SARS Is Nothing New In Nigeria’s History Of Police Brutality

“A power hungry class of army arrangements
Stealing money in my country’s plight
A soldier pretending to be a politician” (Nneka, Singer)

It is becoming apparent that the troubles in certain parts of the world are no longer a “They” problem but an “Us” problem. Just for clarification I’m not talking about the SARS pandemic but equally the parasitical issue of policing that has devastated my country of birth, Nigeria. SARS stands for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad made up of police officers and plain clothed “officials” that have garnered a reputation for not protecting its citizens but instead taking on performative action that has resulted in the abuse of power and distrust of Nigerians since 1992. This past Thursday as protests gained momentum on the streets of 21 states in Nigeria, at least 10 people are already dead alongside unjust imprisonments (thankfully these people have now been freed). From this alone, I knew that the cries of my people needed to be heard by the world because black lives matter, everywhere.

As a Nigerian immigrant living in the UK I can also retell my experience with the police. As a 6 year-old travelling with my father from the village of Ibadan to the city of Lagos, I too remember an incident when we were stopped by police or “officials” on the motorway. My dad driving speedy but controlled, not unusual for anyone looking to beat Lagos traffic, had no reason to be stopped. But he was and I only remember how terrified my younger sister and I felt when my father was asked to get out of his car and then beaten by five officers. Moreover, the shame he must have felt to have his two young daughters watch him be brutalised must still be heavy today. 

4 Reasons SARS Is Deeper Than Just Police Brutality  

1, SARS Was Never Sustainable 

SARS was started in 1992 as a solution to mitigate the increasing trend of armed robbers. But between 1991 and 1992 at least 7 innocent people were killed including Colonel Israel Rindam, by police. If a knight can die by his own sword then clearly there is a bigger issue. This set a precedent for the task-unit known as SARS to begin their reputation of being above the law even though they enforce it.

Additionally, the number of times people in police authority have asked for bribes could suggest that the funding by the government were not enough to pay decent wages. However I believe that the Inherent corruption in law enforcement is more at play which should not justify the abuse of innocent civilians. According to Amnesty International SARS has committed offences including extrajudicial killings mounting a heaping 82 cases that have violated human rights. This brings me to my second point.

2, SARS Is Disruptive

The ongoing pattern of abuse perpetrated by the police and judicial system may stem from Nigeria’s military history which has done nothing but shape a country into fear and distrust despite our patriotic sentiments. The fact that at least 7 of our previous presidents have all been in the military says a lot about the systems that have been forcefully or strategically implemented into Nigeria’s politics or Psyche. The 5th and 12th President of Nigeria, Olusegun Obasonjo, set a date in 1976 to end Nigerias military rule yet it officially ended in 1999. The aftermath of 16 years of military rule could be a reason as to why police gained the mentality to rampage unlawfully.

3, SARS’s Fear-mongering Tactics Causes Trauma

Typical encounters with the police involve the ‘stop and search’ routine which then proceeds to asking for valuables like phones and money, with any refusal leading to arrests or violence. The trauma: Imagine being acutely aware that a situation could escalate between life and death, if you can’t be easily extorted? And of course, with the ongoing rape crisis in Nigeria the number of women who face sexual harassment in these scenarios is heightened. When fear is normalised on a day-to-day basis, as you go to school, work or run errands, something strange happens, boundaries become blurred and bad memories become meshed into a hazy mess.

Once again if the people who are meant to enforce the law have to be pacified before performing their moral civic duties, then there is a major state-of-emergency in the benefit-driven cost of the security services in Nigeria. The solution to which is a much-needed reform.

Image Credit: BellaNaija

4, SARS‘s Systemic Bias

Just like everywhere else in the world where stereotypes of black people give reason for frequent suspicion, the same thing is happening in a country where race is less of a problem and instead class. There are numerous accounts of young Nigerian men being stopped simply because they have dreadlocks or tattoos which the SARS officers conflate with fraudulent or criminal behaviour. How can a natural hairstyle be deemed to have criminal associations? In 2019 a man named Kolade Johnson was shot dead as he tried to escape a SARS ambush at a bar where he was watching a football match. 

SARS’s initial mission was to target armed robbery but that seems to have derailed into the tired search for online fraudsters or “Yahoo boys”, meaning that Innocent young men become easy targets. One of the early founders Fulani Kwajafa feels that the original mission of SARS has been “turned into banditry”. Though plans to create SARS timelines as far back as 1984, Kwajafa says that his intentions were to ensure “no incident with members of the public” when he was in charge.

My dad was lucky, with a swollen lip and chipped tooth, to have gotten away so easily because the officers upon ignoring my father’s initial pleas finally accepted his documents. This was proof that he was a vehicle clearance officer at the Nigerian port (and the car was procured legally!). Call it God or a miracle because the other alternative could have resulted in my father getting shot and killed that day. On the painfully quiet drive back to Lagos I pondered If ’bribe money’ would have deescalated the situation. Asking my father if he was ok when he clearly wasn’t, I also ruminated on why such a terrible thing would happen and tarnish our fun family trip. Upon moving to the UK, my younger sister just recently told me how she had anxiety over the British police which unfortunately stemmed from the tragic experience we had in Nigeria. 

I believe that a system that has manifested into a culture frequently associated with violence, extortion and abuse isn’t sustainable, it’s simply good old-fashioned terrorism in new uniform. Most pressing is how SARS has affected the youth as they have been the most targeted due to dated biases and ignorance. The protests show that the youth have a right to speak up, that they matter and should not be silenced, because enough is enough. The youth of Nigeria are the future. #ENDSARS

Since writing this article SARS has officially been disbanded thanks to the public protests, national and global support. The work that Nigeria has ahead to reform the police and security services continues.

What do you think?



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