Susan Emem remembers the time she encountered Nigeria’s feared Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) one year ago.
She and seven other friends were heading home after a night out in Enugu, in southeast Nigeria.
“We were coming from Extreme Lounge, a bar,” she said.
“They dragged us out of the taxi we were in and said they were going to charge us for being dressed liked prostitutes. They shot into the air several times to scare us and shut us up as we tried to argue.”
Susan related the incident in a voice tinged with anger.
“My friend, the only man among us, tried to reason with one of the officers but the officer hit him hard with the end of his gun. This was when we realised that things had gone out of hand,” she said.
Susan and her friends were flung into the back of a van by four SARS operatives and taken to a police station at New Haven where they were eventually thrown into a cell.
“The SARS officers took our phones and personal belongings,” Susan recalls.
“They said if we did not cooperate they’d kill us and no one would find out.
“I needed to pee at some point, so one of the officers took me to a corner and watched me pull my clothes to pee. I felt violated and when I voiced this, he shouted at me, claiming that he had ‘seen worse’.”
She said the officers demanded for 80,000 naira ($215) for their release initially but later settled for 40,000 ($108).
Forty thousand naira is an enormous amount of money considering a significant percentage of entry-level salaries in Nigeria are between 40,000 to 80,000 naira.
“They let us go the following day. We were treated like we were animals, I felt so dehumanised.”
Extortion and unlawful arrests
SARS is a branch of the Nigerian police under the criminal investigating department (CID).
The CID is the highest investigating arm of the Nigerian police force.
Many states in Nigeria had a special force tackling violent crimes like kidnapping and armed robbery.
SARS developed from these different forces and now has a nationwide decree under Nigeria’s federal police force to confront violent crimes such as armed robbery, kidnapping and communal clashes.
The report uncovered detention facilities across the country including Abuja, Enugu and Anambra, where victims are tortured and forced to confess to crimes they did not commit.
The Nigerian Bureau of Statistics (NBS) released a report in August 2017 which found that Nigeria’s police officers were the most likely of all civil servants to solicit and collect bribes.
Social activism and SARS
Nigerian social media has recently been flooded with stories of indiscriminate arrests, torture and even murder by SARS operatives.
For over a week now, the hashtag #ENDSARS has been trending on social media.
It started on December 1 with a Twitter user who shared tales of woe in the hands of SARS officers.
Thousands of Nigerians, in reply to the thread, began sharing their own similar experiences and called on the federal government to scrap the police unit.
The content of the replies varied from stories of assault and illicit arrests to death threats and videos showing officers shooting at civilians.
In response to the SARS uproar on social media, Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, said that Nigerians had had enough of the unit and reached the breaking point.
She said it was not enough to have conversations around restructuring SARS.
“The #ENDSARS hashtag is rightly gaining the attention of the police and Nigerian government and now officials must do more to end these horrendous abuses of power,” Ojigho said.
“Amnesty International highlighted such abuses more than a year ago and yet these shocking incidents still continue. Restructuring SARS is not enough, the government must take concrete steps to protect Nigerians.”
SARS problem ‘non-existent’
The police have dismissed many of the allegations against its officers as “non-existent”.
“SARS is doing well. They are structured to combat violent crimes and are doing well in that regard,” Chike Oti, public relations officer at Lagos state police, told Al Jazeera.
“The allegations are so much I wonder why people who have suffered such did not make formal complaints. It is not true that the police does not reply to complaints. To the best of my knowledge, we have a feedback mechanism.”
Jimoh Moshood, SARS headquarters press relations officer, made a similar statement regarding the uproar around SARS on social media, saying that the hashtag #ENDSARS was generated through misconceptions.
“The Special Anti-Robbery Squad have been doing very well in fighting violent crimes in the county in recent times and this has resulted in a reduction of violent crimes nationwide,” he said in defence of SARS officers.
Displaying body piercings and dreadlocks or owning a flashy car or a smartphone may be considered possible reasons by SARS for suspecting possible criminality.
Haneef, a resident of Ilorin in Kwara, North Central Nigeria, said he got stopped once by SARS officers.
“They stopped me around Post Office Roundabout and asked why I was driving a good car,” Haneef, who did not want to disclose his full name, told Al Jazeera.
“I was with my friend that day and we explained to them that the car belonged to my father but they already concluded that we were into fraud.
“They said they did not believe my father could afford the car. They beat up my friend and forced a ‘confession’ out of him. We also had to part with 50,000 naira ($133) before they let us go.
As a young Nigerian I have never felt at ease with any kind of policeman
Judging by the response and body language of the police force, they are clearly still in denial about the scale of this problem.
A lot of Nigerians are not surprised at SARS’ tepid response to the complaints because the country’s police force usually reacts to public uproar by pretending it does not exist.
Tolu Daniel, a victim of SARS mistreatment, told Al Jazeera he would be scared to call the police if he ever got robbed for fear of being brutalised.
“As a young Nigerian,I have never felt at ease with any kind of policeman,” he said.
For those at the receiving end of SARS ill-treatment, they wish for the police unit to be restructured and more accommodating towards human rights. They also hope the officers found extorting money and mishandling citizens to be punished according to the law and made accountable for their actions.