End SARS protersers
Aisha Yesufu stands in defiance of Police during End SARS protest in Abuja

By OBINNA EZUGWU

Over the past few days, a whirlwind of anger over police brutality in Africa’s most populous country, many years in the making, swirled to near hurricane. In Abuja, the country’s political capital; Lagos, its commercial centre and several other states, protesters numbering hundreds gathered at the weekend to drive home their message: #EndSARS, #EndPoliceBrutality.

It was Sunday and the escalating protests against the now disbanded police Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) which peaked on Thursday, had entered its fourth day. By late morning, the police had begun to fire tear gas, water, and some alleged, live bullets at protesters who had gathered at the outskirts of the secretariat complex, Abuja. A young woman who fell while trying to run was whipped with pipes by five uniformed men.

Sunday’s protests which initially seemed “low key” later became a climax. The previous day, protesters were encouraged to attend church service with placards demanding an end to SARS, a special squad created to tackle the menace of armed robbery, but which had over time evolved into a monstrous force characterised by extortion, brutality and even murder of mostly young Nigerians. The team, observers say, is seen among the force as licence for extortion. Anger has built up over the years, and boiled over at the weekend, putting the country on edge.

“Within the Nigerian Police posting to SARS is considered ‘juicy.’ This is hardly surprising when many of the officers have bribed their way to SARS in the first place,” said global human rights body, Amnesty International in Nigeria, @AmnestyNigeria. “The police chiefs in charge are themselves entwined in this corruption.”

Amid the mounting pressure, the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu announced on Sunday that the errant police unit had been disbanded, and with immediate effect.

All officers and men serving in the unit, he said, would be deployed to other police command formations, while a new policing arrangement for tackling armed robbery and other violent crimes would unveiled soon.

The IGP further assured that a citizens’ and strategic stakeholders’ forum would be launched to provide avenue for citizens to regularly interface and advise the police authority on issues touching on the general public, while assuring that the report of crimes committed against citizens would be investigated and culprits punished.

The Nigerian masses had achieved one major victory. The President Muhammadu Buhari government had gotten the message. But the response may have come too late, and it’s in doubt whether the disbanding would quell the storm.

“Justice must be served. You have scrapped SARS but will these same rogues be sent to other police units with ammunition to continue killing Nigerians? THE ANSWER IS YES!!!” argued Abuja based activist, Ndi Kato @YarKafanchan.

Kato had been part of the protests in the federal capital territory at the weekend. On Saturday, dusk had provided security the police cover to launch tear gas attacks on them. Aisha Yesufu, a rights activist who became popular as a Bring Back Our Girls campaigner, said officers threw water and shot at her when she refused to run. On Sunday, before the IGP’s announcement, water, tear gas and live bullets were used to disperse them. It continued even afterwards.

But while the Abuja protests witnessed no casualties, by the time dust settled in Oyo on Saturday, a young protester Jimoh Isiaka, lay dead. Felled by bullets said to have been fired by a team of police men sent to quell their protest in Ogbomoso. A video of his father weeping uncontrollably could melt even a stone heart. Abdulrasaq Olawale, Oluwadamilare Gbolohunmi, and five others sustained injuries in the melee. The Oyo police command in a statement by its spokesperson, SP Olugbenga Fadeyi, however denied firing at any protester. The denial came despite video evidence to the contrary.

The ancient Oyo town witnessed even bigger crisis on Sunday. Youths upset with the killing of young Isiaka, stormed the palace of the traditional ruler, Soun of Ogbomoso, Oba Jimoh Oladunni Oyewumi, who was hosting a serving minister in the federal government, Mr. Sunday Dare, and hell broke loose. In its wake, about three young men lay dead, others sustained injuries.

On Friday, #ENDSARS hashtag trended at number one globally on social media platform, Twitter as protesters across the country continued their online and street protests, demanding not only that SARS be scrapped, but also that similar tactical squads be pulled down and the entire police force reformed. It is has since evolved into mass movement and could yet escalate despite the dissolution of SARS.

The agitation had evolved to include an end to police brutality, and all forms of impunity, one only the disbanding of the unit will not address. Indeed, the Abuja protesters continued their protest to police headquarters in Abuja after the announcement, signifying that the journey may have just begun.

