A time for change?: Guest Feature by barrister Nancy Williams on Nigeria’s SARS

January 28, 2021

3 min read

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As we enter the new year, it is a time to reflect on significant events. Protests which erupted in October 2020 to end Nigeria’s SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad), a special branch of the police force created in 1992 to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes, was one of these events. Protests took place in the streets of Nigeria and beyond.  Social media was used to both promote and facilitate protests, with many high-profile figures standing in solidarity with protesters. 

This is not the first time that Nigerians have protested against SARS and not the first-time widespread abuses have been documented.1 As far back as 2002, Amnesty International flagged that allegations of extrajudicial executions at SARS stations had increased in 2001 and 2002 due to a government crackdown on crime.2 In 2016, Amnesty found that arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention and torture were routine features of the SARS investigative process.3 A further report in June 2020 documented 82 cases of extortion, ill treatment and torture by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.4 These concerns have been echoed by other national and international bodies.5

The Nigerian government initially responded to the protests by announcing that it would disband SARS on 11.10.2020 – it would be replaced by a new organisation called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactical Team).  This is the fourth time that Nigerian government has announced reform of the agency.6

SARS is a legacy of the military dictatorship, a time when security forces engaged in acts of torture, corruption, extrajudicial killings and corruption with impunity. This persisted well after Nigeria became a democracy. Previous reforms to SARS have been a public relations farce which has not rooted out the evil but has been a re-branding exercise which has left the organisation intact. 

That said, the #EndSARS movement has been a real catalyst for change. With the global spotlight focused on Nigeria due to the protests and the extensive media coverage, national organisations have seized the momentum and utilised this platform to promote an agenda of reform. The National Human Rights Commission has constituted an independent investigative panel to investigate SARS which began sitting on 04.11.2020.7 It also re-submitted its 2019 report which made recommendations for reform that was previously ignored by the relevant authorities at the time.8 For Nigerians who want an end to police brutality and impunity, it is hoped that these recommendations are finally actioned.

Report written by Nancy Williams

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  1. The #EndSARS movement began in December 2017. See here
  2. Amnesty International, December 2002, Nigeria: Security Forces: Serving to Protect and Respect Human Rights, AFR 44/023/2002
  3. You have signed your Death Warrant, torture and other ill treatment by Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), AFR 44/4868/2016

  4. Nigeria: Time to End Impunity, Torture and other violations by the special anti-robbery squad (SARS), June 2020,  AFR 44/9505/2020

  5. Since 2005, the UN Special Rapporteurs have raised the issue of police killings an impunity with the Nigerian government – see here 

  6. In 2016, the inspector general of Nigeria Police Force announced broad reforms to correct SARS use of excessive force and failure to follow due process.  In 2017, a further announcement was made to reorganise SARS units.  In August 2018, Nigeria’s vice-president and then acting president, Yemi Osinbajo, ordered the overhaul of SARS.

  7. Government of Nigeria Twitter

  8. Source 01 and Source 02 https://punchng.com/nhrc-re-submits-presidential-panels-sars-report-to-psc/ and https://punchng.com/nhrc-inaugurates-probe-panel-on-sars-calls-for-memoranda-2

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