It was around 6:45pm- on the evening of October 20- when a group of armed military vehicles made their way to the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos, Nigeria and opened fire on a crowd of civilians.
They were peaceful protesters who had come to demonstrate against police brutality in the country. Some waved the Nigerian flag. Others sang the national anthem, “Arise, O Compatriots.” But it didn’t stop the hail of bullets fired at them by soldiers.
In an attack that lasted a little over two hours, an estimated 12 people were killed. Dozens more were injured, and the green and white stripes of the Nigerian flag were now stained in red.
But for the citizens of Nigeria, this wasn’t the first tragedy they had experienced. The events at the Lekki Toll Gate were the culmination of weeks of civil unrest triggered by decades of systemic abuse and corruption at the hands of Nigeria’s police force.
A few weeks earlier, on October 3, a video began circulating on social media showing a police officer shooting a young man in front of the Wetlands Hotel in Nigeria’s Delta state. The officer was from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a notorious and controversial division of the Nigerian police force which has a long history of accusations, ranging from harassment and unlawful arrests to extrajudicial killings of civilians. The video went viral and caused an outcry online.
Within days, thousands of young Nigerians took to social media to voice their outrage and began spreading the hashtag #EndSARS to call for an end to police brutality. By October 8, demonstrations took place in major cities across Nigeria. In Lagos, protesters held up signs reading “respect for human rights” and “a more equal society.” In Abuja, the country’s capital, protesters were met with tear gas from police forces.
On October 11, Muhammed Adamu, the inspector general of police, announced that the SARS unit would be dissolved “with immediate effect” and that its officers would be reassigned to other departments within the Nigerian police force.
But just hours later, a Nigerian Twitter user, Uncle Bayotics, posted a video showing SARS officers apparently engaging in continued misconduct against civilians. “There are still SARS officers harassing people on the street,” he wrote. “They didn’t End anything. [sic] This happened a few minutes ago.”
His sentiment was echoed by many other young Nigerians, who pointed out that this wasn’t the first time the government pledged to end SARS only for police brutality and misconduct to persist.
On October 13, Adamu announced the formation of a new unit called the Special Weapons and Tactics team, or SWAT, to replace the defunct SARS unit. He insisted that all former SARS officers would undergo psychological and medical examinations before being redeployed into the police force.
There are still SARS officers harassing people on the street…They didn’t End anything. [sic] This happened a few minutes ago.
But the announcement received backlash almost immediately, as Nigerians maintained that the unit was merely undergoing a name change, rather than meaningful reforms. Nigerians then began using the hashtag #EndSWAT across social media in addition to #EndSARS. Twitter user Abike-Ade wrote, “From frying pan to fire. We don’t want swat.”
For activist and Harvard University student Aramide Akintmehin, the government was simply not doing enough to enact substantial police reforms. Speaking to Assembly magazine, she stated that “this is not the first or the third time that police brutality keeps occurring. It is getting worse by the day.”
A TROUBLED HISTORY
Nigeria’s culture of policing dates back long before the SARS unit was created. According to a report by Time Magazine, “the precedent of controlling Nigerian people through excessive force had long been the norm: British colonizers had arrived in the 19th century and treated the land and its people as resources to be controlled and plundered.”
As a result, the colonial era “left behind a culture of violence and corruption” that has become normalized under modern-day police control. Nigeria’s first police force was established in 1820, but it wasn’t until a century later, in 1930, that the northern and southern regions merged police forces to create a national force called the Nigeria Police Force.
The precedent of controlling Nigerian people through excessive force had long been the norm.
In 1992, the force created a specialty unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS, to combat armed robbery and other violent crimes which were rampant in cities like Lagos. In the early days of the unit, SARS officers often operated undercover in civilian clothes and unmarked vehicles. Their main task, according to Al Jazeera, was “to monitor radio communications and facilitate successful arrests of criminals and armed robbers.”
