Photo by Tobi Oshinnaike on Unsplash

Greater than SARS

As #EndSARS protests enter their second month, Nigerians and diasporic Africans see that the police force is a symptom of greater corruption.

For roughly two decades, the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), a police force created in 1992, has been synonymous with extrajudicial killings and corruption manifesting as violence and harassment.

The Nigerian government stated in 1992 that SARS would combat robbery and other violent crimes, including those committed by other police, but critics of SARS say it has become a part of the corrupt system it was created to regulate. Several cases of extortion, bribery and abuse of power have been documented and gone viral in recent years. 

Last month, in a scene that has become commonplace around the globe this year, tens of thousands of Nigerian protesters began occupying public spaces throughout the West African nation, demanding their government disband SARS.

SARS has been seen harassing or physically assaulting people who carry high-value items like iPhones and digital cameras.

In 2019, Nigerian journalist Kofi Bartels tweeted that he was beaten by three SARS officers after attempting to film them harassing someone else.

“It has affected my life so much that I’m not safe even in my own country as a youth,” said Chima Uwakwe, who has been participating in demonstrations in Port Harcourt, the capital city of Nigeria’s River State. “I can’t dress properly because looking too good is an offense to SARS, using an iPhone is like carrying a gun.”

Protests have continued for over a month. While promises from the government to disband SARS have been made, citizens are persisting for material changes and demand broad reform in a government that millions of Nigerians in the country and throughout the diaspora say does not serve their interests. 

“To me, it isn’t just about ending SARS or police brutality,” Uwakwe said. “It is about changing the government and its wicked acts. We want a better Nigeria with good foods, good roads, lights, security…We are tired and don’t want to continue with the bad government.”

The alleged “wicked acts” include hoarding of resources that would improve Nigerian quality of life. Viral videos show anti-SARS demonstrators distributing caches of food hoarded in warehouses throughout the country. The caches have been identified as COVID-19 relief; and Nigerian’s say these resources have not been provided to them in a reasonable fashion. Reports from BBC and Reuters corroborate these claims.

SARS has not been stripped of its power, meeting peaceful protesters with fatal violence since the early days of the protests in October. 

“I have a cousin that lives in Lagos,” said Nigerian-British media personality Joy Monene. “She’s seen some terrible things. She stated how she saw literal dead bodies on the floor and it’s really shaken her.”

Monene, who was born in the UK and been to Nigeria multiple times, keeps in contact with her Nigerian-dwelling family members and follows national affairs in the country, where her mother was born. Several of her platforms cover Nigerian athletes and feature a tangible pride in her heritage. 

Monene has experienced corruption and profiling from Nigerian authorities first-hand.

“My realest encounter was when I was walking around with my aunt,” she recalls. “We got stopped and the first comment was about our dressing….once I spoke and they heard my accent they eased off but kidnappings are really common.” 

“Because of my British accent, they may have automatically assumed that I’m really well off so (they) could hold me for ransom…if it wasn’t for my accent and us calling my uncle I don’t know what would have happened. I know of too many kidnapping stories.”

Earlier this year, without anticipating these specific protests in opposition to SARS,  Monene told her audience on Instagram live that she did think conditions could improve in The Giant of Africa, but that “many people must be willing to die” to bring about that change.

“The current system needs to be scrapped and remodeled from the bottom up,” she said when asked about this remark. “Unfortunately, because of the state Nigeria is in, lives would be lost and RIP to all the innocent brave souls who died for the cause. Their deaths will not be in vain…I genuinely didn’t know it would happen this soon.”

In fear and desperation, as SARS continues to brutalize and kill Nigerian citizens, some have called for foreign nations, such as the United States and those of the European Union to intervene. 

Monene does not think such intervention would bring about lasting change.

“I understand why people may want to seek help from outside of the country/ continent but…they have never helped us,” she said matter-of-factly. “Colonialism and imperialism is what brought us in this mess in the first place. So looking towards the same countries who are still profiting off that is a wrong turn.”

She continued, calling for Nigerians to realize the power they have if unified and the abundance of resources within their own borders–the ability to address their own problem without intervention from Western nations.

“Nigeria is not a poor country, it’s ridiculously rich however the people are poor because all the money is at the top. It’s just greed,” she said. “In terms of accountability we are definitely looking to our government because they are the ones in charge. Once we do what we need to do, we can then look towards the Western countries as there’s unfinished business there.”

The virality of the SARS protests–mainly by way of the #EndSARS hashtag–has made it a diasporic affair. Black celebrities, activists and journalists around the globe have helped spread awareness, collect donations and mobilize protesters on and off the continent in solidarity.  

Uwakwe, Monene and many of these global organizers believe any lasting change must be created by these coalitions. 

“(Speak in) one voice,”  Uwakwe said of Nigerian protesters and Black voices in the Diaspora. “The louder we can get the better the world can hear us.”