“Let us continue to use our voice!!! Now that phase 1 is over, we must end Impunity!! Bring every police officer that is guilty as charged to justice!!,” demanded comedian, DeboMacaroni, @mrmacaronii, “The entire police force must be checked. Before they start transferring them to other Units!!! #EndPoliceBrutality #EndImpunity.”

Ranked the worst police force in the world in the 2016 World Internal Security and Police Index (WISPI); a ranking done by two bodies – the International Police Science Association and the Institute for Economics and Peace, Nigeria’s police force has had its challenges right from the colonial times. It was first set up largely as an institution to protect colonial interests against a restive native population, and thus had ab initio, an anti people, pro-authority orientation.

For many, this continued even after independence. The emergent indigenous leadership simply stepped into the shoes of the colonial masters, while the police and other armed forces have remained largely the same. Rights’ abuses have historically been a feature of the force. But SARS has taken same to a whole new level. First formed in 1992 by then Lagos police commissioner, Simeon Danladi Midenda to fight armed robbery, it has gradually transformed, many say, into what it was originally meant to fight.

There had been a spike in armed robbery cases in the aftermath of the 1992 killing of an army colonel, Col. Israel Rindam, by police officers at a checkpoint in Lagos – an action that prompted soldiers to unleash manhunt for policemen, causing them to withdraw from checkpoints, even as many officers resigned from the Force or fled.

SARS was thus formed with only 15 officers operating in the shadows without knowledge of the army while monitoring police radio chatters. Subsequently, however, the Army and the Police came to an understanding and official police duties began again in Lagos, following which the SARS unit was officially commissioned.

The unit would eventually grow in number, particularly in 2009 when it was expanded to respond to the growing number of internet fraudsters popularly called Yahoo Boys. But it soon became known for harassment of youths. It had grown into a monster of sorts.

There is little doubt that the unit had helped to curb criminality. But the continued abuse of rights of civilian populace overshadowed this positive side. Cases against SARS operatives are legion. Their activities were characterised by routine brutality, extortions and even murder.

And their favorite targets were young men. Theirs was a system that overly criminalised the youth population in a country that has about 60 percent of its population under 30. Amid the ongoing protests, many took to social media to narrate their encounters.

“They (SARS) threatened to lock me up and “change it for you” in Ilupeju. I had to shout like a market seller in the streets to get people’s attention. When people started parking and coming because I was shouting, they tactically withdrew and drove off. Maybe I won’t be here today,” narrated Femi Jacobs, @FemiJACBS, actor, movie producer and son of legendary Nollywood actor, Olu Jacobs, who also lent his voice to the EndSARS campaign.

“I’ll shoot you and nothing will happen is their watchword,” wrote Aminullah Ifeoluwa @habeeba_llah, “They don’t arrest, don’t listen, they follow with slaps. At the end of the day, they extort or kill.”

Crime in the eyes of the police unit included, but not limited to looking polished, growing dreadlocks, possessing a good smartphone, growing beads, carrying a laptop computer or driving a decent car. Any of these could warrant being tagged a “Yahoo Boy,” and thus be harassed, beaten, extorted or even murdered.

The victims also included women and older men. On Saturday, a middle aged business woman based in Orile, Lagos, Mercy Nwagu, narrated to reporters how SARS personnel broke into her house and molested her while she was naked.

“They broke into my room, used cutlass to break my door. I was naked. They started pressing my buttocks and my breasts and asking me if I own them alone. What does that mean? She wondered.

“I am not a criminal, I am a business woman. But they brought us out under the sun. I could only manage to cover myself with a wrapper.”

Many others have said they, or close associates were routinely picked up in the streets, extorted or locked up for family members to come and pay bailout fees, often ranging from N10,000 to very substantial amounts.

“My two friends have been detained overnight by SARS five minutes after we parted ways and I went home,” Obinna Uche Uzoije @ObiUcheUzoije. “I would have been one of them that day and they paid heavily for bail but they did absolutely nothing.”

Those who have no family members to pay or whose families couldn’t tell their whereabouts spent months and years in detention.

“Guns have been turned against our youths, the workforce of the nation.” said Mr. Segun Awosanya, Convener, End SARS movement. “Any country that has a population of 18 to 35-year-olds in millions is a blessed nation, but Nigeria is bringing a curse upon itself because we are turning our guns against our workforce, against the youths of Nigeria.

