Nigerian Government Disbands Feared Police Unit, But Is It Enough For The Nigerian Community?

In response to weeks of protest, President Muhammadu Buhari has announced the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Force (SARS) with immediate effect, to be replaced with a new force, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). However, Nigerians remain unconvinced that this will lead to tangible change in strained police-civilian relations and protesters say that they will continue to take to the streets until there is real police reform. In a video on October 12th, Buhari announced the disbandment of SARS, stating that it “is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform.” He added that the “few bad eggs” responsible for wrongful acts would be brought to justice while the remaining members would be redeployed to other units.


However, Osai Ojigho, Amnesty International’s director in Nigeria, remains skeptical, saying, “The announcement falls short of demands for accountability and justice for abuses committed by the unit and police in general.” In another statement he explained, “Nigerians are sceptical of the authorities’ pledge to end police atrocities because the past claims of reforming SARS have turned out to be empty words.” Ikechukwu Onanuku, a musician and activist in Lagos with personal experiences with the feared SARs unit, elaborates, “This is not just about SARS, it’s about ending police brutality…people are fed up”


The nationwide police force, SARS, has been the target of numerous allegations of abuse, extrajudicial killings, extortion and corruption over the years. With a notoriety for unduly profiling young people, Amnesty reported at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial executions over the past three years. The latest round of protests was prompted by the online publication of graphic videos showing alleged abuse by the SARS officers. Waves of support and accounts of similar experiences followed, accompanied by the hashtag, #EndSARS. Activists have not been placated by the government’s promise to disband SARS and are now pushing for a reform of the entire Nigerian policing system. They have every right to be mistrustful. This is not the first time that #EndSARS has trended internationally. Nigerian authorities have repeatedly failed to effectively tackle the corruption and brutality committed by the SARS officers and the Nigerian police force in general. According to the BBC, this is the fourth time in as many years that promises have been made to disband or reform SARS.


There have been numerous reports of excessive force employed by police against protesters in Nigeria. Amnesty has reported at least 10 protesters killed in the clashes since the protests began. Critics highlight that the abuses carried out during the protests were carried out by policemen who did not belong to SARS. After Sunday’s announcement of the police unit’s disbandment, there were reports of officers continuing to use tear gas, water cannons and live rounds against protesters. Protesters have reorganized and started using the hashtag #EndSWAT in their continued fight for police system reform. This time, the momentum and force behind the movement cannot be easily dismissed by the Nigerian government, whose failings are being exposed on an international level.


In a speech at the UN this year, President Buhari laid out his administrations’ priorities, stating, “the future we want must guarantee human rights, human dignity, human prospects and prosperity.” If the Nigerian government is truly committed to protecting their citizens, rather than continue to make false promises, they must initiate real, effective efforts to tackle impunity, abuse and corruption in their police system.


Rafaela Alford
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