‘You can never beg your oppressor for your freedom, you have to fight for it’ – Seun Kuti
Shortly after celebrating Nigeria’s 60th year of independence, social media was flooded with calls to end police brutality by SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad).
SARS is a branch of the Nigerian Police force that was created in 1992 to tackle increasing violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping. Since its inception, SARS has been infamous for human rights violations that include torture, rape, kidnapping, and more as reported by Amnesty International (2016). Often plain-clothed and in unmarked vehicles, they’re known to target young people who appear against the grain of the conservative culture. This includes hairstyles (dreadlocks), luxury cars, tattoos and queerness.
The EndSARS movement began in 2017 but reemerged in early October 2020 after a disturbing video surfaced of SARS officers dragging two men out of a hotel and shooting one of them. Outrage quickly followed and a string of protests, attended by a majority of young people occurred, starting in Lagos and moving to surrounding cities. Protests gained international attention and Twitter was filled with testimonies about SARS encounters.
In the wake of police brutality movements like Black Lives Matter, the Nigerian diaspora helped pick up the burden and amplified the voices of those who could not do so safely. International recognition was further fueled by popular Nigerian celebrities such as WizKid and John Boyega. This was followed by major protests in London, New York and Toronto.
On 11 October 2020, the Nigerian Inspector General of Police announced that SARS had been dissolved and the officers in the unit would be redeployed. While some saw this as a victory, many were apprehensive as this was not the first time this was announced, nor had any action been taken against officers for the violations. As predicted by many, it was announced that SARS will be replaced with Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT).
Policing has and always will be a tool of colonialism that was set up to protect the interests of the British empire (Opolot, 1992). Anyone who lives in Nigeria could tell you the issues with SARS do not stop with the unit. Corruption and bribery are infested in almost all facets of the institution, so calls to reform is like putting a bandaid on a broken bone.
As a child of the diaspora, it’s comforting that people are focusing on Nigeria even though it’s not in the best light. As I scroll through the hashtags, it’s encouraging to see the anger and will of the local young people but it is disheartening to see the movement limited to disbandment or reform, especially by the diaspora and those with celebrity status. Physically removed from the land, we (the diaspora) are afforded the space to advocate for so much more.
When we take a moment to focus on queer and trans folx, its noted that they are disproportionately targeted yet there is little to no outcry. Now, with the help of social media, LGBTQ+ Nigerians are refusing to be ignored and are embodying the protest slogan “Soro Soke” (“Speak Up”). Nigerian activists such as Matthew Blaise continue to highlight the unjust treatment committed by police and protesters alike. In online and physical protests, queer folx who defy convention and openly fight against oppression are often met with abuse. In spite of this, they persevere, organise, and develop lifesaving grassroots organisations like Safe Hquse (@safehquseng), which provides temporary housing, medical care, and travel. Never forget, a movement that excludes marginalised groups is still oppression with glitter.
The movement has given Nigerians the opportunity to explore the notion of abolition and to shed the colonial remains found within its institutions. We need to dig deeper, find the root of the issues at hand. We should be asking why such policing units are needed when the duty to serve and protect is not being fulfilled. Why has violent crime increased? It’s no coincidence the percentage of poverty and youth unemployment has risen alongside it (Onapajo and Uzodike).
How do we face extreme poverty, lack of access to resources and consistent exploitation by the wealthy minority that have little reason to change the current status quo. We must push to think differently, outside the norm, to develop solutions by African people for African people.