Protests against Nigeria‘s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) erupted in October this year, when a video showing a young man being shot by the special forces emerged online. Anti-SARS sentiment has prevailed throughout Nigeria for many years now, as the policing organisation became increasingly associated with abuse, torture, and unjust killings. The viral video pushed this sentiment into the streets and across social media as the Nigerian people, and others across the globe, called out the police brutality occurring at the hands of SARS.
Protestors faced government crackdown as a result; a nationwide curfew was put in place and organisers were targeted with such punishments like having their bank accounts frozen. The demonstrations intensified on 20th October, when members of the Nigerian police force shot into crowds of protestors in Lagos, killing at least 12 people.
Following pressure from protestors, as well as international leaders, the Nigerian government has since responded to the movement and the protests have subsequently died down. However, there is still widespread cynicism about the official response, doubting that the promised reforms will be enough to end police brutality in the country. This doubt may ignite the protests again.
THE INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE
International players had become particularly vocal about the Nigerian protests after the October 20th shootings. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres called on both sides to refrain from violence, while demanding Nigerian authorities to investigate cases of police brutality and hold the perpetrators of such brutality to account. UN human rights experts had highlighted the fact that the shootings by security forces against protestors confirmed the movement’s concern with police brutality. Deeming the situation ‘disturbing’, the experts further outlined the security forces’ efforts to cover up their actions by turning off lights and security cameras. The UN has therefore expressed support for the movement, taking a clear stance in demanding accountability.
The Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat, has also called on both protestors and security forces to cease the violence surrounding the protests. He emphasised the importance of mutual dialogue to develop ‘concrete and durable reforms’. Recognising the necessity of reforms reflects the Union’s support of the #EndSARS cause. However, in clarifying that the AU stands by the Nigerian Government as well as the Nigerian people, Mahamat stresses that a peaceful solution is a priority.
THE UNITED KINGDOM
In response to #EndSARS protests across London, as well as an online petition demanding action, the UK Parliament has called on its Government to demand that Nigerian officials investigate the police brutality against Nigerian citizens by security forces like SARS. The government has agreed to monitor the investigation and work with Nigeria to implement reforms. Parliament agreed not to impose sanctions against Nigeria, reasoning that this would hurt the Nigerian people, but it has called on the UK government to sanction those responsible for abuses against protestors. This proposition is still under consideration.
Members of Parliament have, however, called out the UK Government for its funding and training of Nigerian security forces, including SARS, since 2016. The UK Minster of Africa, James Duddridge, initially disputed this claim but has since confirmed it. Concerns surround the UK’s involvement in Nigeria’s policing system, considering that knowledge of SARS’ actions has been public for at least a decade. The #EndSARS movement was very much associated with a national crisis, however has since demonstrated the significant role international players can perform in a country’s internal governance, even if the role is non-military and not conflict-associated. Unless it takes direct action, such as the imposition of sanctions, the UK’s response may be deemed hollow and hypocritical.
THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
Like the UK, US officials have called for Nigeria to investigate abuses by its security forces. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stated that those responsible for excessive force should be held accountable under Nigerian law. He has also stressed the importance of upkeeping the right to peaceful assembly, while calling on both sides to remain calm. Equally, Joe Biden has expressed the need for the US to support Nigerians demonstrating for police reform. He has called on Nigerian officials to ‘cease the violent crackdown’ and ‘engage in a good-faith dialogue with civil society’.
Considering that the US experienced its own nationwide police brutality protests earlier in the year, its response to these internal demonstrations should be reflected in its approach to the Nigerian movement. #EndSARS shares significant commonalities with the Black Lives Matter movement that has originated in the US and escalated across the world. While Mike Pompeo has called for accountability and peace amid Nigeria’s protests, emphasising the right to peaceful assembly, he was criticized in the initial weeks of the BLM protests for remaining silent on the issues brought forth by US demonstrators. In such cases, the weight of international input is brought to question when diplomatic statements do not entirely reflect domestic actions.
NIGERIAN GOVERNMENT RESPONSE
Nigeria’s President, Muhammadu Buhari, has attempted to appease protestors’ demands by announcing the disbandment of SARS on 11th October, highlighting that this was the first step in reform. This received little praise, however. The decision to dissolve the organisation had echoed past government moves made in response to popular discontentment about the security forces. Reforms were previously announced in 2016, to address the use of excessive force by SARS units. These followed various other reform efforts, with the first proposed in 2006.
The announcements that SARS officers would be redeployed and the organisation replaced by a Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT) fuelled scepticism and distrust further, as this hardly qualified for a systemic overhaul. The protests persisted, running on doubt and demanding further reform. The movement’s doubts seemed to be confirmed by the October 2oth killings, in which Nigeria’s security forces exercised abuse again.
Following the killings, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo was the first official to release a statement. Osinbajo expressed his condolences for both the protestors and police officers who had lost their lives during the violent outbreak, promising justice for these victims. Despite not mentioning the shootings in his first address to the nation after they took place (an address in which he called for an end to protests and prompted a dialogue between protestors and Government), President Buhari later reiterated his promises of police reform.
Since then, Nigeria’s state governments have implemented judicial panels across the country to investigate cases of police brutality and persecute those responsible for abuses. The Nigerian Police Force, however, has instituted legal action to stop these proceedings on the basis that state governors have no right to investigate the police; only the federal government does. This legal bid is now subject to investigation itself because the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, has denied permitting the lawsuit and has consequently guaranteed his support of ongoing police reforms.
The way the Nigerian Police Force’s lawsuit will proceed may be most indicative of the Government’s approach to the #EndSARS movement. If the Police Force wins its case, ending police brutality investigations, civil unrest will likely ensue as this will erase the accountability the population relied on and was promised.
However, if the #EndSARS movement is to follow the trajectory of Black Lives Matter in the US, then it is possible that the cause for mass demonstration has fizzled out. Although the US Government has imposed changes to the policing system in an attempt to placate protestors, cases of police brutality continue to occur throughout the country. Mass protests on the scale that we saw them in May and June, however, are no longer taking place. Therefore, while the Nigerian Government’s efforts to initiate police reforms have currently shown little progress in light of the Police Force’s pushback on investigations, we may no longer see the same alarm and anger displayed in the first wave of #EndSARS protests.
A recent terrorist attack in north-east of Nigeria has, however, emboldened the scepticism surrounding the Nigerian Government’s leadership, including its response to the #EndSARS protests. Organisations, such as the Northern Elders Forum, have re-directed criticism towards President Buhari, calling for his resignation. The Forum has accused the administration of failing to protect the security and welfare of Nigerians by neglecting the threat posed by terrorist groups in the country. Therefore, while not specifically linked to #EndSARS, national demonstrations may be kickstarted again as civilians join to express disapproval of the Government.
- Are judicial panels substantial enough to help end police brutality in Nigeria considering that the constitutionality of their very existence is already being disputed by the police?
- Do you think the preceding Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality strengthened the #EndSARS movement?
- Is there potential for #EndSARS to evolve into a wider civilian movement against the Nigerian Government in the near future?
Gladstone, Rick; Specia, Megan (2020). “Nigeria’s police brutality crisis: What’s happening now”. New York Times, 14 November, 2020.
Malumfashi, Sada (2020). “Nigeria’s SARS: A brief history of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad”. Al Jazeera, 22 October, 2020.
Uwazuruike, Allwell Raphael (2020). “#EndSARS: The movement against police brutality in Nigeria”. Harvard Human Rights Journal, 12 November, 2020.
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