Nigerians Demand End to Police Squad Known for Brutalizing the Young

LAGOS, Nigeria — With protests breaking out across Nigeria and in expatriate Nigerian communities around the world, the country’s president vowed to a skeptical public on Monday that he would crack down on rogue police officers accused of brutalizing citizens.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s promise came a day after his government announced that it would dismantle a widely feared police unit known as SARS, for Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

“The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms,” Mr. Buhari said in a televised statement, speaking out for the first time since protests started last week. “We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct are brought to justice.”

To many, Mr. Buhari’s response was too little, too late, and they predicted it would do little to placate the angry young Nigerians who have been blocking major routes in cities across the country to protest the police unit.

One protester in Lagos, Olasunkanmi Amoo, 26, said President Buhari’s statement was a hollow promise — and he noted that the demonstrations had not come to a halt.

“We’re all still outside,” she said. “People are just very wary because you can talk all you want, but if you don’t do anything we’re still going to be here. We’re coming back tomorrow. We don’t trust him, and we don’t believe him.”

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was created in 1992 and charged with tackling the problem of violent crime in Lagos. It operated as a faceless, 15-member team that traveled in two unmarked buses, its officers often wearing neither uniforms nor name tags.

The anonymity was considered vital for taking on the gangs that openly terrorized Lagos at the time. But as the police unit grew, establishing itself throughout the country, its faceless nature opened the door to abuse, making it difficult to identify and report rogue officers and emboldening them to act with impunity, critics say.

The SARS unit has been accused of targeting young people who appear well-dressed, shaking them down for money, and torturing and abusing and even killing those who resist. Amnesty International says it documented more than 82 cases of abuse and extrajudicial killings by SARS officers from January 2017 to this May.

Many of the victims were between 18 and 35, the human rights group said. Nearly half of Nigeria’s population of 182 million population is below age 30, one of the world’s largest concentrations of young people.

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The government has claimed before that it planned to shut down the unit, but its officers are still on the streets.

“The government disbanded SARS in 2017, in 2018 and in 2019,” said Omobolanle Adams, 25, a Nigerian graduate student at Boston University. “We’re not buying it this time.”

Protesters say they won’t be satisfied until the president issues an executive order and until clear action is taken not just to disband SARS but to address broader problems with the police. Their demands include psychological evaluations for reassigned SARS officers, and compensation for victims of police violence. They are also pushing for better pay for police officers to reduce the financial exploitation of citizens.

Protesters are also demanding the release of those arrested at the recent demonstrations, and a requirement that the police use only rubber bullets during civil unrest.

The protests broke out in major Nigerian cities, including Lagos and the capital, Abuja, and the outrage quickly spread online.

The #EndSARS hashtag on Twitter soon garnered global attention, resonating particularly in the United States, birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Nigerian protests have been embraced by top American stars like Chance the Rapper and Cardi B.

Demonstrations in shows of solidarity have been held across the Nigerian diaspora in cities like Atlanta, Berlin and London. In New York on Sunday, young protesters gathered in front of the Nigerian Consulate General in Midtown to share their own stories of police brutality while in Nigeria and to demand action from the Nigerian government.

“The youth in Nigeria are tired,” said Ms. Adams, 25, the Boston University graduate student, who helped organize the event with other activists she met on Twitter.

She pointed to the harsh crackdowns on the protesters in Nigeria.

“People are being tear-gassed,” she said. “People are being shot dead. We’re here today to amplify Nigerians’ voices. The time is now.”

The protests that began over the last week were set off by reports that a young man in Delta State, in southern Nigeria, had been killed during a stop-and-search operation on Oct. 3. The police have said that SARS officers were not involved.

As the protests over the killing grew, demonstrators faced increasingly violent crackdowns from security forces.

One person, Jimoh Isiaq, was killed in the demonstrations in Oyo State on Saturday, and an unidentified bystander was killed in Lagos on Monday, as the police fired bullets into crowds of protesters, witnesses said. Protesters and journalists have also been shot at and beaten in Abuja. And dozens more have been arrested and remain in custody.

The demonstrations have been the biggest in Nigeria in recent years, rivaling protests in 2012 over fuel-price increases during President Goodluck Jonathan’s tenure.

Worn down by weak governments and corrupt leadership for decades, and divided along religious, ethnic and class lines, Nigerians do not often join in mass protests.

But since last week, protesters of varying economic status and religion have taken to the streets to voice their demands. Top Nigerian celebrities like the pop stars Wizkid, Davido and Tiwa Savage have attended rallies in big cities. And the protests have bridged generational divides as older people briefly joined the demonstrations this weekend.

Shola Lawal reported from Lagos and Adenike Olanrewaju from New York.

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