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Military personnel move toward people standing along a blocked road in Ikeja, as Nigeria's Lagos state remains under curfew, on Oct. 23, 2020.AFOLABI SOTUNDE/Reuters

Tens of thousands of Nigerians have been demonstrating for weeks against a notoriously brutal and corrupt police agency, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad – a show of popular anger, fuelled by long-standing grievances over corruption and lack of accountability, that posed the biggest challenge to the government in years.

Here are the basics of what is behind the protests and what they could mean for Nigeria, which at 206 million people is Africa’s most populous country, its largest oil producer and an epicentre of the continent’s economic, political and cultural trends.

What is SARS?

Commonly known as SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad was created in 1984 in response to an epidemic of violent crime including robberies, carjackings and kidnappings. While it was credited with having reduced brazen lawlessness in its initial years, the police unit was later accused of evolving into the same problem it had been designed to stop: a criminal enterprise that acts with impunity.

In June, Amnesty International issued a report that it said had documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions by SARS officers between January, 2017, and May, 2020. The victims, Amnesty said, were predominantly men aged 18 to 25, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups. The Nigerian government’s failure to address this problem, Amnesty said, showed “an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”

The critics include Fulani Kwajafa, the former police commissioner who founded SARS. In an interview with the BBC, he disavowed what it had become, saying the unit had been “turned into banditry.”

Why did anti-SARS demonstrations erupt in recent weeks?

The catalyst seemed to be an Oct. 3 video that appeared to show the unprovoked killing of a man by black-clad SARS officers in Ughelli, a town in southern Delta state. Nigerian officials said the video, which was widely shared over social media, was fake and arrested the person who took it – inciting even more anger.

Demonstrations erupted in Lagos, the country’s biggest city, and elsewhere around the country, driven by calls from people – many of them young – demanding that the government dismantle SARS.

The decentralized movement has coalesced on social media, where people are using the hashtag #EndSARS and sharing images of police brutality. The hashtag has spread internationally, with prominent actors and sports figures from across Africa to Europe and the United States sharing the posts.

Has the government done anything to address the anger over SARS?

President Muhammadu Buhari, seeing that the protests were serious and spreading, agreed Oct. 12 to disband SARS, calling his decision “only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people.”

But the response did not mollify protesters – especially after Mr. Buhari’s subordinates said SARS officers would be redeployed elsewhere in Nigeria’s police system. People who have been demanding that officers be fired and that the most brutal among them be prosecuted say that the government’s is an attempt to paper over a problem, not to fix it.

What other issues are fuelling the protests?

The anger of the protesters seems to have only increased – especially after the deadly suppression of a peaceful demonstration in Lagos on Oct. 20, compounded by a 24-hour curfew decree and the deployment of Nigeria’s military forces to quell further demonstrations.

The powerful role in the protests played by young Nigerians and their use of social media to share grievances could turn the movement into a much broader challenge for the government. Half the country’s population is younger than 19.

“The protests have started to morph into a much larger critique about Nigeria, everything from police reform to security to extrajudicial killings,” said Judd Devermont, director of the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Fuelled by young people and an outspoken Nigerian diaspora, Mr. Devermont said, the movement had become “a platform to talk about a host of challenges.”

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