For about 2 consecutive weeks to date, there have been ongoing protests across Nigeria and online against police brutality in the West African country. The protests caught international attention when the hashtag #EndSARS started trending worldwide on Twitter starting on 9 October 2020.
It is also not the first time that Nigeria's Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) has been under scrutiny and criticism for brutality. In fact, during 2015 and 2016, during similar protests against SARS for illegally detaining and torturing software developers, techies, and some startup founders, the government promised to reform the police unit.
However, as we are witnessing, this was obviously just talking as SARS continues to unfairly assault, detain, and torture Nigerian youth especially those who are part of the country's burgeoning tech innovation and startup ecosystem.
Amnesty International also released a report during January 2020 which revealed that between January 2017 and May 2020, there had been 82 cases of abuses and extrajudicial killings by SARS, and these are only the documented cases.
A brief history of SARS and police brutality in Nigeria
To understand SARS and police brutality in Nigeria, I'm going to borrow an excerpt from Akin Ifeanyi Agunbiade's insightful article and analysis titled: For police brutality to end, the Nigerian Police Force needs to be scrapped.
"Criminals have gone online. Rather than follow them online, SARS remained stuck in the same methods and prefers to use profiling to victimize innocent Nigerians." - Akin Ifeanyi Agunbiade
It is not the case that SARS is an exception, while the general Police Force is pristinely clean. No. Back to back for years, the Nigerian Police Force has been ranked the most corrupt public institution in Nigeria.
Do you know what that means?
Not even the non-functional local governments, or the toothless National Assembly, or the blind executives in Aso Rock who allocate billions to themselves in estacode are as corrupt as the average officer in black. It means that if any government wanted to fight corruption, the first place to start should be the office of the Inspector-General of Police.
For the sake of context, especially for those in my generation, we should understand that police brutality is not something that started in the 21st century.
We establish that the creation of security forces in Nigeria, starting with the West Africa Constabulary in the pre-independence era, was never to secure the lives and properties of the Nigerians. It protected the colonizers from the people whom they had enslaved.
Nigeria adopted a real federal structure upon independence, which saw each region set up a policing structure unique to itself. However, the incursion of the military into our politics and the allegations that regional governments used police to intimidate opponents in elections, made many to believe that if the police were centrally controlled, it would be impartial towards all.
Over 50 years have passed and we all know better, but still, we should forgive our elders for their naivete. They didn’t know better.
I recommend that you stream ‘Alagbon Close’ by the late Fela Kuti. Fela has a lot of songs talking about police and military brutality, but none I think comes very close to describing the sheer disrespect for status or human life that SARS exhibits. SARS was not in existence when Fela sang this song, but like a friend of mine recently said, the problems that Fela sang about are still with us.
SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) like the name suggests, tackled the spate of armed robberies in the 90s. This was the age when armed robbers like Anini were so popular, they appeared on public occasions and shut down entire roads while they calmly collected the valuables of commuters.
In its early days, SARS was effective, mostly because it was independent and thus free from most of the corrupt bureaucracy of the Nigerian Police.
There’s a saying amongst the Igbo that "when the hunter learns to shoot without missing the bird will learn to fly without perching."
The criminals grew and went online. Rather than follow them online, SARS remained stuck in the same methods and prefers to use profiling to victimize innocent Nigerians. If all they did was shake you down for carrying a laptop and phone and you could prove you weren’t a Yahoo Boy, and then they would let you go, we might accuse them of being high handed but most of us would still feel secure with them.
However, that’s not how they operate.
All for dressing sharp, carrying a laptop bag, you can get nabbed. It’s unsafe to keep credit and debit alerts on my phone because of SARS. Young men have to think about whether they need to take their laptops with them when going out. It’s better to keep your best clothes in the wardrobe.
Now the tech ideas we share are about developing an app that can tell you the route where SARS operatives are so you can avoid them in advance.
That’s the country we live in.
It's quite clear that, as demonstrated over many instances and decades that Nigeria's government is failing to reform SARS. So, what needs to happen next to ensure that police brutality stops in Nigeria after SARS is disbanded?
To offer or suggest solutions, one would need to understand the core of the problem with SARS. As Akin highlighted in his article, Nigeria Police Force, the institution SARS reports to, is the most corrupt public institution in the West African country.
And when it comes to corruption, it tends to be political and deeply entrenched with a patronage system across different countries in Africa, Nigeria included. This is something I had a good discussion with Mama Oby Ezekwesili about as she also offered some suggestions on how corruption, which ends spreading like cancer across different public institutions, can be addressed and reversed.
There's also those suggesting that the police force and SARS be "reformed." However, as mentioned above, this suggestion needs to be dismissed previous attempts at reform have barely even taken off.
The other possibility is destruction of the Nigeria Police Force as it is currently and re-training and re-structuring the institution to serve citizens, and not assault or harass them.
Some good news out of Nigeria
Although it has been both a historic and a tense couple of weeks in Nigeria, amid all this there is some good news.
Paystack, payments and online commerce startup with headquarters in Lagos, was acquired by one of its early investors, Stripe, for over $200 million. Stripe, a Silicon Valley-based company that is a global Fintech infrastructure player, highlighted that it acquired Paystack as part of its Africa expansion plans.
This acquisition also highlights why #EndSARS is important as it stifles the potential of young people like the founders of Paystack.
Quote of the day
Criminals have gone online. Rather than follow them online, SARS remained stuck in the same methods and prefers to use profiling to victimize innocent Nigerians. (Tweet this)
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