The fact that police brutality is not a problem that is confined within the borders of western countries, is a fact that most Africans living on the continent have always been aware of.
Over the last few days, widespread protests have been taking place in Nigeria, as the nation’s youth – described as lazy by the sitting president – take to the streets of major cities, demanding an end to the controversial SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) police unit in Africa’s most populous nation. The nationwide protests, backed by a rising social media clamour, seem to have spread increasing awareness about police brutality in Nigeria, as well as the continued abuse of power by police officers across the country. Some of the crimes that the Nigerian youth have accused the police of include harassment, sexual violence, and even murder.
Happening at the same time, when women across Namibia are protesting against gender-based violence at the hands of fellow citizens that include (but aren’t limited to) the police, the protests are seen by many as a spark that could ignite a much larger flame across the continent, if demands are not met.
SARS was initially founded in 1992 to target armed robberies and other violent crimes, which is why SARS officers are seldom in police uniform, and are usually heavily armed. Over time, however, it has become known for targeting mostly young people in Nigeria. Some reports have shown that SARS officers often prey on people who carry laptops, have tattoos, or locs, all of which are allegedly signs of fraudulent and illegal activities.
Recent protests against the police unit have drawn the attention of big news outlets and social media platforms (inside and outside of Nigeria) to the efforts of the Nigerian youth, with celebrities inside and outside of the country lending their voice to the issue. General information about what is happening in Nigeria is widely available at moment, and the first step towards meaningful change is the raising of awareness and the spreading of information.
In the midst of this fast-changing situation, we wanted to centre the voices and experiences of every day Nigerians, without edits, and without filter, which is why we asked some of our friends, family, and community members to share their experiences with SARS. Thankfully, most of the people we spoke to have not been seriously harmed, but while a random bag or phone search may not seem ‘that bad’ from an outsiders’ perspective, we would like you to read the testimonies below in the context in which they happen: in a country where situations can escalate in no time, and where young people are continuously targeted for absolutely nothing. These incidents do not happen in isolation but in continuation, and, in the words of a Lagos-based screenwriter we spoke to, Nigerians ‘are tired’.
Women’s Experiences with SARS:
‘I was being harassed by a man when I was serving. I met with a SARS official because he was close to the scene and I narrated everything that happened. He asked me to bring 50k (Naira) and when I refuted, he said if I couldn’t pay I can sleep with him so he can arrest the guy. Long story short, he met with the man and was settled (bribed) and then let the man go.’
‘I always get stopped when they’re unsure of my gender (I mostly dress androgynously) but they let me go when they realise I’m a woman. Men usually don’t get that lucky.’
‘[I] have been intimidated by their unnecessary line of questioning when stopped. They are known to be ruthless and always have guns with them so you must watch how you speak with them.
Every time I’ve been stopped, they’ve asked for money, drivers license, tint permit and car registration details. Which is ridiculous because it is not part of their mandate. The Road Safety ans Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIO) do this already.
Driving at night is scary. I’ve been stopped by drunk officers asking for money and documents. With a drunk most likely illiterate officer drunk on power you never know what can happen. I’ve seen them harass people too, mostly young men. They are always stationed close to where I live. I make sure to call my brothers to give them a heads up and ask them to delay their return home.
The level of insecurity in the country is astronomical so I don’t understand why exactly this unit exists and what they are doing. I have NEVER heard or seen in the news a story where SARS prevented crime of helped a victim. Never!’
‘It’s heart-wrenching to talk about how unsafe I feel as a Nigerian woman in my own country. I go out with friends for drinks and on my way home, the so called people meant to protect us stop me on my way home to search my phone and bags and threaten me. I was lucky enough to not be harmed but we see names everyday trending on young people who weren’t so lucky. I live in constant fear of what might happen. They are not protecting us, they are harassing and killing us. Enough is enough.’
‘It was in the night when my friends and I were in an Uber and we were stopped and accused wrongly for what I didn’t even have an idea of.Guns were pointed at us and phones were seized even our footwear. We were harassed and me being a girl it was worse. No access to call our people and we were even told to write what they told us in our statements.’
A screenwriter based in Lagos shares his SARS experience(s):
‘The special anti-robbery squad (SARS) of the Nigerian police force were meant to be a unit that responds to armed crimes and acts of cultism. This unit of bandits are usually armed and not required to account for their bullets on the assumption that they are dealing with armed criminals and may need to be in shoot outs from time to time. SARS have misused this privilege, and they threaten innocent citizens with their weapons, threatening to kill them if they don’t cooperate […] and in a lot of cases, they follow through with that threat with no consequences. They label [their victims] robbers and it’s swept under the rug.
They profile young Nigerians according to the cars they drive, the hairstyles they have on, the quality of clothes [they wear] and the type of gadgets in their possession, labelling them Internet fraudsters for daring to have a standard of living better than theirs (N.B: The economic and financial crimes commission – EFCC are the appropriate authorities for combatting cyber crime).
I’m a freelance screenwriter and that means I work mostly from home and rarely have a reason to go out, this has saved me because I had plaited hair then (I have locs now), pierced ears and two wrist tattoos (thankfully quite hidden) and these are all the SARS need to see to label you an Internet fraudster [and thus harass, arrest, or even kill] you.
My first (and only) real encounter with SARS was when I got a full time job with a media company and had to go out daily, I was living in constant fear of encountering them because my office was in Marina, Lagos island and they had a “check point” there.
I had just loced my hair and wanted to take a motorbike ride to a friend’s office that was also in Marina, Lagos. They promptly stopped my bike and ushered me to their parked (unlicensed) bus where I saw a victim already seated in.
I already knew who they were and was determined to make sure I wasn’t rough handled, so I immediately became friendly with the man, calmly told him what I did for a living, pointed at my office building and kept telling him politely that I had no money and was actually on my way to lunch with a friend [who] was going to pay.
The moment of decision came when the man [who stopped me, let me know] that it was up to his “boss” to let me go. When the boss was done drilling the victim in the bus (I was standing by the bus), he turned to me and asked for my phone. I knew if I gave them my personal phone, I would be in trouble for daring to know and have white people on my phone, and whatever silly things they may see to label me a fraudster in addition to my looks. I had to […] give them my work phone that was relatively empty and had strictly work stuff – my Alibi was complete and I was let go after having to repeat yet again that I was broke and going for free lunch. They only really let me go because they quickly caught yet another victim on another bike.
It is worthy of note that not every Nigerian youth is always that lucky. Not every Nigerian youth gets a chance to prove that they are not fraudsters to SARS. Not every Nigerian youth doesn’t […] get rough handled, beaten, bullied and taken to an ATM to withdraw most of their balance (Yes, they make you open your bank apps on your phone and they check how much money you have.)
Again, I have truly been lucky, but it’s majorly because I’ve almost always had the luxury of staying in my house, away from the streets riddled with SARS operatives.’
‘The government has lost its most powerful weapon – fear.’ – Essien