LAGOS, Nigeria — On a Friday night in 2014, Patience Godwin and her friend were bundled into an unmarked bus driven by men of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The two students attended Nnamdi Azikiwe University in the Southeastern Nigerian state of Anambra, and were headed home after buying fried yam from a nearby stall for dinner. According to Godwin, men of the SARS from Awkuzu command dragged them into the bus without offering any explanation as to why they were arrested. Along the road, the officers grabbed several others, including a young man heading to church.
“They drove us to the police station where they kept us and asked that we call anyone we know can pay for our bail,” Godwin told Sojourners.
Godwin had to pay 500 naira (less than $2) to be kept behind the counter at the police station, while others who couldn’t afford their request were stuck in the cell overnight.
“The policemen wrote down our names without any statement,” she said. “They labeled us kidnappers and requested for bail in a tune of 10,000 naira, which my brother paid the next day.” Godwin sees the unfounded accusation of kidnapping as an excuse to collect bail money.
SARS is a unit of the Nigeria Police Force established to fight crimes associated with armed robbery, car snatching, kidnapping, and crimes associated with firearms. But public disdain for SARS has surged in recent weeks as social media users have posted videos and pictures of extrajudicial killings, unlawful arrests, arrogance, unlawful detention, and extortion of Nigerian youths by the officers. The #EndSARS hashtag has spread across Africa’s most populous nation, as people call for far-reaching reform or dismissal of the police unit.
Amnesty International documented 82 cases of the unit’s brutality between January 2017 and May 2020, noting that “detainees in SARS custody have been subjected to a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.” There are likely more instances of brutality that did not make it into the human rights organizations’ database.
This growing call for accountability and justice is a response to years of profiling and bullying by the violently corrupt unit, and the #EndSARS movement is growing stronger as religious leaders lend their voices to the cause.
Religious leaders speak out against SARS
Ordinarily, church leaders in Nigeria do not speak on issues that concern the public, especially in cases of police brutality. But notable Pentecostal preachers like Sam Adeyemi of the Daystar Christian Center, Apostle Johnson Suleman of the Omega Fire Ministries Worldwide, and other pastors have joined calls to scrap the police unit.
Archbishop Alfred Adewale Martins of the Catholic Archdiocese of Lagos has called upon the police authorities to listen to the legitimate public outcry about the excessive force of SARS.
Martins told Sojourners that SARS officers have been cruel in the way they carry out their duties. He likened SARS to a "poster boy" for "the many problems in Nigeria." “It’s about the level of frustrations stemming from long decades of insecurity, political corruption, bad governance," he said. "And the position of the Catholic Church that I belong to and many other denominations is that there are needs for a complete reappraisal of the way things are done in the country.”
The government of Nigeria has repeatedly promised to reform the notorious squad. In 2018 Vice President Yemi Osinbajo ordered an overhaul of its management and activities, but the attempts failed to materialize. Late last year, the specially formed Presidential Panel on the Reform of the SARS recommended the dismissal and prosecution of errant officers, but critics say little changed.
The SARS indulge in indiscriminate search of mobile phones and laptops of mostly young men arrested in search of “yahoo boys” — a popular term for internet scam syndicates.
The youth-led protests began on Oct. 8, and continued to sweep through Lagos, Abuja to other Nigerian states.
On October 11, Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Abubakar Adamu, announced the discontinuation of SARS across Nigeria’s 36 states, effective immediately. President Muhammadu Buhari has also promised to introduce a set of wide-ranging police reforms. Muyiwa Adejobi, the police public relations officer of the Lagos Command, told Sojourners that these announcements signal meaningful changes.
“If you come to Lagos now, all the SARS offices and outpost offices across Lagos state have been taken over by the state Criminal Investigation Department," he said. "You can’t see any sign that represents the SARS unit. All the tactical teams including the Special Anti-Cultism Squad and the Special Anti-Kidnapping Squad have been disbanded and they have submitted their guns and operational uniforms in Lagos and I am sure the same thing is happening in other states."
However, protesters are more skeptical, partially because the government has called for SARS to be replaced by a new anti-robbery unit — Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). Many anti-SARS advocates see this as rebranding devoid of reform, adding #EndSWAT to their online activism. Since the announcement, the protests continued in major cities across the country, even when faced with violent military suppression.
Protesters abroad have also continued to show solidarity with the movement. Some religious leaders, like Martins, believe the national protests are capable of helping to strengthen Nigeria’s democratic institutions. “If the international community is seeing this, they would see it as a people who are trying to rediscover themselves,” he said. “Our democracy is not perfect; it’s still developing. And this will help hasten the elements that would in the long run improve our democratic credentials.”
But other religious leaders disagree. Rev. Chinedu Anieke, who serves in Enugu on the Inter-Diocesan Tribunal, sees the whole agitation as a misdirected action that overlooks the main problem.
“As long as we begin to scratch the problem from the side, we'll never get to the solution,” he told Sojourners. “There was a time SARS was doing well — the time when there were frequent robbery cases from one house to another, even parish houses attacking priests, so we cannot just condemn the whole institutions because of a few bad elements among them.”
Anieke believes that, overall, SARS has done a good job combatting armed robbery. The real problem, he suggests, is the government. “If the government is ruling by the rule of law, all these abuses will not have happened,” he said. “When the chief executive is reformed, then every other sector of the country would be reformed with ease.”
In contrast, Pastor Enoch Adeboye, general overseer of the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) has supported the Nigerian youth in “speaking up” for their rights. He has created space for members of his church who have been victims in the past to tell their stories.
Twitter users have also been trending the hashtag #SundayService alongside #EndSARS, asking worshippers and churches to join the campaign. A candlelight procession was held across Nigeria in honor of victims of police brutality in October.
Pastor Leke Adeboye led the protesters in prayer to the nation at a recent interfaith protest:
“Let this change that we have come for be real change in Jesus’ name. Let this reformation be real in Jesus’ name. Father, end all the nonsense in our lives in Jesus’ name. End all the nonsense in this nation in Jesus’ name.”
He continued, “This is just the beginning of the first chapter. As we are writing the other chapters, please write it with us in Jesus’ name.”'