But even as the SARS unit was relatively new, the 1990s saw a number of controversial arrests and detentions of Nigerian citizens. In 1993, a university graduate student named Ayotunde Adesola was detained in Lagos and accused by SARS officers of being in a local street gang. In an attempt to get a confession, officers poured irritant powder on his face while beating him repeatedly.
In 1999, a young man died in SARS custody after being beaten and tortured by officers who accused him of stealing a car. That same year, the US State Department released a report on Nigeria’s police force which revealed that “police, military, and anticrime task force personnel committed numerous extrajudicial killings in the apprehension and detention of suspected criminals.”
By this time, what had begun to develop was, according to Time Magazine, a systemic pattern of “extorting civilians or detaining and torturing them into giving confessions.”
A CULTURE OF TORTURE
By the early 2000s, the SARS unit had shifted its focus to cybercrime and became increasingly aggressive in their apprehension and treatment of suspected criminals. Officers began openly profiling young men in public whom they suspected of being involved in criminal activity and using harassment and extortion methods to obtain confessions.
In recent years, reports from both government and nonprofit organizations have documented an extensive record of abuse and mistreatment of Nigerians by members of the police force.
In 2007, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture released a report on the state of Nigerian policing, which found that “the use of torture was widespread in police custody, was particularly systemic in criminal investigation departments, and formed an intrinsic part of police operations, especially in the extraction of alleged confessions.”
In 2016, human rights group Amnesty International visited a SARS detention center in Abuja where they documented “widespread torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees in their custody.” That same year, the World Internal Security and Police Index ranked Nigeria as having the world’s worst police force among 127 countries measured.
And in early 2020, Amnesty published a comprehensive report which documented at least 82 cases of abuse and ill treatment of detainees by SARS officers between January 2017 and May 2020.
The report revealed that officers used “a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.”
A BBC report from early 2020 further exposed the use of draconian torture by Nigerian police forces, notable against children.
The use of torture was widespread in police custody, was particularly systemic in criminal investigation departments, and formed an intrinsic part of police operations.
Activist Eduek Nsentip told Assembly magazine that “the initiation of The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was a good idea because they were vested with the responsibility of assisting the police to curb crime in the society.” But unfortunately, she said, “those employed into SARS abused their powers.”
At last, after decades of systemic abuse and mistreatment from the police, the groundwork had seemingly been laid for a mass public resistance.
A SOCIAL MEDIA MOVEMENT
It is unknown who first created the #EndSARS hashtag, but as early as 2017 dozens of young Nigerians began using the hashtag on social media to share stories of abuses and mistreatment by SARS officers that they had seen or experienced.
In December 2017, Twitter user @bejayten wrote, “weeks ago I was attacked by a SARS officer, threatened to shoot me, searched my room, found nothing, yet still beat me….. The brutality must stop #EndSARS.” Another user @RozayBaresi lamented, “whenever I see those guys called SARS, the feeling I have is equivalent to seeing armed robbers because of what I heard they do to people. #EndSARS.”
Over the next several months, which turned into years, Nigerian officials made multiple promises to reform and restructure SARS. But nothing ever fully came to fruition from the government. Incidents of police brutality continued to persist and young Nigerians continued to fear for their lives.
In August 2018, then acting President of Nigeria, Yemi Osinbajo, ordered Nigeria’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to establish a special panel to investigate alleged human rights abuses committed by SARS officers.
In June 2019, the Commission released a report which recommended the dismissal and prosecution of 24 SARS officers, the dismissal of another 13 officers, and the arrest and prosecution of two retired SARS officers. Meanwhile, allegations of abuse and misconduct by SARS officers continued to persist.
In June 2020, Nigeria commemorated the annual International Day Against Victims of Torture, with NHRC head Tony Ojukwu calling on law enforcement officials to “desist from all forms of torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment as these are not acceptable in any national, regional or international law.”
But just three months later, in October 2020, the video of a SARS officer shooting a young man in the street and leaving him for dead began circulating on social media. It was at this moment, after decades of abuse and mistreatment upon the citizens of Nigeria, that tensions finally reached a boiling point and the #EndSARS movement took off once again.
