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Nigeria: What is SARS and why are people protesting against police?

Samuel Osborne
·3-min read
Nigerian protesters in the streets of Alausa Ikeja after the authorities declared an open-ended lockdown in Lagos (Benson Ibeabuchi /AFP via Getty Images)
Nigerian protesters in the streets of Alausa Ikeja after the authorities declared an open-ended lockdown in Lagos (Benson Ibeabuchi /AFP via Getty Images)

Several people taking part in demonstrations against police brutality in Nigeria have reportedly been shot dead in Lagos.

Witnesses told Reuters soldiers had fired bullets and at least two people had been shot. Amnesty International said there was "credible but disturbing evidence" security forces in the country’s biggest city had fatally shot protesters.

Lagos state Governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu said one person had died at hospital from blunt force trauma to the head, but that it was unclear if he had been a protester.

Lagos was under a round-the-clock curfew on Wednesday enforced by police roadblocks, as smoke rose from a flashpoint area in Nigeria's biggest city where soldiers shot at protesters the previous evening, witnesses said.

Protests began two weeks ago after a video was circulated showing a man apparently being beaten by police officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, known as SARS.

What is SARS?

The SARS was a special branch of the Nigerian Police Force created in 1992 to deal with crimes associated with robbery and firearms.

However, the group quickly became controversial for its links to extrajudicial killings, torture and other illegal activities.

Amnesty International has reported cases of unlawful killings and police brutality allegedly carried out by the group for years.

In June 2020, it released a report suggesting SARS officers continued to commit human rights violations, including at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial execution between January 2017 and May 2020.

Amnesty said the report “reveals a pattern of abuse of power by SARS officers and the consistent failure by the Nigerian authorities to bring perpetrators to justice. It highlights the deficiencies in Nigerian police accountability that contribute to, and exacerbate, these violations.”

What is the #EndSARS movement?

After the video was widely shared, thousands of young protesters have marched in cities across Nigeria with banners reading: “#EndSARS."

The government responded by announcing it would ban the anti-robbery squad on 11 October.

However, the demonstrators have not been satisfied with the announcement and are demanding an end to abuses and respect for human rights in all parts of the Nigerian police force.

Amnesty International has blamed Nigeria’s security forces for at least 10 deaths during the protests.

It has also accused the police and military of using excessive force against demonstrators.

Protests have stopped traffic in Lagos, the capital Abuja and many other large cities throughout Nigeria.

Who has spoken out against SARS and the shootings?

Responding to the reports of shootings, US presidential candidate Joe Biden said: “I urge President [Muhammadu] Buhari and the Nigerian military to cease the violent crackdown on protesters in Nigeria, which has already resulted in several deaths.

“My heart goes out to all those who have lost a loved one in the violence. The United States must stand with Nigerians who are peacefully demonstrating for police reform and seeking an end to corruption in their democracy."

Similarly, the former US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called Mr Buhari and the army to "stop killing young #EndSARS protesters".

Rihanna has said her “heart is broken for Nigeria”.

“I can’t bear to see this torture and brutalisation that is continuing to affect nations across our planet,” she said in a post on social media.

Beyonce has also spoken out in favour of the #EndSARS movement.

A statement from the singer on the Twitter feed of her charitable foundation, BeyGood, said: "I am heartbroken to see the senseless brutality taking place in Nigeria. There has be to be an end to SARS.

Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage, who worked with Beyonce on her visual album Black is King, had called on the star and her team to use their voices to raise awareness about the situation.