In early October a video that showed officers, thought to be SARS, allegedly killing a young man in Nigeria’s Delta State, sparked widespread protests and caused the #endSARS hashtag to go viral on social media, bringing worldwide attention to a longstanding problem. On October 20, these protests turned deadly as the army and police moved in on unarmed civilians, sparking further outrage.
The idea that a SARS officer—often in plainclothes—can stop you on the street to terrorize you is a fear that no one should live with anywhere in the world.
Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), was created in 1992 as a special branch of the country’s police force to tackle violent crime. Recently, it has been the subject of massive protests for its use of violence and brutality, including murder. Officers with the unit used unmarked buses and often did not wear uniforms or name tags. This was considered necessary at the time for taking on gangs operating in the open, but as the unit grew, it became associated with random acts targeted against innocent individuals, often young people who appeared to have money. The anonymous nature of the unit made it difficult to identify abuses and prosecute officers.
We recently spoke with Kehinde Togun, an alumnus and lecturer in the Political Science department, about #endSARS and the current climate in Nigera. Togun has led global democracy and governance programs for much of the last 15 years, and during Nigeria’s 2011 elections, he trained and advised civil society in the Niger Delta as they monitored the electoral process.
You're involved in global politics through your work and personal interests, but could you describe more specifically how you're involved in the #EndSARS movement?
I’m not involved in the movement, but as a member of the Nigerian diaspora, I’ve watched with horror as the government has turned these peaceful protests into an opportunity to attack its own citizens. I’ve spent most of the last 15 years collaborating with civil society leaders in Nigeria and elsewhere as they advocate for reforms and work to improve lives of citizens. Some of the leaders I’ve worked with were among those organizing the protests and strategizing about the movement.
What is SARS? Can you give a short background of SARS and its role in Nigeria?
SARS is the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigerian Police Force that was established in 1992. As the name implies, it was initially intended to address the prevalence of armed robbery in Nigeria. However, the unit has best known for its officers harassing, attacking, and extorting Nigerians, who often had no recourse. There had been previous attempts to reform the unit, including in 2016 when Amnesty International documented cases of torture and extrajudicial killings by SARS.
SARS has been around for years. What sparked the recent outrage?
There have been years of complaints about SARS and citizens had previously demanded its disbandment. The #EndSARS social media campaign actually began in 2017 when Nigerians began using the hashtag to document instances of abuse by SARS officers. The most recent outrage began when a video surfaced on October 4 showing SARS officers shooting an individual on the street. The anger eventually turned into street protests across Nigeria, led by young people. The hashtag gained traction globally and was used to amplify protesters voices and their demands.
Do you have friends or family in Nigeria? Have they been personally affected by this situation?
One reason the movement resonated is that a large number of Nigerians have been victimized by SARS, including some of my friends and former colleagues. For many, SARS epitomizes the culture of impunity that police and security forces operate with Nigeria. The idea that a SARS officer—often in plainclothes—can stop you on the street to terrorize you is a fear that no one should live with anywhere in the world.
Has this affected your work here or abroad?
I think a more important question is how it has affected the lives and work of Nigerians living in the country. Nigerians have been frustrated with their government for years, but have actively advocated to make their country better. In recent weeks, too many of these folks have had to grapple with how little value the government places on their lives—shooting indiscriminately at peaceful protesters. In spite of this, they continue to organize with courage and restrategize to figure out how to make meaningful and sustained change at home, while still going to work and making a living.
What do the #EndSARS creators hope to accomplish with the hashtag? Do you think they've been successful?
The hashtag is a means to amplify the demands of protesters and they have successfully galvanized the international community—joining with #BlackLivesMatter, #ZimbabweLivesMatter, and other anti-police brutality movements. Their immediate ask was for SARS to be disbanded which has happened; however, the demands go beyond that. What we saw during the protests were national and state governments that don’t take citizens’ lives seriously. State violence reached a peak on October 20 when the military opened fire on citizens in Lagos, killing at least 12 people. Beyond the 12 people killed dozens more were injured. This was the act by the government to silence protesters and hopefully “win” by scaring them to death. The fact that the movement has continued in spite of this is itself a testament to its success.
What are the protestors asking for?
The demands by #EndSARS protesters are geared toward improving the lives and safety of Nigerians. They include: an independent investigation into police misconduct, including the heavy use of force during the protests; increased salaries for police officers; and long-term solutions to the high unemployment and inequality in the country.
How can we help?
After the military attack on protesters, most states have imposed curfews and police have been deployed in full force to prevent more mass protests. As a result, organizers are currently strategizing about how to continue achieving their goals. Each one of us can follow the hashtag on social media as well as follow/read Nigerians who are on the frontlines and sharing information about what is happening, like @ChiomaChuka, @buky, @saratu, and @stanvito and @CDDWestAfrica.
In the US, we can also call our US Senate and Congressional representatives to demand that they express solidarity with Nigerian protesters and also ask that the US government evaluate the security assistance it provides the Nigerian military.
Just as importantly, we should be demanding that our local, state, and national government in the US also address police brutality and systemic racism. Until we fully reckon with these issues at home, we won’t have the legitimacy to support activists abroad.
Finally, is there anything else we should know about this situation?
We are having this #EndSARS conversation because citizens—most of them, young people—decided to do proactively address an issue that affects their lives. All of us have a role to play in making our communities and our country(ies) better. We should get to work!