#EndSARS: When a common cause unravelled the unusual in Nigerian youth

Fists thrown to the skies, legs akimbo. Sweat trickle from foreheads as sun rays dance off faces ripped by intangible but visibly palpable frustration. In unison their voices echoed from Lagos to Abuja, Ibadan to Ogbomosho, Abeokuta to Ado-Ekiti, Warri to Benin City, Asaba to Port Harcourt, Enugu to Awka and other parts of Nigeria.

The message was simple: it was time to end the activities of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigeria Police Force.

But it didn’t happen all of a sudden.

The beginning

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was founded in late 1992 by former police commissioner Simeon Danladi Midenda. The major reason SARS was formed was when Col. Rindam of the Nigerian Army was killed by police officers at a checkpoint in Lagos in September 1992, later leading to the arrest of three officers. When the information reached the army, soldiers were dispatched into the streets of Lagos in search of any police officer. The Nigerian police withdrew from checkpoints, security areas and other points of interest for criminals, some police officers were said to have resigned while others fled for their lives, Midenda said in a recent interview.

Due to the absence of police for two weeks, the crime rate increased and SARS was formed with only 15 officers operating in the shadows without knowledge of the army while monitoring police radio chatters. Due to the existence of an already established three anti-robbery squad which was operational at that time, Midenda needed to distinguish his squad from the already existing teams. Midenda named his team Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). After months of dialogue the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force came to an understanding and official police duties began again in Lagos. The SARS unit was officially commissioned in Lagos following a ceasefire by the army after settlement.

The unit started work. Not long after, complaints of abuse of power and firearms started trickling in. In 1996, the operatives in Lagos arrested two security guards for being suspected to have aided in a robbery. The two guards were not charged with a crime while arrested. A year later, the bodies of the guards were placed at a morgue without an explanation for their deaths.

Fast forward to October 2005, a SARS operative allegedly killed a bus driver in Obiaruku, Delta State for failing to pay the operative a bribe. The operative was removed from their SARS position and was arrested on charges of murder.

The unit grew both in strength and in number: across the country, special detention facilities were established, more operatives, specially trained, were recruited, according to the police. But this growth failed to translate to better protection for law abiding citizens but woes, sad tales and frustration.

As the cases of cultism and internet fraud surged, the unit moved its activities to higher institutions in the country but, sadly, left so much to be desired as it failed to carry out due diligence and allegedly lacked enough intelligence. In the process, many innocent youths were harassed and tagged cultists and fraudsters wrongly. Ever since, it has gotten from bad to worse and the efforts of a few good operatives have been dwarfed by the notoriety of a large number of them.

Then came the discontent

As the notoriety of the operatives grew, so did the anger of citizens who they are paid to protect. From one part of the country to the other, allegations of misuse of power abound, so much so that Amnesty International in 2010 disclosed that it would be suing the Nigeria Police. The rights organisation said it was suing the police over human rights abuses, stating that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Borokiri, Port Harcourt arrested three bike riders and detained them for over one week while being beaten every night with the butt of a gun and iron belt.

In the same year, a Federal High Court in Enugu State, ordered the then IGP Ogbonna Okechukwu Onovo to produce a SARS officer who had gunned down a 15 years-old boy in a secondary school. According to the SARS officer, the teen was mistaken for a kidnapper.

The abuse of power became so much that Nigerians lost count and resigned to fate. Many operatives allegedly committed heinous atrocities including forcing innocent citizens to part with money at gun points and it went on unabatedly.

Social media campaigns

The social media, especially Twitter has been a veritable escape for many youths in Nigeria. In the heat of SARS abuse of power, twitter provided an escape for them — a platform for complaint, expression and ventilation.

As complaints against the unit continued to trail one after the other, voices started to rise for an end not just to the heinous crimes of the unit but its total disbandment. In December 2017, Segun Awosanya, popularly known as Segalink started an advocacy campaign on Twitter with the hashtag, #EndSARS, originally created by another twitter user to compel Nigeria’s Federal Government to end the misuse of power by SARS operatives.

It gained traction as many Nigerians used the hashtag to document their experiences in the hands of the operatives. Then street protests followed in Abuja, which eventually got the backing of the 8th National Assembly which called for the scrapping of the unit. The next year, the acting President, Yemi Osinbajo announced that the unit would be overhauled. But nothing changed.

The alleged human abuses, misuse of power and other crimes allegedly committed by operatives of the unit continued.

Fast forward to October 2020. The culmination of anger and outcry against the unit by the youths of the country, especially on social media, resulted in a nationwide protest on Thursday, October 8. Led initially by musician and lawyer, Folarin Falana, popularly known as Falz and other performers like Runtown and Tiwa Savage.

“Tomorrow morning we move out for the #EndSARSprotest ! We are not out to cause trouble, but our voices must be heard! 10am we link up at the Lekki toll gate”, Falz wrote on his verified Twitter handle.

Ever since, the protest has not stopped growing as thousands of youths have trooped to the streets nationwide to make their voices heard. It has also gotten international attention as it trended on Twitter across the UK, US, Canada, South Africa and Ghana.

As the youths continued with the protest, their voice got amplified by the support of international music superstars and sports personalities.

Even after the Inspector General of Police disbanded the unit and later replaced it with a Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) unit, the protesters refused to back down because the protests “is not just about SARS, it’s about police brutality and other systemic failures in Nigeria” Paul Okoye, one of those who have joined consistently in the protest in Lagos said.

Uncommon unity

Many have described the protest as a defining moment in Nigeria’s history, as never had the youth spoken with one strong voice in the country. Before now, the political class had seen the youths as tools to be utilised for their gains, but this time, the tactics mechanised to break the voice of the youths have failed, Nnenna Joseph, who has consistently protested in Awka, Anambra state, told Nigerian Tribune.

‘Meal at protest ground better than Covid-19 palliative food’

One factor that has really been uncommon during the protest is how volunteers have emerged in almost all fields. At Lagos protest grounds, volunteers prepared and shared jolof rice Mr Okoye described as being way better than the food distributed as Covid-19 palliatives as well as the Federal Government school feeding programme. However, Nigerian Tribune could not verify the veracity of the claim.

From Lagos to Abuja, the response was the same. Free food and water and in some cases, free pain relieving drugs.

A twitter user shared a video of himself eating jollof rice at the protest ground in Lagos and asked why he would not return to continue the protest. “I don’t even have this kind of food at home”, he said.

The ensuing carnival

Gradually, the protest is turning to a carnival of sorts. Across the protests grounds, protesters played music, danced to solidarity songs and looked really happy and enthusiastic while demanding for police reform and an end to police brutality in the country.

As of the time of filing in this report, there were plans by the youths to organise a party at the popular Lekki tollgate in Lagos on Friday night and stream football matches live for football lovers.

Finding love during protest

Nigerians sure do know how to turn situations around. For Damola, Tuesday was more than a protest day. It was a day he proposed to his long time girlfriend, who happily said yes.

The pictures of his proposal went viral on Twitter prompting cheers from a lot of users. Standing close to the lover was a protester, perhaps the friend of the man, holding cardboard which read: “Na woman wey follow me protest we go propose to”.

The man was customarily on one knee as he presented the ring to the lucky lady. In one of the photos he shared on Twitter, the lover showed off her ring.

Free umbrellas and raincoats

On Tuesday, the skies opened heavily but the protesters utilised the opportunity to showcase their resilience and determination. Volunteers promptly shared umbrellas and raincoats to people who were willing to stay back and make their voices known.

Despite heavy downpour, the activists stood their grounds and continued their protest.

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