Nigeria’s #EndSARS Protest: De-escalate Tensions, Start Deep Police Reform

What began as an orderly demonstration against an abusive police squad has become a national crisis in Nigeria. To lower the temperature, the government needs to move quickly to investigate wrongdoing by security agencies, give victims the justice they deserve and initiate far-reaching police reforms.

Unprecedented protests against police brutality have spun into deadly clashes in several major Nigerian cities. There is no accurate toll yet, but as of 23 October, the government had reported 69 people killed, including civilians, police officers and soldiers, some murdered in the most gruesome circumstances. On 20 October, soldiers allegedly opened fire upon protesters gathered at a toll gate in the largest city, Lagos, killing at least a dozen according to rights groups, although the government rejects this finding. Though street protests have ebbed, tensions are still running high in both the streets and social media, and President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration risks losing what limited credibility it has with youths fed up with the country’s poor governance and faltering institutions. On 22 October, while acknowledging that citizens have a right to protest, Buhari warned Nigerians that he would take firm action to quell demonstrations that turned violent. But what is needed is a de-escalation strategy. The presidency and other branches of government should focus on reform: stopping abusive police practices, ensuring justice for victims and overhauling law enforcement.

A Disgraced Police Unit

The protesters’ first target was the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). This special police unit was established formally in 1992 to curb armed robbery, then a serious problem in Lagos. In its early years, it recorded impressive achievements, notably busting up several violent gangs, and it earned a great deal of praise. After its first decade, however, the poorly supervised unit began to display declining professionalism and increasing brutality. Some of its personnel started to intimidate, arbitrarily arrest, extort and even kill citizens. In numerous recent cases, SARS officers, often on unauthorised street patrols, abducted and shook down hapless youths, forcing them to make bank transfers online or marching them to ATM machines to empty their accounts at gunpoint as a condition of regaining their freedom.

SARS thus became synonymous with bloodstained detention centres and the culture of impunity that pervades Nigeria’s security and intelligence services. It often obtained confessions from suspects through torture. So confident were SARS agents of being above the law that, according to numerous witness accounts, they often dared their victims to report them to the police inspector general or even the president. With time, a large number of Nigerians began to see SARS operatives no longer as law officers, but as a pack of wolfish criminals.

The protests beginning on 5 October called for disbanding the unit. They kicked off two days after an incident in which SARS officers shot a man and drove off in his car in Ughelli, Delta state. Video footage went viral. Responding to the initial demonstrations, which were orderly, the authorities appeared conciliatory. They acceded to the protesters’ primary demand, announcing the disbandment of SARS. They also announced their acceptance of five other points: unconditional release of all detained protesters; prosecution and punishment of abusive police officers; compensation for families of victims of police brutality; psychological evaluation and retraining of all dismissed SARS personnel before their redeployment to other units; and higher police salaries.

But after its decision to disband SARS, the police infuriated the protesters anew by announcing that it would immediately set up a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team to replace the old unit. Many protesters Crisis Group spoke to in Abuja and Lagos felt that this hasty transformation would simply amount to relabelling the hated squad, citing an earlier name change that had made no difference in SARS officers’ behaviour.

Digging In

The protesters dug in, with much of the movement staying focused on the single issue of ending police brutality, but others also clamouring for wider reforms in governance, particularly economic and security policies. Many youths saw sustained protest as the only means of holding political elites accountable for high unemployment, galloping inflation and deepening poverty exacerbated by anti-coronavirus measures. In some northern states battling insecurity, meanwhile, the national awakening triggered protests demanding that the federal government end the decade-old Boko Haram insurgency and banditry in the region.

As the protests gathered steam, however, scenes of brutal bloodletting began to occur. First came police crackdowns, with officers firing tear gas canisters, water cannons and live bullets to disperse protesters. Then, as the police seemed to step back, pro-SARS counter-protesters, armed with cudgels, machetes and guns, appeared out of nowhere to attack anti-SARS crowds and destroy property. The fact that these thugs were allowed to roam the federal capital, Abuja, with no attempt to apprehend them, fuelled suspicion that government supporters or surrogates were behind them. Though the violence was largely directed at the unarmed anti-SARS protesters, it gave the authorities a pretext to paint the entire protests as dangerous.

Angry young men, mostly unemployed and with nothing to lose, also joined the fray. Many of these youths espouse an anti-police agenda – not just an anti-SARS one – and started taking advantage of the deterioration in law and order to barricade roads and wreak havoc. By 23 October, they had destroyed at least 25 police stations in Lagos, Edo, Rivers and Anambra states, looting arms and ammunition and killing or wounding dozens of officers. In Edo, Ondo and Delta states, they also facilitated jailbreaks, enabling over 2,000 convicted prisoners and criminal suspects awaiting trial to flee. In Lagos state, they ransacked shopping malls, robbed and wounded hundreds of innocent citizens, and burned down public and private buildings including the headquarters of the Nigerian Ports Authority, the High and Appeal Courts, the palace of the oba (traditional ruler) and a private television station reportedly owned by a former governor and national leader of the ruling All Progressives Congress, Bola Ahmed Tinubu. They also torched over a hundred vehicles, including more than 80 public transport buses operated by the Lagos state government.

The violence has also taken a toll on Nigeria’s beleaguered economy, already pummelled by the fall in oil prices, depreciation of the naira, closures caused by the coronavirus and continuing disruption of agriculture by armed conflict in several northern states. The Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industry estimates that in the first two weeks of the protests, the nation’s economy lost about 700 billion nairas ($1.8 billion). As several state governments declared round-the-clock curfews to quash the violence, the hospitality and entertainment industries are crippled. Recession looms. In many states, schools, just reopened after the COVID-19 lockdowns, have had to shut down again.

