Security forces in Nigeria have allegedly killed at least a dozen people this week in a crackdown on protests that have stretched for weeks. The protests have focused on abuses by a notorious police group known as SARS. Last week, the Nigerian president officially disbanded the group, but the move didn’t appease protesters, who demanded its members be held criminally accountable for their actions. Now, the protest movement has gained international support, with celebrities around the world urging their followers to rally behind its unifying hashtag: #EndSARS.
What is SARS, and why is it at the center of an international protest movement?
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was founded in the 1990s to handle a wave of violent crime in Nigeria. In those early years, SARS was praised for reducing crime, but it soon faced accusations of perpetrating the same abuses it was formed to address. Even the officer who founded SARS told the BBC that the group had “been turned into banditry.” Critics denounced the group, and the government has repeatedly promised to reform it or disband it over the years.
Again and again, SARS re-emerged as a dangerous entity. In 2016, the human rights group Amnesty International published a report that identified 58 cases in which SARS tortured suspects in custody. In June, the organization published a follow-up report that documented 82 cases of human rights violations by SARS between the summers of 2017 and 2020. The allegations included detailed accounts of torture and extrajudicial executions. The report said that the torture was so baked into the groups’ methods that many of its stations had torture chambers and a designated torture officer.
Victims told Amnesty International that SARS officers beat them, burned them with cigarettes, placed their heads in plastic bags, sexually abused them, and waterboarded them. Some reported being held for weeks and months; one man who was held for 40 days said he had very little food or water and saw other detainees die of starvation in that time. Others described beatings that left them with broken arms and legs. One man told the story of a mock execution, when he said he was driven out of town and led to believe he was about to be shot. It’s believed that others were tortured to death; there are reports of SARS officers parading dead bodies as a warning.
Most of SARS’ alleged victims were young, poor men. Some said they had been arrested and accused of fraud or gang membership; journalists were accused of cybercrimes or tortured for their reporting or for withholding a source’s identity. Others said they were baselessly accused of participating in a robbery. (SARS’ official mandate is to investigate cases involving armed robbery and kidnapping). Many victims also said that SARS officers targeted young men in nice clothes or new cars to extort them and their families for money.
The #EndSARS hashtag spread with an activist movement in late 2017. Protesters marched in cities around Nigeria, demanding the prosecution of SARS officers who violated human rights. In August 2018, the Nigerian government ordered reforms and an independent investigation. Still, the officers’ behavior reportedly didn’t change.
On Oct. 3, a video circulated on social media in which men believed to be SARS officers killed a man without provocation. Nigerian authorities told the public that the video was fake and arrested the person who took the video, sparking further outrage.
For two weeks, thousands protested, mostly peacefully, in the largest cities in the country. But the tone changed Tuesday night when the governor of Lagos State declared a curfew and security forces opened fire on a gathering in the country’s largest city, hitting a number of people. According to Amnesty International, which reported that at least 12 were killed in Lagos, police had also removed security cameras before their crackdown. Protesters also said on social media that the streetlights had gone out unexpectedly before the police began firing. Videos from the scenes show that protesters were corralled into an area by police and were often unable to escape.
Outside of Lagos, riot squads deployed by the national police attacked protesters in Abuja and other cities. On Monday, Reuters reported that a Special Weapons and Tactics team had been created to “fill the gaps” created by SARS’ absence, but that it would be trained by an international body. The protests continued Wednesday.