For the past two weeks, thousands of peaceful demonstrators across Nigeria have taken to the streets to demand for an end to police brutality that has been going on for decades.
Major cities and towns were occupied by the protestors, mostly young people, many who are victims of brutality by police officers and want reform.
Police brutality is common in Nigeria. Armed police officers who move in unmarked vehicles regularly patrol the streets, profiling young people and carrying out illegal arrests. Victims are often tortured and extorted. When they refuse to pay bribes they are sometimes killed, without any sort of trial or legal process.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad [SARS]—a special police unit in the country—is the focus of the protests. Members of SARS are notorious for illegal arrests, torture, extortion, and killing of young Nigerians who they profile as criminals.
Established in 1992, the SARS mandate was to fight armed robbery, kidnapping, and other crimes. But growing complaints of torture and human rights violations have seen the unit losing credibility and public trust over the years.
Victims who survived frightening encounters with the unit have shared their ugly experiences on different platforms.
Live bullets were fired at the demonstrators during the protests by anti-riot police units and soldiers who were deployed to the streets to quell the protests which have disrupted major public and economic activities in the country. Businesses, local markets, and public buildings were shut down during the protests.
According to Amnesty International, at least 56 people have been killed by security forces since the protests started. The human rights group has been documenting cases of police brutality in Nigeria for several years, including a report released in June which showed how the police unit act with impunity.
The Catholic community and other faith-based organizations in the country are condemning growing police brutality and calling on the government to embark on reforms of the police system.
A statement from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Nigeria [CBCN] said the demonstrators are seeking justice for “extra-judicial killings, unlawful arrests, profiling of youths as criminals, the invasion of youths privacy by searching phones and laptops without any warrant or any just cause, and the incarceration of many of the youths in the SARS custody without trial.”
The government is bowing to mounting pressure to end decades of police brutality. Earlier this month, the police chief, Mohammed Adamu announced that SARS has been disbanded on the orders of President Muhammadu Buhari.
Adamu also announced that a new unit known as the Special Weapons and Tactics [SWAT] team would replace SARS. Members of the disbanded unit would be medically and psychologically examined before being redeployed to different formations across the country, according to a statement by the police chief.
“The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people,” Buhari said in a broadcast posted on his Twitter handle.
The government also says a judicial panel of inquiry would be set up to investigate police brutality, as well as a special fund to compensate families of victims.
But protestors have rejected the new unit and say the police authorities have never kept their word on disbanding SARS in previous announcements. There is growing mistrust and integrity in the police force in the country over the inability of authorities to hold officers responsible to account.
This is not the first time the police authorities have announced the banning of SARS. Between 2017-2019, the unit was disbanded and reorganized more than four times. These steps have not stopped the members of the unit from regrouping and continuing their brutal and often deadly acts.
The bishops say the new unit announced as replacement would not solve the problem of police brutality, but that a reform process of the policing system is urgently needed:
The audacity and impunity with which the SARS officials have been operating all the while is a manifestation of the failing State of Nigeria. Various bodies and patriotic Nigerians have expressed the opinion that just ending the SARS will not solve the enormous problems of Nigeria, because it is futile treating symptoms of a disease when the root cause is known.
The protests have garnered international support. Solidarity protests have been held by Nigerians abroad, specifically in cities including Berlin, London, Toronto, Paris, and Accra, among others.
A spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says he is following developments in the country and calls for an end to reported police brutality and abuses.
“He condemns the violent escalation on 20 October in Lagos which resulted in multiple deaths and caused many injuries,” part of the statement read. “He expresses his condolences to the bereaved families and wishes a speedy recovery to those injured. He calls on the Nigerian authorities to investigate these incidents and hold the perpetrators accountable…”
The statement adds that security forces should act with maximum restraint and called on authorities to de-escalate tensions.
“The United States strongly condemns incidents of military forces firing on unarmed protestors in Lagos,” stated U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo via Twitter on October 22nd. “Those involved should be held to account under the law. We extend our condolences to the victims of the violence and their families.”
Fr. Aniedi Okure of the Africa Faith and Justice Network [AFJN], a Catholic nonprofit, says the protests are a result of unchecked human rights abuses by the police force and authorities responsible.
“Nigerian police officers have a history of human rights violations and extrajudicial killings over the years,” he says. “They [police] are used by politicians to perpetuate crime and oppress the poor in the society.”
Fr. Okure says the church in the country has risen to its responsibility of speaking up against injustices and promoting human rights when abused by authorities and security officials who are meant to protect citizens.
“I have been arrested and tortured on two different occasions for committing no crime,” Peter Nwankwo, one of the victims of police brutality said. “I was asked to pay some money before I could be released. I still have scars I sustained during the torture.”
Nwankwo’s experience is not isolated and resonates among many young people in Nigeria who have been victims of illegal arrests, torture, and extortion for holding expensive phones or having tattoos.
The police, says Fr. Okure, have turned their guns on those they are supposed to protect and shield from harm. “The church came to support this [protest] because it is a moral issue that affects everyone,” he says, adding that the protest is a trigger for other systemic issues in the country such as growing unemployment and inequality, insecurity, and lack of public infrastructure across the country.”
During a recent homily, noted author and human rights activist Fr George Ehusani supported the protests, stating, “It’s a matter of joy to see that our young people are taking the struggle on. They are making sacrifices and volunteering to the movement.”
Fr Ehusani adds that “young people want to be heard; they don’t want to be victims anymore. They want to set the agenda.” He called on the authorities to seek dialogue and show restraint in the use of force against peaceful protestors who are preparing for a better society for themselves and their children.
The bishops say the government should look beyond the protests against police brutality to address other issues in the country. “We urge the Federal Government to fulfil its primary constitutional responsibility,” they remark in their recent Statement, “of securing life and property of every Nigerian and provide opportunities for our children to realise their God-given potentials.”
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