The unrest could widen Nigeria’s already dangerous ethnic and regional fault lines. Attacks on northern traders, including the burning of trucks and markets as well as the theft of cattle, by rampaging hoodlums in parts of Lagos and some other southern cities, have raised fears of inter-ethnic clashes, or reprisals against southern businesses in some northern states.

In effect, what started as a narrow protest against one police unit and to end police brutality and impunity is now a national crisis – one that has also underscored the failings of the Buhari government and its predecessors. The government has increasingly responded with irritation. On 18 October, Information Minister Lai Mohammed said persons seeking to destabilise the country had hijacked the anti-SARS protest. Buhari’s own 22 October statement, while acknowledging the anger about SARS, came across as scolding: to many Nigerians, his statement that some persons had seized upon the government’s decision to disband SARS to serve their “selfish, unpatriotic interests” hinted at regret over the action.

Avenues of De-escalation

Nigeria’s governments, from military to civilian, have a long history of managing protests through a mix of repression and co-optation. But the current unrest looks like it will be hard to stamp out. Protesters, who have heard the government pledge to reform policing many times before, are adamant that they now expect to see wholesale change. They seem unwilling to tolerate more police abuse. The more police attacked peaceful rallies, the more the movement was fired up. The government has two choices: keep trying to contain an ocean of angry people or de-escalate.

President Buhari needs to swiftly explore all avenues toward the latter course. First, he needs to soften his stern tone and show more empathy for unarmed civilians who have suffered grave abuses and huge material losses. He should ensure that security personnel stop using force against peaceful demonstrators and act with maximum restraint at all times, but also protect law-abiding citizens and their property from attack. To boost his credibility with the anti-SARS protesters, he should also lay out clear timelines for implementation of the five-point list of demands to which his government acceded.

State governments should expedite credible, transparent investigations into the actions of the police and military in connection with the protests. It is a positive step that the Lagos state government has included the incident at the Lagos toll gate on 20 October among the terms of reference of its judicial panel of enquiry and restitution for victims of SARS-related abuses. Police and military officers found to have committed atrocities against protesters should be brought to justice.

The federal government also needs to empanel an independent enquiry to seriously investigate the mobilisation and arming of counter-protesters who set upon peaceful crowds, particularly in the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, as well as in Lagos, Edo, Nasarawa and other states. There have been allegations from several sources, including from former senior officials and thugs themselves, that elected officials’ staff and even a union boss have had a hand in supporting those responsible for attacks on anti-SARS protesters. Some reports suggest that the pro-SARS thugs operated with the complicity, if not the overt backing, of personnel from some security agencies. If an enquiry finds police, army or other security agency involvement in these incidents, the government must sanction the masterminds. The government must also ensure that public spaces remain safe for citizens to exercise their democratic rights without fear of armed attack.

The government will need to show further commitment to bringing to justice police officers who had perpetrated abuses over the years. Several senior SARS officers have been named repeatedly as perpetrators of torture, extrajudicial killings and other crimes. While there may not yet be sufficient evidence to file charges against them, the police inspector general, Mohammed Adamu, should order their immediate suspension, with firm restrictions on their movements (particularly to prevent them from fleeing the country), until investigations conclude. Some state governments have taken encouraging steps. As of 25 October, 27 states and the Federal Capital Territory had established judicial panels of enquiry to handle complaints of police brutality and extrajudicial killings, and also ensure redress for victims, as was resolved by the National Economic Council on 15 October. State governments must ensure that these panels are properly equipped to give petitioners the justice they deserve.

Protesters, meanwhile, should step back from the streets for the time being and allow time for work on reforms to proceed, as some eminent groups have urged and as some protest groups have already done. While they have an inalienable right to demonstrate, and the authorities have no right to prevent them from exercising it, they also have a civic responsibility to ensure that their actions do not enable bloodshed that some in government will likely argue is their doing. The protesters have already achieved salutary results: forcing disbandment of SARS and compelling enquiries into past abuses, refocusing attention on police reform. Sustaining these gains requires closely tracking the government’s implementation of the five-point demands, painstaking legal work to support petitions at the judicial panels of inquiry, and technical work to overhaul the policing system – not necessarily more street protest for now.

The protests in Nigeria started as a campaign against police brutality and impunity, underscoring the problem of long-overdue police reforms. The government now needs to commence the reforms urgently and firmly. Reforms need to be comprehensive, not superficial or cosmetic. They need to address a wide range of policing deficits including qualifications for recruitment, training and orientation of recruits, resourcing and remuneration, accountability and respect for citizens’ rights and insulation from political influence, as well as federal versus state balance in policing powers and structures. The Police Act of 2020, signed by President Buhari on 16 September, includes several provisions aimed at building a more professional and effective police force, supported by an appropriate funding framework, driven by principles of transparency and accountability in its resource management and operations, and encouraging closer citizen-police partnership in combating crime. After a challenge to the act, the Supreme Court must rule on the constitutionality of a handful of its provisions. Once that has happened, the government should move forward quickly to commence its application or amend it as necessary.

The anti-SARS protest has been arguably the protest with the widest popular appeal in Nigeria’s history. While primarily about police brutality and impunity, the demonstrations also reflect unprecedented public discontent over poor governance, insecurity and the extreme income disparities between those who hold political office and the millions of other citizens. It is an early warning that should serve as a wake-up call for the government to make radical improvements in governance, job creation, poverty alleviation and service delivery, if it hopes to avert a more serious uprising in the future.