“A telephone is now a weapon of mass destruction; a computer is now contraband. When they see a youth wearing jeans, it is now a problem because they will say that you are a yahoo boy. And from there, the arresting officer becomes the prosecutor, the jury and the executioner.

“Cyber crimes investigation and enforcement are intelligence based operations involving the amalgamation of technology, rule based collaborations and handshake with legal arm of the justice function; not roadside phone searches and this indiscriminate abuse of searches must be criminalized.”

Incidents of alleged extrajudicial killing by the operatives were common place. More recently, the victims included the likes of Kolade Johnson, Chijioke Iloanya, Anita Akapson, Linda Igwetu, Richard Gora, Tiamiyu Kazeem, Emmanuel Egbo, Godgift Ekerete, Tony Orauma, Chinedu Ani, and Peter Ofurum.

Others were Harry Ataria, Adewuyi Tella, Modebayo Awosika, Ejoor Owoicho, Victor Maduago, Precious Odua, Johnson Nnaemeka, Chika Ibeku, Christian Onuigbo, Chukwuemeka Onovo, Chibuike Anama, Steven Agbanyim, Precious Odua, Steve Agbanyim, Rinji Bala Uzziel, among others. Young lives snuffed out by bullets, allegedly by SARS or other similar police operatives. Men whose modus operadi, many say, blurred the line between police and those of the underworld.

“Those SARS men are worse than criminals,” argued rights lawyer, Monday Ubani. “What they do basically is armed robbery. They rob people at gunpoint. They were created to fight armed robbery, but they have become worse than armed robbers. Most people would prefer to meet armed robbers to having an encounter with SARS.”

Ubani re-echoed the prevalent sentiments in Nigeria’s civil space. Many are infuriated, protests which peaked on Thursday across the country, amid alleged high handedness of the police, continued throughout the weekend and have yet to show much sign of abatement.

On Thursday, through Friday, protesters were reportedly arrested in Abeokuta, Ogun State; Ekpoma, Edo State and elsewhere in the country. It did little to slow down their momentum. Many groups have vowed to return to the streets on Monday and continue through Tuesday until their voices are heard. Perhaps the decision to scrap SARS would slow things down. But evidence suggests not by much.

Often divided along religious, ethnic, and political party lines, Nigerians, especially the youths, have often failed to collectively hold governments to account. It had always been difficult to rally the populace behind a common cause. But the anger against SARS altered the status quo. Many from different parts of the country, and of different religions and political divide, including celebrities have continued to rally support for the anti SARS movement.

On Saturday, reports emerged to the effect that there were plots by the authority to sponsor a counter #ProSARS protests in Northern States to give the impression that the anti SARS movement is a Southern affair. To this end, many influential Northern youths cried foul.

“Kindly tell your loved ones to boycott any #ProSARS protest in the North,” said author and columnist, Gimba Kakanda, @gimbakakanda. “There are ongoing rumours that the Police establishment are bankrolling the parallel protests across northern cities from tomorrow, to oppose #EndSARS. Shame on whoever allow themselves to be used this way.”

Abubakar Hidima Ph.D, @Realoilsheikh also warned, “Dear Northern Youth, Going by an unverified rumour of a #PROSARS protest to kick off in Sokoto tomorrow, If you allow yourself to be used in supporting a rogue system that has never helped you #EndNorthBanditry, you are an enemy of the people.”

Late Saturday, however, a group that identified itself as Arewa Youth Consultative Council (AYCC) issued a statement dissociating youths from “19 Northern States” from the anti SARS protests.

The group in a statement by its director of media and communications, Muhammad Ibrahim Milb argued that, “the Government shouldn’t listen to old touts in deciding the future of Nigerians. Enough of the political plays in our names.”

But the group was widely rebuked by Northern youths on social media, many of whom insisted that it doesn’t speak for them, even as some its members renounced their membership.

“FOR THE RECORD: I have resigned my honorary position and withdrawn my membership with this Council. All previous engagements are hereby nullified and regretted. #EndSARS,” tweeted Ameenu Kutama, @Ameenu_Kutama

“Don’t fall for it,” cautioned another user, Abdullah Ibrahim, “This is probably a political move to sabotage the process. We are in this together.”

Support for the End SARS movement remained strong throughout the weekend, notably among celebrities too. On Saturday, singer, Burna Boy unveiled giant bill boards in different states of the country demanding an end to SARS. Thursday’s protest in Lagos was notably led by celebrities, including Run Town, Falz, Tiwa Savage among others. Many others offered support on social media. Late Sunday, singer, Davido led the protest in Abuja. He is scheduled to meet the IGP on Monday.

