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Understanding the #EndSARS Movement

Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona

What does Anti-SARS mean? 

What led to these protests? 

Why should I care?

These are all valid questions, and anyone with a presence on social media these days has likely asked themselves at least one, however briefly. With issues of such magnitude, key information such as context and principle players can get buried and lead to the spread of misinformation and apathy. While this article will not exhaustively detail the demonstrations which have rocked Nigeria this past month, it will provide tools and food for thought necessary for developing a better understanding of this critical movement. 

Today, West Africa’s nation the Federal Republic of Nigeria is the most populous country on the continent and seventh most populous country in the world. According to the UN, 60% of that population is under the age of 24. Since the 1990s, Nigeria has been in the process of transitioning to a democratic government and shifting away from an economy rooted in petroleum, one of its greatest natural resources. Mismanagement and governmental corruption has long troubled the fragile growth and continues to stymie Nigeria’s emergence as a significant player on the international field beyond the realm of crude oil exports.

Protests began on the 7th of this month, the 60th anniversary of Nigerian independence, to peacefully stand up against rampant police violence and discrimination sparked after a video surfaced depicting a young man being murdered by Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officers. Organized primarily through social media, demonstrations began with a focus on a special forces group of the titular #EndSARS which abounded as the movement gained traction. The protesters’ aims have since evolved from demanding justice be served to offending officers and ending SARS to include broader governmental reform and definitive action against police brutality, a dominant motif in 2020. 

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad task force is recognized across Nigeria for peculiar brutality and human rights violations. Amnesty International investigations have reported over 80 documented cases  of torture, neglect, and extra-judicial executions perpetrated by SARS in officers’ official capacities between January 2017 and May 2020. This report, Time to End Impunity, goes into gruesome detail of the methods of torture, extortion, wrongful imprisonment, and denial of medical care.

Why since 2017, you may ask? That was the year Nigeria passed the Anti-Torture Act passed in response to a 2016 Amnesty International Report as part of assurances from the Nigerian government reform would take place. Before 2017, SARS habitually committed human rights violations defined by international law. After 2017, SARS flagrantly violated its own governing body and citizenship. Young and non-conservative Nigerians are disproportionately affected by the unit created in 1992, ostensibly, to combat violent crime. Incited to action, young Nigerians organized, and in mere days forced President Muhammadu Buhari to terminate the unit on October 11th. However, with proof that they could enforce change and skeptical of their government’s long term commitment, protestors pushed for more. 

Not all was peaceful. Unrest led to looting and violence, possibly from opportunistic outsiders, which threatened the grassroots organization’s legitimacy in the view of international onlookers. Then, on the 20th Amnesty International confirmed soldiers tragically shot and killed at least 12 protestors and injured several more in Lagos and Alausa. Security camera footage was sabotaged to obscure the identities of involved officers, and the army denies the allegations made against it only proving the movement was right to continue their fight. 

The protestors refuse to designate clear leadership in a bid against one voice superseding the wishes of the Nigerian youth as a whole. Tacitly, a group by the name of the Feminist Coalition took on an organizational role. Significant donations across Nigeria and abroad have funneled through FC, but in a statement on Twitter the group expressed they would no longer be accepting donations. Funds accrued before this point will be put to good use further supporting demonstrators, legal defense, and medical aid to the affected.

While momentum continues, it is unclear how efforts will proceed. President Buhari’s address on the 22nd rung tone-deaf and disconnected from his nation’s plight, his promises dubious. This is not the first time SARS has been disbanded but the fourth. As tensions rise between the young and old, religious majorities, and ethnic groups throughout the nation, unity and good-faith discourse is vital to sustainable change

Even without the competition of a global pandemic, news enjoys a narrow window in the spotlight. What #EndSARS has accomplished is not to be minimized, and their efforts are far from over. It is critical as global citizens to refuse to allow issues of police brutality and wantonly corrupt governance across the world to escape accountability. With the #BlackLivesMatter protests indelible fresh mark on US politics, we especially have a duty to stand with Nigeria. 

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