EndSARS as Pathway to Restructure Nigeria

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Vanessa Obioha predicts that the success of the EndSARS campaign may bolster the stringent calls by different ethnic groups agitating for separate entities or, at least, to restructure the country

The escalating number of protests that happened in many parts of the country the past week, condemning the long-standing brutality meted out by the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS) of the Nigerian Police Force on citizens and placing Nigeria in global focus in the past week finally came to a headway on Sunday.

The Inspector-General of Police Mohammed Adamu made a live broadcast to announce the dissolution of the special police unit.

“The Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police Force otherwise known as SARS is hereby dissolved in all the 36 State Police Commands and the Federal Capital Territory.”

A statement by the Public Relations Officer of the force DCP Frank Mba was released to further confirm that the special unit force which sparked criticisms and outcry in the country and even across the pond, has been officially disbanded.

Since last week when the protest began, scores of encounters by victims dominated social media with accompanying pictures and videos as evidence of the widespread harassment and torture by the special unit.

The continual outcry attracted celebrities in the music and film industry, to speak against the indiscriminate actions carried out by the special force unit against the masses. Although there have been claims that a few celebrities leveraged on the protests to gain widespread recognition. However, what is more, intriguing is the confidence — and in some cases pressure — on these celebrities to lead the revolution that Nigerian youths have been clamouring for in a long while.

Agitations against FSARS is not a new thing in the country. It began in 2017 when a group of Nigerian human rights defenders and activists launched the #EndSARS campaign, in protest of the violations of human rights by the unit. By August 2018, the federal government ordered the unit to be reformed and high ranking officers appointed to supervise the actions of the squad. The only visible reform to the agitation was adding the federal label to the unit. However, this is the first time the movement’s resolute stance is yielding results, even if there are a few who felt absorbing the same officers accused of extra-judicial killings into the system is still ineffective.

The renewed protest against the police unit was spurred by the shooting of a young individual reportedly in front of a hotel in Ughelli, Delta State.

Sparking outrage, young Nigerians took to social media to condemn the act and share their ordeal. They also dragged influential music artistes to fight their cause like the musician Naira Marley who initially planned a protest but called it off after he met with the police. His decision to back out of the protest did not bode well with some of his fans popularly known as Marlians.

Notwithstanding, other artistes like Falz led the protests and it was only a matter of time before the number of artistes involved increased, including Burna Boy who earlier had stayed silent on the issue.

Apart from these artistes, Nollywood stars and even children of prominent Nigerians like the daughters of the President and Vice President, Zahra Buhari-Indimi and Kiki Osinbajo respectively, threw their weight behind the movement.

SARS was established in 1992 to identify and combat the alarming rate of armed robbery incidents in the country at the time. It gained notoriety in the 2010s when operatives abused their power to extort, torture and discriminate the poor masses.

A report by Amnesty International last June estimated the number of abuse cases by SARS operatives between 2017 and 2019 to be 82.

“Findings from our research indicate that few cases are investigated and hardly any officers are brought to justice on account of torture and other ill-treatment. In a few instances where cases became public knowledge, the police authorities usually promised investigations. However, no investigation or prosecution of perpetrators took place in any of the cases documented in this report, ” noted the global movement.

A major criticism of SARS is its attack on youths. Often, young Nigerians were harassed by operatives for their appearance. In their quest to arrest cyber fraudsters known in local parlance as ‘Yahoo Boys’, the special police unit profiled youths who wear dreadlocks, carry laptop bags and dress flamboyantly as suspects of cyber fraud. The constant harassment of innocent people was frowned upon by many youths who felt their freedom of expression were greatly tampered with. Thus, the memes of people changing their outlooks to avoid the ire of SARS are ubiquitous.

