It all started sometime in December, 2017 when Segun Awosanya (Sega), a Nigerian entrepreneur initiated an online campaign on his Twitter account to end one of Nigeria’s most brutal police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) known for human rights abuses and brutality against citizens. Segun’s campaign went viral with citizens calling for the scrapping or reform of the unit.
Incidents and personal experiences of the unit’s brutality to innocent citizens and its lawlessness were shared by hundreds of victims, some with video and picture evidences, online.
An online petition for the abolition of SARS garnered more that 50,000 signatures, backed up with a written petition submitted to the Nigerian senate demanding for the scrapping of the SARS unit in 2017.
The hash tag #EndSars soon grossed millions of impressions and reached over one million Twitter users in days. A few days later, physical protest accompanied the complaints. Citizens took to the streets nationwide and demanded an overhaul of the SARS unit by the government.
Amnesty International Reports Indicts SARS
In 2016, Amnesty International released a report indicting SARS of torturing and demanding bribes from victims.
The organisation said it spoke with different individuals who had been subjected to horrific torture methods, including hanging, starvation, beatings, shootings and mock executions, at the hands of “corrupt officers from the feared SARS”.
“A police unit created to protect the people has instead become a danger to society, torturing its victims with complete impunity while fomenting a toxic climate of fear and corruption,” said Damian Ugwu, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher.
“Our research has uncovered a pattern of ruthless human rights violations where victims are arrested and tortured until they either make a ‘confession’ or pay officers a bribe to be released.
“SARS officers are getting rich through their brutality. In Nigeria, it seems that torture is a lucrative business.”
Amnesty International said it received reports from lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists, and collected testimonies stating that some police officers in SARS regularly demanded bribes, stole and extorted money from criminal suspects and their families.
Amnesty explained that SARS detainees are held in a variety of locations, including a grim detention centre in Abuja known as the ‘Abattoir’, where it found 130 detainees living in overcrowded cells.
The group narrated a case in Onitsha, Anambra state, where a 25-year-old fuel attendant was arrested by SARS after his employer had accused him of being responsible for a burglary at their business premises.
History of SARS
In 1992, a commissioner of police, now retired, Simeon Danladi Midenda initiated, under the then Inspector General of Police, Mike Okiro, the formation of the special anti-robbery squad (SARS) unit to combat robbery related crimes across the country. Years later, his brainchild will soon become the a horror for the citizens it was created to protect.
Criminality Associated With Officers of SARS
SARS officers have been regularly reported of involving in criminal activities against the citizens. Victims have narrated several incidences of clear armed robbery initiated by men clothed in SARS uniforms. There have also been reports of brutality and lawlessness including extra judicial executions of suspects leveled against the SARS unit. SARS, has however, denied these allegations, dismissing them as fabricated stories to indict its operations.
Politicization of the #EndSARS Campaign
In some states of the country, the #EndSARS campaign became a political score point for opposing political parties. In Rivers state, one of the oil rich states of the Niger Delta region, the campaign became an open battle between the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and the ALL Progressive Congress (APC). This political face-off led to counter campaigns in support of SARS allegedly sponsored by politicians close to the unit’s top ranking officers.
Presidency Orders Overhaul of SARS
After months of relentless campaigns, the Nigerian government on the 14th of August, 2018 ordered for the overhaul of the management and activities of SARS. In a statement signed by the Vice president, Prof Yemi Osinbajo, the government ordered the Inspector-General of Police to ensure that any system that emerges afterwards is intelligence driven and should be restricted to combating armed robbery and its related crimes only.
The IGP will ensure that any Unit that emerges from the process will be intelligence-driven and restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping, and apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences, and nothing more. pic.twitter.com/0rg4OhXYmR
— Prof Yemi Osinbajo (@ProfOsinbajo) August 14, 2018
The order has serves as a relief for many Nigerians and attracted several reactions from Nigerians online.
Don’t get it twisted. Whether it is “Overhaul” of SARS or a unit emerging from SARS that will be focused strictly on armed robbery and kidnapping, SARS as we currently know it is dead. That’s why we are celebrating. #EndSARS
— Dr. Joe Abah (@DrJoeAbah) August 14, 2018
Many praised the initiator of the campaign, Segun for remaining steadfast.
I commend @ProfOsinbajo for responding to Nigerians’ clamour over SARS, however, I don’t believe an overhaul is what is required. You shouldn’t overhaul what has become a vehicle for oppressing Nigerians. I call on the VP to #EndSARS and return its officers to core police duties
— Reno Omokri (@renoomokri) August 14, 2018
— Amnesty Int. Nigeria (@AmnestyNigeria) August 14, 2018
Segun’s efforts paid off with this order. Another proof that online campaigns can bring real change to the vital issues affecting the society if followed by with physical actions. Segun is being celebrated as hero on the Nigerian Twitter sphere.
For just one day, please leave all the “Yes, but…” and celebrate the efforts of @segalink and others that fought hard, sometimes at great personal risk, to #EndSARS. We have other issues, there’s more work ahead, bla bla bla. We know. We just want to celebrate today. Thank you
— Dr. Joe Abah (@DrJoeAbah) August 14, 2018