There are real concerns things could get out of hand. Recent mass movement in Mali provides an idea of just how big mass movements can get.

“The revolution has already begun, “Awosanya told protesters in Lagos on Thursday. “We are fighting for every single person in this country. We are fighting for the country. We are celebrating sixty years of nationhood when we cannot even walk. Imagine a 60 year old person that cannot walk.

“As far as this SARS matter is concerned, remember when we say EndSARS, we mean end impunity; all forms of impunity. Every uniform organisation in Nigeria is configured to oppress the people because they were set up with colonial mindset.”

Other individuals have re-echoed Awosanya’s voice. It is a movement fast gathering momentum among the youths, and could yet escalate further if not handled well by the authorities.

“If this dichotomy, where FSARS operatives treat Southerners like trash and hardly bother to operate in the North, continues, FSARS may end up sparking a revolution that may lead to the division of Nigeria,” said author and critic of Buhari government, Reno Omokri. “We cant have more insecurity up North and more FSARS down South #EndSARS!”

So far, the penchant for attacking protesters is reinforcing anger and frustration.

“The youths of Nigeria are not asleep!! All they need is an awakening,” said Debo Macaroni. “A resolution was promised for Monday! We have also promised that if we do not get the said resolution by Monday, on Tuesday, we move!!

“If we are protesting against Police brutality and the police are still shooting at peaceful protesters, then it means that the government isn’t taking us seriously!! Nigerian Youths are ready!!!!”

Solidarity messages have also come from across the globe, including from United Kingdom, Sweden and United States diplomats. Personalities such as Mesut Özil, Marcus Rashford, Tammy Abraham, Antonio Rüdiger, Angel Gomes, Mario, among others have lent their voices.

In a tweet on Friday, the UK High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing urged the country’s federal government to respect the rights of protesters, amid reports of abuse and shooting of protesters in Lagos and Delta states.

“Significant protests over SARS demonstrate people’s desire for police reform. Peaceful protests are powerful,” Laing said. “Police Act recently signed by Muhammadu Buhari provides good foundation to build more accountable community police force.”

The Swedish embassy in Abuja in a statement on Saturday, noted that “Sweden condemns all forms of violence and acknowledges the #humanright to peaceful protests. It is worrying to hear about alleged cases of brutality from #SARS in Nigeria and reports of abuse need to be followed up by the Nigerian legal system.”

Support continued to come from political figures, corporate figures and celebrities in Africa and beyond.

“Mr. Muhammad Buhari, please listen to the youth of Nigeria and EndSARS. The world is watching,” tweeted South African opposition leader, Mmusi Maimane @MmusiMaimane on Saturday.

Amid the protests on Friday, President Muhammadu Buhari met the Inspector General of Police, Adamu Mohammed, promising to reform the police in effort to end brutality.

“I met again with the IGP tonight. Our determination to reform the police should never be in doubt. I am being briefed regularly on the reform efforts ongoing to end police brutality and unethical conduct, and ensure that the Police are fully accountable to the people,” the president said.

“The IG already has my firm instructions to conclusively address the concerns of Nigerians regarding these excesses, & ensure erring personnel are brought to justice. I appeal for patience & calm, even as Nigerians freely exercise their right to peacefully make their views known.

“The vast majority of men and women of the Nigeria Police Force are patriotic and committed to protecting the lives and livelihoods of Nigerians, and we will continue to support them to do their job.”

Buhari’s Minister of Police Affairs, Alhaji Mohammed Dingyadi, also promised reforms, noting that, “The fault lines in police operations are being addressed to emplace technologically driven operations devoid of personal contact, except when it becomes necessary. This will lock up opportunity for systemic abuse by few deviant policemen.”

But many took the president’s promise with a pinch of salt, even as his inability to address the nation amid the protests has irked many. Following IGP’s announcement, protesters insisted he had to address them.

Reforms had been promised before. In 2017, similar outrage over SARS brutality caused the then Inspector General of police, Ibrahim Idris to pursue reforms. But the decision offered only a momentary reprieve. Weeks later, they were back in the streets.

Individuals such as UK based actor of Nigerian decent, John Boyega, and groups such as Amnesty International have said the government had not gone far enough, pointing to previous unsuccessful attempts to ban the Unit.