Before the termination of the unit on Sunday, youths marched the streets to protest their rights and amplify their voices on social media. Their voices reverberated on that medium and spread across the world such that leaders couldn’t look the other way. From London to New York to Canada, campaigns were organised and prominent international celebrities like John Boyega, Trey Songs went their voices to the cause. Although President Muhammadu Buhari pleaded with the people to be calm and give the police time to address the situation, activists and protesters wouldn’t be swayed. They maintained their stance, using social media to resonate their #EndSARS campaign. Therefore, it was no surprise that the protesters didn’t heave a sigh after the disbandment of the SARS by the IGP. Artistes like Davido tweeted “we want an executive order, a legislative action and a judicial panel of enquiry set up to prosecute those rogues. Nothing more, nothing less!”

His sentiments were echoed by other artistes like Teni the Entertainer, and even clergyman Apostle Johnson Suleman who in his Tweet said that the disbandment of the unit by IGP is not enough and an executive order is needed to that effect.

Author and political commentator Reno Omokri in his observation urged Nigerians not to be carried away by the IG’s announcement as it is not the first time such statements have been made. He attached a screenshot of a BBC report that showed a similar statement made by Adamu on January 21, 2019.

In London, where music superstar Wizkid led a protest and broke the news of the disbandment, the protesters received the news with excitement and chanted “Buhari must go!”. While the protests were peaceful in some places, violence was experienced in other places.

In Ogbomoso, Osun state, hoodlums hijacked the protests to attack the Minister of Youths and Sports, Sunday Dare alongside the Soun of Ogbomoso, Oba Oladunni Oyewumi. The two men were stoned on Sunday during a meeting at the monarch’s palace.

“Hoodlums, thugs and (sic) miscreants disrupted stakeholders meeting in Soun’s palace now-invading, stoning and breaking doors, glasses. Soun, myself and council chiefs were scurried into safety by the police and DSS. Ogbomoso youth are law-abiding. But hoodlums have taken over,” the Minister tweeted.

Monday morning saw more protests in parts of the country, including Lagos where protesters caused traffic gridlock on the Lekki Expressway. The protesters insist that the President should address the nation and corrupt offices should be investigated and brought to the book.

At the inauguration of the Presidential Youth Empowerment Scheme, Buhari disclosed that the dissolution of the FSARS was the beginning of his regime’s elaborate plan towards extensive police reforms. The president also said he had ordered a probe into the killing of a young man in Oyo State during the recent protests.

“We will also ensure that all those responsible for the misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice,” he said, adding that the few bad eggs in the police force should not be allowed to tarnish the image and reputation of the force.

Police brutality is not peculiar to Nigeria. In America, this year has witnessed a surge in protest against the police force, particularly following the unjust killings of George Floyd in May and Breonna Taylor in March. All over the cities of America, protesters stormed the streets demanding for the defunding of the police force. Likewise in Nigeria, the call for an executive order to cement the dissolution of the squad is growing louder.

But SARS is just one aspect of a multifaceted problem. The police in Nigeria is notorious for blatant extortion of the masses. It is a common sight to see the men in black in daylight demanding bribes from commercial motorists along major roads unabashed. They have developed a thick skin such that when citizens mutter abuses or express disgust at their putrefaction, they hardly feel an itch. Their souls have become as dark as the colour of their uniforms. Not even the new blue shirt could make their souls as white as snow.

In more ways than one, the protest against SARS is a testing ground for young Nigerians to call out their leaders who have short-changed them. The country recently marked her diamond jubilee and not all commentaries were glowing. Many felt the country has had more failures than success stories. Nevertheless, optimism was expressed over the future of the country.

The campaign is coming at a time when different ethnic groups are agitating for separate entities. For long, calls to restructure the country were made but the youths feel that the leaders are paying them mere lip-service.

If the #EndSARS campaign delivers the desired change in the police force, then the road to restructuring the country will not be a long walk.

QUOTE

In more ways than one, the protest against SARS is a testing ground for young Nigerians to call out their leaders who have short-changed them. The country recently marked her diamond jubilee and not all commentaries were glowing. Many felt the country has had more failures than success stories. Nevertheless, optimism was expressed over the future of the country. The campaign is coming at a time when different ethnic groups are agitating for separate entities. For long, calls to restructure the country were made but the youths feel that the leaders are paying them mere lip-service