It was supposed to fight rampant armed robbery in Nigeria, but SARS stands accused of human rights abuses.
Abuja, Nigeria – On October 11, Angela Christian was in a throng of more than 200 people marching to Louis Edet Building, the police headquarters in the Nigerian capital, Abuja, when the protesters came face-to-face with a roadblock of water cannon and police.
It was the 24-year-old’s second protest – the first was against sexual violence back in June – and here she was again, on a Sunday blighted with heat, holding a haphazardly cut carton inked with “END SARS” to protest against police brutality.
The same words – calling out Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) – echoed through the crowd; protesters chanted it even when blasts of high-pressure water from the cannon hit them. Brought to her knees, Christian’s mind told her things could get worse but, inspired by those around her, she raised a defiant fist.
“I was scared for myself because I also heard the police firing warning shots and using tear gas,” she said. “The police tried to disperse us because we were growing in number. We were peaceful and yet they attacked us just after it was announced that SARS has been dissolved.”
Three days after protests began on October 8 – a chain reaction after a video on Twitter showed SARS officers driving away after shooting a young man and leaving his body by the roadside – the police chief announced the dissolution of the unit. But this is the fourth time since 2017 the government has promised to disband or reform SARS.
Set up in 1992 to tackle armed robbery, car theft and kidnapping, SARS has become a widely-loathed police unit, notorious for unlawful arrests, extortion, brutality and carrying out extrajudicial killings. In 2017, the #EndSARS social media campaign began. But the unrest has reached a flashpoint over the last two weeks, triggered by continued acts of police brutality.
“We will never stop protesting until SARS are no more and the police is reformed,” Christian said.
That same sentiment can be felt in Lagos, where youth-led demonstrations have crippled vehicular movement and turned the Lekki toll gate – where several protesters were shot and killed on Tuesday – into a nexus of rebellion.
“I have been at two protests in Lagos but the one in Surulere is still in my memory because we were attacked by state-sponsored thugs,” said Kazeem Balogun, a 21-year-old university undergraduate. “They arrived in mass transit buses and some of us were beaten and wounded and the police around did nothing to help us.”
“This is now more than SARS because the Nigerian youth are fed up with the way this country has been running. Overpaid politicians, lack of security and social amenities. We want change.”
Reform vs abolition
While many Nigerians are prioritising police reforms in their laundry list of citizen demands, the concept of police abolition is also gaining support. But it has yet to break into mainstream political discourse.
“Abolition is a lifelong project. There’s never a better time than now to start, but we must never forget that we are in this for the long haul,” said OluTimehin Adegbeye, a Nigerian feminist and speaker observing the protests online who is also new to the framework of abolition.
“In my learning, I have come to realise that abolition means transforming not only policing, prison or the justice system, but also interpersonal relationships and how we think about punishment as a whole. It requires a complete shift in how we are in community with each other,” she said.
“The only way to seed this kind of thinking in public consciousness is to do so extremely deliberately, through political education and with understanding that it will take generations to take root.”
SARS is not the only concern for protesters out in the streets. The Nigerian Police Force has a grim record of unlawful killings and violence. This includes killing at least 18 people during their enforcement of COVID-19 lockdown measures and the use of water cannon and tear gas on peaceful #EndSARS protesters like Christian.
In disbanding SARS, Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police Mohammed Adamu announced a new tactical team (SWAT) would replace the now-defunct unit. But SWAT, like SARS, is still skewed towards operating within militarised paradigms of policing.
“Functionally, the Nigerian police currently plays a limited role as an institution,” said Ayo Sogunro, a Nigerian human rights lawyer and writer observing the protests from South Africa. He explained that issues like community security and traffic control are managed by other entities, which means the police only really operate in the sphere of violent crimes. “The entire fabric of our criminal justice system is wrapped around the use of the police as an agent of violence rather than as an impartial arbiter of the law.”
Sogunro is of the opinion the idea of a police institution, or even a police state, is deeply embedded in Nigeria’s national psyche – an outcome of its colonial and military history. As such, it is hard to see police abolition as a popular demand among Nigerians in the near future.
“But, indeed, the #EndSARS protest is opening up a space for this kind of conversation,” Sogunro added. “The important thing is that Nigerians are no longer thinking of police operations as immutable facts that cannot be contested by public opinion. Now that more are beginning to shine a spotlight on the internal affairs and external fallout of policing in Nigeria, then there’s a slight – but present – possibility that the whole structure of our criminal justice system, especially policing, will be called into scrutiny and a new, more humane form of providing human security will gain gradual acceptance.”
Violence on two fronts
“I believe that liberation is not possible in Nigeria without the abolition of the police, because police forces were essential to the disempowerment of Nigerian citizens,” said Damola Aluko, a Nigerian feminist based in Washington, DC.
“Throughout colonisation, to ensure that Nigerians were labouring for the benefit of British colonisers, police forces were created to force Nigerians to work in agriculture, mining and other forms of hard labour. These colonial police forces were extremely harsh. They killed and maimed thousands if not millions of Nigerians. They terrorised our ancestors in order to maintain the status quo and to stifle growth and development of our people.