“Three years ago Nigeria’s police chief re-organised SARS after public condemnation about the violence that came with their operations,” Boyega said @JohnBoyega. “That change has done nothing for Nigerians and today many are still in danger.”

It’s a view Mr. Awosanya, who was in the middle of the push for reforms also in 2017 also shares.

“They promised reforms in 2015, they promised reforms in 2016, they promised reforms in 2017; they also promised in 2018, and now in 2019 and 2020, they are promising the same thing,” Awosanya said.

“But this time around, there is no way they will wriggle out of it. These destructive tactical squads must be brought down.”

Part of what has continued to fuel anger is lack of, or sparse prosecution of uniformed men accused of extrajudicial killings. And while the police authorities insist offenders are prosecuted, many share contrary views.

For Jimi Agbaje, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) governorship candidate in Lagos in the last election, ensuring that errant officers are made to face the law would be a good place to start the journey of reforming the force.

“It’s time for prosecution of rogue policemen across the entire Nigeria. Police who take matters into their own hands,” Agbaje said.

Many, including former vice president, Alhaji Atiku Abubakar; former Imo State governor, Emeka Ihedioha; former Gombe State governor, Ibrahim Dankwambo, have thus joined the call on law enforcement to respect the civil space, and for officers violating same to be held accountable.

“I woke up to the peaceful #EndSARSProtests going on in Lagos and other cities in the country. First, I would like to commend the tenacity of our brave youths who have stayed out on the streets all day and night to make their voices heard. I stand with you all,” Atiku said on Friday.

“Protests are an essential part of any democracy as we have seen the world over, and should be seen as an opportunity for dialogue between our people and our leaders.

“Thus, it is essential that the fundamental rights of Nigerians to freedom of assembly and freedom of expression must be protected at all costs.

“I strongly condemn any disproportionate use of force on protesters across the nation. I also call on the relevant authorities to ensure our youths are heard, and all incidents of excessive use of force by security agencies against protesters are investigated.”

On his own part, Dankwambo demanded an end to harassment of protesters, arguing that their call remained legitimate.

“A call for an end to Police brutality is a legitimate call. Stop harassing and brutalizing Protesters,” he wrote via @HEDankwambo

“The right of the people to peacefully assemble and petition government for a redress of grievances, is fundamental and must be respected.”

On Saturday, Amnesty Nigeria in a tweet via its handle, @AmnestyNigeria, also harped on the need for the right to peaceful protests to be upheld by law enforcement agencies as protests continue.

“As more Nigerians plan more protests against the callous & lawless operations of SARS, the Nigeria Police must desist from violent crackdown. The right of Nigerians to freedom of assembly must be respected.

“Yesterday people who were simply exercising their human right to peacefully protest #EndSARS in #Abuja, #Lagos and #Ekpoma were met with such police violence that they lost eyesight, survived brutal beatings, and suffered seizures and severe wounds,” Amnesty said.

Meanwhile on Friday, the police in a statement by its spokesperson, DCP Frank Mba said one of its officers was shot by protesters in Ughelli Delta State.

“The incident which resulted in the unfortunate death of one Police officer, Corporal Etaga Stanley attached to ‘A’ Division, Ughelli, Delta State, who was attacked and brutally murdered by protesters also left another, Sergeant Patrick Okuone with serious body injury sustained from gunshot by the protesters. The protesters also carted away one (1) service AK47 rifle with breach no 56-2609008 and 25 rounds of live ammunition that was with the deceased at the time of the incident,” Mba said.

It is difficult to see an end in sight. It is a country where growing poverty and lack of opportunities continue to fuel discontent. The protests over SARS brutality may prove a tipping point.

On Sunday, former president of the senate, Abubakar Bukola Saraki warned that there is a danger in the escalation of any protest movement, and #EndSARS is no different.

“I for one cannot feign blindness to the ongoing protests calling for the Federal Government of Nigeria to end the operations and activities of the Nigerian Police Force’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – and end it now,” he said.

“Across the nation, we are bearing witness to well-organised and largely orderly youth protests, clear manifestation of the frustration felt by our youthful citizens. They are voicing their response to the increasingly harrowing scenes of random and unjustified harassment, intimidation, detention, and worse still, even extrajudicial killings by rogue cells in SARS of members of the future Nigeria.”