Soro Soke: a Yoruba word meaing “Speak Up!”
On October 8, a video of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officers dragging two men from a hotel in Lagos and shooting one of them in the streets sparked protests across major cities in Nigeria, including Lagos and the capital, Abuja.
The New York Times Shola Lawal and Adenike Olanrewaju wrote “worn down by weak governments and corrupt leadership for decades, and divided along religious, ethnic and class lines, Nigerians do not often join in mass protests.”
When the people of Nigeria had a common enemy to fight that was affecting all of them at the same rate, they came together to make a difference. All around us we have seen the importance of quantity, they are coming out together as Nigerians and humans to end police brutality.
Formed in 1992, SARS’s goal was to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes. The unit spread around the country starting as a faceless 15-member team that traveled in two unmarked buses, and often did not wear name tags or uniforms.
Anonymity was considered vital for taking on gangs that terrorized Lagos at the time, but as they grew, opportunities for abuse and misconduct opened up.
SARS officers have been accused of widespread human rights abuses: extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention, extortion and more. Many feel they have intentionally profiled and targeted, especially young people with tattoos, dreadlocks and visible possessions such as phones and laptops. Nigeria has one of the world’s largest concentrations of young people, with a population of 182 million that is below the age of 30.
“If SARS see you as a young person who is successful with a nice car, they will harass you and extort money from you,” Chinyrlugo, Nigerian citizen, explained, on Twitter. Chinyrlugo posted the video that sparked protest, of the young man killed at the hands of SARS officers in Delta state.
On October 3, the day the video of SARS officers killing the young man was posted, authorities claimed the video was fake and arrested the man who made it, which incited more anger. On top of protesting, Nigerians are using social media to spread the cause and add more pressure to the issue.
Protesters shamed correspondents and other public figures on social media into advocating about the issue. Now people with no Nigerian ties are also talking about it: there have been solidarity protests in cities around the world such as London, Atlanta, Berlin, Washington, Toronto and more.
As of Friday, October 16, there were nearly 3.3 million tweets with 744,000 retweets of posts containing the #EndSARS hashtag. On October 14, the CEO of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, tweeted, asking for donations to the protesters. Two days later he tweeted a new Twitter emoji, showing a raised fist in the colors of the Nigerian flag, designed especially for the cause.
Protests are mostly led by young people and a lot of activists, the older generations have also joined them on the streets in solidarity.
“My focus is making sure people in these large gatherings don’t get dehydrated, I’m always ensuring that water is on the ground, that glucose is available, as well as food [and] masks so that people will wear them to shield against coronavirus,” said Irianele Virtuous, a 22-year-old helping organize and fundraise the movement.
In response to the protest, the government said they would abolish SARS as of October 11 and have replaced them with a new special weapons and tactics unit (SWAT) who will also be responsible for holding authorities accountable.
“This is why we protest; this is why we march. We want total disbandment; we need actionable changes. We have given them our five demands, once it’s done, we’ll get off the streets. Until then, I’ll keep bringing people out here to protest,” said Seun Gbadamosi, a 23-year old protester.
President Muhammadu Buhari has said “the disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms,” and justice will be served by holding the wrongdoers accountable. The governor of Lagos, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, promised: “appropriate actions will be taken, and speedily too.”
Regardless, some protestors are skeptical and believe these to be hollow promises.
“We’re all still outside. People are just very wary because you can talk all you want, but if you don’t do anything we’re still going to be here. We’re coming back tomorrow. We don’t trust [President Buhari], and we don’t believe him,” said Olasunkanmi Amoo, 26.
Announcements were not enough for protesters and they pledged to stay on the streets till their demands were met. The reason being there have been other attempts to end injustice but never to the extent needed. “They did this rebranding in 2018, changing from SARS to F-SARS yet nothing about the officers changed. They have continued harassing us,” said Gbadamosi.
“The government disbanded SARS in 2017, in 2018 and in 2019. We’re not buying it this time,” said Omobolanle Adams, another protester.
Protestors have specific demands: immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all victims of brutality and appropriate compensation to their families, independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all report of police misconduct, psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be deployed and increase in police salary so they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of citizens.
“We are not backing down for anything until our five demands are met, every single one of them. Once these are met, we’ll relax, then we’ll reassemble again to face other sectors,” said Virtuous.
The Nigerian constitution and international human rights law guarantees the right to peaceful protest, yet there have been more than 56 people killed and dozens injured. Police have shot tear gas, water cannon and live rounds, killing people in hopes to disperse protesters.
“People exercising their right to protest and calling for an end to police brutality are themselves being brutalized and harassed by those who should protect them,” said Anietie Ewang, Nigeria researcher at Human Rights Watch
All around the world we have seen the youth step forward to bring about change. Determined to end SARS and give justice to the citizens of Nigeria, the Nigerian youth are showing up and speaking out.
“I am really proud of this movement and I believe we’re making progress,” said Baliqees Salaudeen, a prominent female activist.
Right here in the United States and Carrboro, we have seen the youth come together to protest for the countless innocent black lives lost at the hands of police officers. Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a big movement and we are seeing the differences it is making.
“The protest was great. It’s a good feeling to see all the people who believe in the same change you do. [The protests] were definitely successful,” said Julian Taylor, a Carrboro High School student who attended the BLM protest this summer. He also added, while EndSARS is unique to Nigeria “the fights against police abuse and racism are both global movements.”
Likewise, EndSARS seems to be getting enough attention from big names around the world (Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj plus more) and Nigerian celebrities who are known worldwide (Burna Boy, Davido, Wizkid and more). Change feels like it’s right around the corner.