For years Nigeria’s Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) has been accused of extorting, assaulting, illegally detaining and threatening civilians with impunity despite many incidents being recorded on camera. The unit has been directly responsible for the consistent harassment and deaths of many young Nigerians. Their friends, families, acquaintances and many others have now taken their anger, frustration and sorrow to the streets. This week there have been numerous protests across the country calling for the complete abolishment of SARS. These have been echoed by a social media uproar of Nigerians in the diaspora who helped bring international visibility to the matter with the hashtag #EndSARS.
Initially Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, failed to comment on the demonstrations that also took place in Lagos and Abuja. He recently broke his silence and stated that he is determined to end police brutality, introduce reforms and bring “erring personnel… to justice.” However, as critics have pointed out, commitments to change the behaviour of the police are nothing new in the country. The President’s words came after a growing number of international celebrities supported #EndSARS on social media. British-Nigerian actor John Boyega was among these as he called for fellow Nigerians in the diaspora to pay attention to “this pressing problem.” Similarly, notorious Nigerian artists Davido, Genevieve Nnaji and Wizkid have shown solidarity through their social media pages. Words of support and encouragement were also shared by many others, including British-Ghanian Juls, British singer and actress Estelle Fanta Swaray and African American rapper Lil Baby, clearly exposing the immense scope that the #EndSARS campaign has now reached.
SARS was formed in 1992 to combat an armed robbery epidemic. It is one of 14 units in the Police Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department which was established to detain, investigate and prosecute suspects involved in armed robbery, kidnapping and other prevalent crimes in Nigeria. From 2009, SARS experienced a marked growth in numbers and power at a time when its operatives infiltrated Nigerian universities in search of fraudsters and cultism. According to Pulse.ng, this encouraged the harassment and exploitation of youths with dreadlocks, piercings, cars, expensive phones and risqué means of expression. Although this corrupted and unlawful behaviour also extends to the rest of the police forces, SARS has gained notoriety for the unduly profiling of young people who are threatened, harassed, robbed, tortured and also killed with little to no consequences. SARS operatives have especially been targeting those considered ‘flashy’ individuals and, as reported by different testimonies on social media, this treatment is not limited to poor people, but also affects the Nigerian upper classes and diaspora when in the country.
Like every other October 1st, last week marked the 60th year of independence for Nigeria. Nigerians at home and abroad celebrated this event on social media with words and images full of pride and joy for the homeland. People in the diaspora often take this occasion to honour their roots, rich culture and connections with a land whose people are full of vivacity and verve. Despite being physically separated from Nigeria, the love for the country and its people knows no borders and this was shown in the acts of solidarity that have supported the #EndSARS campaign from outside the country. From the social media outrage to the protests organized in London, the diaspora has been able to help bring visibility to the issue, put pressure on the oppressor and offer solidarity to the protestors on the ground.
They say Nigerians are everywhere and we are, indeed, a people known to move, migrate, seek change. However, the mobilization, unity and cooperation displayed by Nigerians worldwide during this campaign should also be testimony to the strong affiliation and dedication that many abroad continue to have for the homeland. As notorious Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe once said, “being Nigerian is abysmally frustrating and unbelievably exciting.” Right now, there is excitement for the possibility of change but there is also frustration knowing that the fight is far from over. So let us amplify the voices of our Nigerian siblings on the ground and believe that a better Nigeria is not just possible, but necessary and worth the while.
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