More than 10,000 people took to the streets of Lagos, Nigeria, this Saturday in a new protest against police violence in the most populous country in Africa.
The demonstrations have been repeated for more than a week, with the initial target being the Special Anti-Theft Squad (SARS), a police unit created in 1992 to combat cases of theft and other violent crimes, but which is rightly accused of extortion, torture and murder.
The last straw that culminated in the acts was a video released on social media on October 3, in which SARS agents remove two men from a hotel in the city of Lagos and shoot one of them. Nigerians started to share on social networks stories of abuses committed by agents of the unit and to use the hashtag “#EndSARS”, which went viral around the world. In the following days, thousands of people took to the streets of the country.
On social media, the movement received support from several celebrities, such as English football player Marcus Rashford, Nigerian singer Wizkid and more recently rapper Kanye West. And it wasn’t just the streets of Nigeria that were occupied. According to the New York Times, there were also demonstrations in Berlin, London, New York and Atlanta.
– Although not everyone has been affected by SARS, almost everyone [na Nigéria] knows someone who was – says Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International in Nigeria. – The fact that SARS was allowed to remain active for so long had a physical and mental cost to people.
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According to a report published in June by Amnesty International itself, between January 2017 and May 2020 there were at least 82 cases of violence against Nigerians, including torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial killings committed by SARS. According to the organization, the main targets are young people between 18 and 35 years old, usually of low income.
On many occasions, the unit’s agents circulate without identification, justifying it as a way of not attracting the attention of criminals. At the same time, an approached Nigerian has no way of knowing whether those people are, in fact, policemen. Also according to Amnesty, young people with dreads, torn pants, tattoos and expensive accessories are also part of the “profile” of SARS victims.
The response to the protests came on October 11, with the government’s announcement that the unit would be dissolved. The next day, President Muhammadu Buhari promised that the accused agents would be investigated for his actions.
“We will ensure that all those responsible for misconduct are brought to justice,” said Buhari.
But in a country where police corruption goes far beyond a single unit – despite being the most criticized – that was not enough. Nigerians maintained daily protests.
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The population’s revolt is still fueled by the country’s economic situation: according to August data from the National Statistics Office, the unemployment rate is 27%, the highest in the decade, with youth unemployment reaching 34%. This is in a population where more than half are under 30 years old.
And despite peaceful protests and promises of improvements by the government, violence in Nigeria continued. According to Amnesty International, at least ten people were killed and hundreds were injured during the demonstrations. According to Human Rights Watch, dozens were arrested. Police have also used tear gas and water cannons to disperse protesters.
This only increased the demands of the population: they demand that these deaths be investigated in a transparent manner and that all prisoners in the acts be released.
In addition, Nigerians are calling for broader reform: they want compensation for everyone who has been harmed in some way by SARS, for agents identified for misconduct to be investigated, for that investigation to be conducted by an independent, impartial and transparent group that the police are accountable for their performance and changes in the corporation, and salary increases for agents.
– It is not that people do not complain, it is not that the police involved have not been identified by the victims. It’s just that there is no longer any expectation that these human rights violations will be brought to justice – says Amnesty International’s Ojigho.
Even with the government apparently yielding to the population’s appeals, some new developments may inflate the country’s situation.
In addition to the government having banned mass protests in the capital Abuja, using justification as an attempt to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, the Army issued a statement saying it was ready to intervene and restore order in the country.
“The Nigerian Army is ready to fully support civil authority in any capacity to maintain law and order and to deal with any situation in a decisive manner,” says the text.
In response, protesters marched to Parliament and singing crowds also blocked roads and waved flags and banners in the Lagos shopping center, where there were reports of clashes with unidentified gunmen.
– I am very concerned that the Army has spoken out on a matter that concerns civilians – points out the director of Amnesty in Nigeria. – Having the Army do police work can increase violence. I think the Army should assist and not intervene because there is no state of emergency. This has not been stated. It is a case where people are exercising their rights to freedom of expression.