“Today, that legacy carries on in how SARS terrorises Nigerians. Though SARS is not working as an entity of the British empire, it is a vestige of the British empire colonial regime. Ending SARS brings Nigeria closer to breaking the chains of colonisation.”
At the core of the #EndSARS movement is the Feminist Coalition, a group of Nigerian feminists fundraising to provide medical relief, logistics, security, and legal aid for detained protesters and other resources to sustain protests across the country. In some parts of Lagos, sleeping tents were provided for protesters staying overnight, food was distributed, and protesters who went missing were found quickly with their intervention. This model has drawn admiration from Nigerians and international observers, but it is also a stark reminder that women are fighting violence on double fronts: interpersonally and from the state.
Calls for police reforms will not diminish the harm the state still poses to marginalised communities of women, like sex workers and queer women, who are already criminalised, feminists argue. Obstruction to reproductive justice will not change. And while the police have been largely ineffective in facilitating justice for victims of rape and sexual assault, sometimes perpetuating these violations themselves, reforms cannot outgrow the punitive principles the state abides by – imprisonment for perpetrators, a slippery slope that exacerbates mass imprisonment.
The harm done to them is only resolved through a criminal justice lens, which does not stop it from happening again. “There are many things I consider very logical to push for as a feminist paradigm; abolition is only one of them,” said Adegbeye. “The Nigerian feminist space is however very occupied with navigating and surviving oppressive systems, rather than dismantling or abolishing them.
“We should also remember that feminism is still very much a taboo ideology in Nigeria, despite the immense progress that young feminists have made in propagating our ideas in digital spaces. We have only begun to make inroads into something as simple as holding rapists and sexual predators accountable for the violence that they perpetuate,” she added.
“We will get to abolition, I’m sure, especially given that this way of thinking is being embraced by the most influential civil rights movement in the English-speaking world, the Movement for Black Lives. But the Nigerian feminist movement simply isn’t anywhere close to that point yet.”
It takes a community
Some say the alternative to over-policing lies in community repair, in confronting insidious orientations that can lead to harm. It is about fostering community accountability or intervening when harm or wrongdoing is perpetuated, as was seen when a gay Nigerian woman was ostracised from protest grounds, and a man tweeted saying he would not let it happen again.
“It takes the work of the entire community to keep people safe,” not just the police, said Panthera Odum, a Nigerian scholar based in the US. “When this power is concentrated in one place or group of people, it will get inevitably abused. Investing in proper mental healthcare and a social safety net for all individuals is the most crucial start. People resort to crime because of poverty and unresolved personal traumas.”
He cited an example from South Africa, where parents and grandparents have formed groups to escort children in their townships to and from school, as a way to keep them safe from violence and kidnappings. “Organising watch groups like this cultivates a sense of accountability between oneself and the greater community.”
Alternatives to police are already part of how we live – we only need the imagination and the courage to stop believing that we need to outsource safety or justice to people in uniform.
“Police abolition is a process of decolonisation, literally and figuratively,” Odum said. “By getting rid of the police, we are rejecting the colonial notion that we as Africans are savage people who require harsh punishment and abuse to get ourselves ‘in line’. It is moving away from individualistic philosophies that exacerbate violence and crime, and moving towards holistic ideologies that emphasise the importance of community effort in public safety.”
It is “not productive” to talk about alternatives to the police in abstract, Adegbeye argued. “Policing as it exists today is the result of the capitalist colonial project, so we must approach abolition knowing that it requires us to rethink not only policing but our entire social-economic order. What is our relationship with private property? How do we (re)define crime, and what is the role of economic disenfranchisement in creating what we understand as criminality? What does justice really look like?
“Most of us navigate the vast majority of our lives without any police involvement whatsoever. We already know how to live without police; most of us still choose to mediate violence in community rather than going to this institution. This practice exists, for good or for ill, and it proves that abolition isn’t as unrealistic a goal as people might initially think it to be,” she said.
However, the vested political interests in policing in Nigeria make it difficult to centre abolition in the debate. Young Nigerians protesting in the streets are only just realising the power of organising and how it all could translate into political gains.
Kazeem Balogun is undecided about police abolition, mostly because he feels he needs to read more about the concept. He has seen how the Feminist Coalition has shown alternative possible futures for Nigeria where things can work with minimal interference from the police. But for now, he is charging ahead with the immediate task of protesting against police brutality. “The curfew imposed in Lagos will give us some time to energise and restrategise,” he said. “There are speculations that the government might shut down the internet and you know what? We will be out on the streets again.”
“Abolition is a futuristic project since it requires us to reorganise entire societies,” Adegbeye concluded. “At the same time, we vastly overestimate the value of police to us in our current reality. These two truths exist simultaneously.
“What that says to me is that the alternatives to police are already part of how we live – we only need the imagination and the courage to stop believing that we need to outsource safety or justice to people in uniform.”