On 4 October 2020, footage surfaced on social media showing officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) dragging two unarmed men from a hotel in Ughelli Delta state and shooting one dead outside. That very day, a 2017 hashtag #EndSARS was revived and began trending on social media. Thus began 13 days of youth revolt that shook Nigeria.
SARS was a special police unit established in 1992 to respond to armed robbery and other violent crimes which spiked particularly in Lagos after the regular police withdrew from the streets following the killing of a soldier, Colonel Ezra Dindam Rimdan, at a police checkpoint in September 1992. As angry soldiers went berserk seeking vengeance, many police officers resigned while others fled for their lives leaving the streets unprotected.
It was this chaos that gave birth to SARS. Founded by CP Simeon Danladi Midenda, the unit initially operated as a covert force and was seemingly successful in its attempts to tackle crime. As time went on, however, SARS began to operate with complete impunity, with officers regularly accused of egregious abuse.
In a report, Time to End Impunity, Amnesty International accused SARS of ‘systemic human rights violations’ in at least 82 documented cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution between January 2017 and May 2020. Horrific brutalities were regularly supervised by high-ranking officers, the report claimed.
Strikingly, the UK government has admitted that it i spent millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money to train and equip SARS from 2016 to 2020 – the same period covered by the report – making the British government vicariously complicit in the serial torture, extra-judicial killings and abuses committed by the unit.
The protests started in Lagos, a city of 20 million, and within days spread to over 20 cities and towns across Nigeria. Determined young people, angry at decades of police brutality and resentful towards the country’s out-of-touch leaders protested in their thousands.
Decentralised, leaderless, and organic, the protests were the most organised and powerful expression yet of Nigeria’s huge youth population. Women played a crucial role throughout the protests. Most notable, perhaps, was the role of the ‘Feminist Coalition’, consisting of about 14 young women from a variety of backgrounds who deployed digital platforms to mobilise funds and design strategies to support protesters across the country.
At its height, they raised about $393,700 including through Bitcoin to avoid the state using its control of the financial system to cut funds from the movement. They played a pivotal role in sustaining the movement.
Kamsi Ibeh was one of them. ‘When I saw the footage of another brutality committed by SARS, anger welled inside me … I felt I had to do something,’ she reflects. She would spend the next 13 days organising the protest at the Lekki tollgate – the venue of one of the most horrific incidents of state-sanctioned murder in the history of Nigeria.
A wasted generation
The #EndSARS protest was both a specific reaction to police brutality and an outlet for wider fury at the way the country is being run. With a median age of 18, more than half of Nigeria’s population is under 30 years of age. While 27.1 percent of the workforce is unemployed, 40.8 percent of young people aged 15-24 and 30.8 percent of 25–34 years are out of work.
The movement reflected young people’s deep-seated anger at years of extreme inequality, unemployment, and the failure of President Buhari to transform hope into reality since he came to power in 2015. The regime’s promises, all of which have gone largely unfulfilled, ranged from plans to end graft by ensuring political officeholders publicly declare their assets, ban medical tourism, generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity, end insecurity, and create 3 million jobs per annum.
The leaders of Nigeria’s trade union movement were also targeted for their inaction as economic conditions generally deteriorated. It was ultimately of little surprise that the youth uprising emerged within days of the Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC) suspending a planned general strike due to commence on 28 September 2020.
While SARS has been disbanded, new units such have picked up the baton and police brutality remains a common issue
Initially protesters called for the dissolution of SARS and police reform. After over one week of protests, precisely on 11 October 2020, the government complied and announced the dissolution of SARS. But this had no effect on protesters who said similar announcements had failed to materialise.
As the protests intensified with new demands for good governance and an end to elite corruption emerging, the regime panicked. First, bands of thugs armed with guns, machetes, and other weapons were sent after protesters in Lagos and Abuja. When these failed, the state turned towards the army.
According to Amnesty International, at least twelve peaceful protesters were killed after the army fired on peaceful protesters holding the Nigerian flag and singing the national anthem. The army initially denied involvement in the shooting but later stated that it had deployed soldiers to Lekki tollgate on the orders of the governor of Lagos State. Yet they maintained that they only fired blanks. The Federal government called it a ‘massacre without bodies’.
After a year of examining petitions, cross-examinations, and visits to the crime scene, the judicial panel of inquiry set up in the aftermath of the killings, found the army culpable in the massacre and made recommendations for restitution. Two years later, protestors are still seeking justice.
While SARS has been disbanded, new units such as the Intelligence Response Team, have picked up the baton and police brutality remains a common issue. The recent downfall of Abba Kyari after he was implicated in a $1.1 million scam involving the notorious Nigerian internet fraudster Ramon Abbas has once again highlight that the police and other security operatives remain deeply corrupt and in need of reform.
In the immediate aftermath of the protests, many of the organizers fled the country. Others went into hiding as rumours spread of a shadowy group attacking activists and anyone who offered support to the protest. Kamsi was not so lucky. On 21 November 2021, at around 9 pm, as she walked home she was assaulted by three men armed with a pocket knife and club.
‘They jumped out of nowhere, pulled me, and shone a torch on my face shouting “Is this not the #EndSARS girl?”‘ The attackers beat her to a pulp and left her for dead in the dirt.
Two years later, Kamsi and other survivors are still struggling to pick up the pieces of their lives. She still hears the voice of her assailants in her head and wakes up on some nights covered in sweat. But when asked if she regretted participating in the protest, she strikes a defiant tone: ‘I will do it again if given the chance.’