The #EndSARS (End Special Anti-Robbery Squad) protests in Nigeria are a call for massive reforms not only in the police institution but also the wider security sector that involves counter-terrorism.
If there is an African country that should understand the relationship between heavy-handed responses by law enforcement and the escalation of violence, it is Nigeria. The country is yet to grasp how extortion, torture and extra-judicial killings continue to produce a cycle of violence.
For decades, the police body responsible for protecting citizens from these acts has been the chief offender. This sparked recent nationwide protests against a police-led Special Anti-Robbery Squad – commonly known as SARS.
The protests are motivated by the need for accountable and responsible policing, as well as an overhaul of the security sector. Days of demonstrations led to an initial disbandment of SARS by the Inspector General of Police. Despite this, atrocities by the banned police unit persisted and some citizens died in the process.
Counter-terrorism in Nigeria suffers from the same problem that plagues policing. Extrajudicial killings of civilians with impunity by security forces are among the factors that misguided the country into a decade-long counter-insurgency against Boko Haram.
The first leader of the group, Mohammed Yusuf, died in police custody. The brutal crackdown by the military that followed led to thousands of legal cases related to violent extremism which the criminal justice system is still processing.
Despite disproportionate budgetary allocations to the security sector, counter-insurgency operations had limited success. Analysts consistently point to conflict entrepreneurs as one explanation.
The #EndSARS protests come on the heels of similar incidents across the continent and globally, with agitations against police excesses. Institute for Security Studies (ISS) analysis of police abuses in South Africa during the COVID-19 lockdown and George Floyd’s death in the US are sober reminders. Beyond police reform, these protests should seek accountability for offending security agents implicated in illegal and criminal actions.
Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari has previously unjustifiably labelled youth as lazy. The #EndSARS demonstration tells a different story. Young people are front-liners of the ongoing campaign on social media and the streets.
They demonstrate leadership in a way that challenges the mainstream vertical structure of power. Resourceful young medical practitioners, lawyers, freelance media start-ups and food vendors offer free services to protesters and injured. Voices of influence in the music and movie industries amplify the demonstrations which spread across several countries in Europe and North America.
The Buhari administration cannot afford to ignore citizens’ calls for accountability in the security sector. The courage to admit failure to ensure reform is as essential as the political will to take urgent steps. A press release on the dissolution of SARS by the Inspector General of Police is simply a cosmetic change.
Deep-seated structural problems in the security sector require an assertive intervention by Nigeria’s leaders. This is not the first time reform has been attempted and in a sense, SARS is a virus that adapted itself over the years.
Fortunately, a template exists to start the revamp – the Nigeria Police Act 2020. It is clear on human rights concerns, community police forums, rule of law and oversight matters, among others. However, reform shouldn’t stop here. Structures should be set up to investigate illegal activities of SARS and other security entities, with a view to prosecuting individuals where necessary.
Security sector agencies should recognise the #EndSARS campaign is not aimed at defending civilians only. Lives of thousands of police and military personnel were lost fighting street crime in cities, or in the forests of Sambisa in battles against Boko Haram. Security force personnel are also victims of a system that discredits them and the campaign can serve their interests. Using heavy-handed tactics against protesting civilians is counter-productive.
Nigerians, particularly youth, have been pushed to the edge. This explains why the prevailing character of the ongoing protests transcends ethno-religious boundaries. Citizens should persist with demonstrations – the time is right and shouldn’t be wasted.
But they shouldn’t stop at the #EndSARS protests. Demands should include urgent government attention to armed banditry and most importantly, the Boko Haram crisis. The nationwide campaign should be re-articulated to include these concerns.
The current period is symbolic in more ways than one. October is when Nigeria commemorates independence from colonial rule. What better way to honour the rightful demands of citizens who stood by the country despite 60 years of challenges?
Written by Akinola Olojo, Senior Researcher, Lake Chad Basin, ISS Dakar.