnapped the famous rap star Ikechukwu Onanaku without cause. They tortured him and then robbed him by forcing him to make withdrawals from an ATM machine.
FoRCED TO Make Withdrawals from an ATM MaCHINE
The SARS unit operated undercover. They wore no badges or uniforms and didn’t carry visible guns or radios. SARS vehicles were unmarked, often with no license plates. It was a recipe for abuse of authority.
It should have been evident to everyone that this unit needed to be disbanded. The bad apples should have been arrested or fired, and the salvageable ones retrained and reassigned. Instead, the government kept trying to solve the problem by tinkering with the broken SARS unit.
As readers might expect, the public got fed up with SARS misconduct. The #EndSARS protesters sprang up under the leadership of a popular local Realtor. The campaign protested off and on as authorities introduced half-measures aimed at reforming the SARS unit.
HALF-MEASURES AIMED AT REFORMING THE SARS UNIT
Then on October 8, witnesses caught a SARS officer shooting a young man in front of the Welland Hotel in Ughelli on video. The incident made its way to social media where, naturally, it went viral. A range of the #EndSARS protesters’ sympathizers, including Nigerian celebrities and influencers passed it along to their many followers.
Peaceful demonstrations by #EndSARS protesters have erupted all over Nigeria. They’ve been met with brutal force by police and other authorities.
Finally, a couple of weeks ago, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced that the SARS unit would be disbanded. Even so, he vowed to replace it with a new outfit that he called the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team. He promised that the team would have a much more limited mandate and would not be involved in routine patrols.
NEW OUTFIT CALLED SPECIAL WEAPONS AND TACTICS (SWAT)
The #EndSARS protesters’ reaction was “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” As soon as SARS changed its name, #EndSARS became #EndSWAT. The demonstrations are ongoing.
All of this brings us back to yesterday’s incident. Authorities have imposed a 24-hour curfew in Lagos. Protesters have been defying it, and government forces have been firing shots to disperse the crowds.
Sometime during this confusion, #EndSARS protesters in the affluent suburb Lekki told the BBC that uniformed men started opening fire on peaceful demonstrators. Videos from bystanders flooded social media and rapidly spread worldwide.
REPORTS OF MULTIPLE DEATHS AT THE SCENE
There have been reports of multiple deaths at the scene, but the Nigerian government hasn’t confirmed this. Amnesty International says that it’s “received credible but disturbing evidence of excessive use of force occasioning deaths of protesters at Lekki toll gate in Lagos.”
This morning, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned “the violent escalation on October 20 in Lagos, which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries.” He went on to call for the Nigerian government “to swiftly explore avenues to de-escalate the situation.” He offered the resources of the UN to support a peaceful resolution to the ongoing conflict.
Amnesty International reports that “sponsored thugs” have killed at least ten #Endstar protesters during the peaceful rallies yesterday. They say that hundreds more have been injured and arrested.
NIGERIAN SECURITY FORCES MUST END THE INTIMIDATION”
In a statement, Amnesty declared, “Nigerian security forces must immediately end the intimidation, harassment and attacks on peaceful protesters.”
“We call on the Nigerian authorities to listen to the demands of their people and promptly, thoroughly, impartially, effectively and transparently investigate all cases of human rights violations by the police, including the unlawful killings of the #EndSARS protesters,” said Osai Ojigho, the Director of Amnesty International Nigeria.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 20 that, “Everyone has the right to peaceful assembly and association.” Article 9 provides that, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.”
“ADDING FUEL TO A FIRE THAT WAS ALREADY OUT OF CONTROL”
The UN Human Rights Chief Michelle Bachelet explained, “I appreciate that the government has a range of several measures to address the protesters’ demands. However, the immediate creation of another elite police SWAT team to replace the SARS – without first addressing some of the root causes of police violence and putting in place sufficient safeguards to prevent future violations — has eroded the public’s trust even further. This latest terrible event in Lagos is like wantonly adding fuel to a fire that was already starting to rage out of control.”
The answer to this crisis isn’t disbursing the crowds. We’re way past the point where that’s possible. Every time an #EndSARS protester is arrested or killed, two more will step up to take their place.
The only way to restore public trust in Nigeria is to take effective, transparent action to eliminate these renegade cops. Once the public sees genuine reform and a commitment to human rights, it may be possible to restore order. The solution isn’t more curfews or more gunshots.
DE-FUND SEDITIOUS ELEMENTS IN THE POLICE FORCE
As in other hot spots around the world, the only practical course of action at this point is to de-fund seditious elements in the police force. Nigeria needs to abolish SARS or SWAT or whatever other euphemism the government tries to invent for these goon squads.
We no longer live in a world where abuse of power can be kept out of sight. Governments are discovering that the whole world is watching their oppressive violence.
We always have more to learn if we dare to know.
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