Police and security forces, in turn, responded to protesters by using water cannons and teargas to disperse large crowds of people. Dozens of protesters were injured during the demonstrations.
The #EndSARS movement is distinctive in that it has been largely driven by young people who used social media to draw global awareness to the injustices they face. During the protests, activists created WhatsApp groups to spread information, facilitate donations and coordinate protest movements on the ground.
The movement is also decentralized. Just days after the protests began, youth activists issued a list of five demands to the Nigerian government.
According to activist and writer Mirabelle Morah, “social media was a very powerful force for the protests” because it “served as our meeting ground.” She told me that through social media people were able to donate funds for the protests, such as to cover legal fees for protesters who were arrested and detained.
For Aramide Akintmehin, social media has played an important role in the protests “by amplifying our voices in oneness of purpose and making it known to international bodies and organizations how our government is killing us at the moment.” She described how social media allowed young Nigerians to reach out to each other online and spread information and awareness about the protests.
Teenage activist Hauwa B. Mohammed expressed a similar sentiment that “social media has an important role to play in this fight… It lets people around the world know that this is what we’re facing and it also puts more pressure on the government to act fast.”
Social media has an important role to play in this fight… It lets people around the world know that this is what we’re facing…
And through social media, people around the world listened and joined the #EndSARS movement, which echoed the Black Lives Matter protests in the US last summer following the killing of George Floyd.
From London to Paris to New York City, Los Angeles and Berlin, protesters waved the Nigerian flag and held up signs reading #EndSARS and #EndPoliceBrutality. What started out as a single hashtag among social media users had now become a global movement for justice in Nigeria.
But for many young Nigerians, the #EndSARS movement is about much more than just shutting down a police unit for good. Many want to see broader reforms in all levels of government, including greater accountability and more responsible leadership.
“We want to have a better Nigeria,” says Mirabelle. “A lot of things have to be better and it doesn’t just start with the leadership. It also starts with the normal citizens as well.” Speaking to Assembly magazine, she declared, “what I want is accountability and deep reformation not only in the police force but also throughout the Nigerian government and system.”
As activist Eduek Nsentip explained, “the major problem affecting Nigeria is corruption and bad leadership. I feel delighted that we the Nigerian youths have decided to be at the forefront of a revolution to make Nigeria a quintessential county for African countries.”
And with global attention brought to the protests, there is certainly an opportunity to see some short term changes from the government. But some say that if the movement wants to see longer term reforms it will have to focus on implementing long term effective strategies and perhaps impose multiple forms of resistence against the government.
Dr. Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and nonviolent social movements at the University of San Francisco. He told me that the #EndSARS protests, so far, have been somewhat limited in their capacity because they’ve been mostly spontaneous. “Successful movements need to strategize and have organization,” he says. “They need to work on multiple levels besides just protests.”
But there has been some positive outcomes of the #EndSARS protests. For Mirabelle, the movement has energized a young generation of Nigerians to step up and take control of their future and demand a safer and more just society. “It’s a very important time for us,” she says. “It’s kind of like an awakening for young people to take action.”
Professor Zunes also acknowledged a positive outcome of the protests in that “SARS as an institution has been curtailed somewhat and the authorities realize that they cannot get away with impunity.” But although it can be argued that the #EndSARS protests were a success, the fight against police brutality in Nigeria is still far from over.
It’s a very important time for us. It’s kind of like an awakening for young people to take action.
From its beginnings as a hashtag, the #EndSARS movement has brought global awareness to the abuses and injustices that Nigerians face everyday. But even more than that, it has ushered in a young generation of Nigerians who not only yearn for a better future, but are taking action to create it themselves.
At the end of our interview, I asked Mirabelle if there is anything else she wants to say about her country and the events that have unfolded over the past several months. She pauses for a few seconds, and in a soft voice, says “there’s a lot that words cannot say. But may God help us in Nigeria. And may God help Nigeria. And God bless Nigeria.”