Nigerian protesters demand the end of an anti-robbery police unit that they say robs people
The police officers accused him of speeding, but Dare Olaitan felt that wasn’t true. The 29-year-old filmmaker in Nigeria’s biggest city, Lagos, recalls requesting proof.
“Then they slapped me, yanked away from my phone and keys and said, ‘We are going to an ATM,’ ” Olaitan said.
The men, who’d pulled him over in an unmarked van, identified themselves as part of the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, a Nigerian police unit that has been tasked over the past three decades with fighting violent crime, including banditry and kidnapping.
Similar tales blazed across social media in recent days as thousands of protesters filled the streets in several Nigerian cities, urging the leaders of Africa’s most populous nation to disband the squad, which they say routinely commits the kind of crimes it is supposed to thwart.
Human rights activists have campaigned against SARS for years, but violent videos that surfaced online this week shoved a fresh spotlight on what demonstrators condemned as police brutality. A number of Nigerian celebrities took up the cause, helping #EndSARS go massively viral.
As pressure mounted, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari vowed Friday to investigate the squad, tweeting, “Our determination to reform the police should never be in doubt.”
He added: “The vast majority of men and women of the Nigeria Police Force are patriotic and committed to protecting the lives and livelihoods of Nigerians, and we will continue to support them to do their job.”
Security officials banned SARS from conducting stop-and-search operations in plain clothes. They also outlawed checkpoints, which people frequently photograph to warn others on Twitter. (The Nigeria Police Force did not respond to requests for comment on specific allegations.)
“Any police personnel that, henceforth, abuses his or her powers in a manner that degrades, endangers or threatens the life and other fundamental rights of the citizens shall be promptly arrested,” Mohammed Adamu, Nigeria’s top police chief, said in a statement Sunday.
Two agents had been apprehended on charges of professional misconduct, including extortion, he said.
Police officials also urged citizens to come forward if they have endured abuse.
Critics say the problem is widespread.
Over the past three years, Amnesty International said it has documented 82 cases of the squad’s brutality in the country, including “hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding” and other violent tactics, according to a June report.
Hundreds of protesters camped outside a government building in Lagos on Saturday, waving signs that read: “END SARS NOW.” Others surrounded the squad’s headquarters in Abuja, the nation’s capital, pouring red paint on the road to symbolize violence.
Olaitan, the filmmaker, said officers from the unit have pulled him over five times.
Before the kidnapping, he’d viewed the grim routine as a fact of life. He’s young and has dreadlocks, he said, so police tend to see him as a “yahoo boy” — or a fraudster.
“It’s a profiling thing,” Olaitan said. “That’s how you know you’re not getting kidnapped — they ask, “Are you a yahoo boy?’ The brazenness of it. A kidnapper wouldn’t stop you in traffic.”
In the past, he wriggled out of tense encounters with cash or by mentioning his father, who was a politician. Now he doesn’t drive after dark.
On that October night last year, he said, the officers drained his bank account. His lawyer called the police station. Nothing happened.
“You kind of give up on these things,” he said.
SARS formed in 1992 to combat armed robbery with “the element of surprise,” founder Simeon Danladi Midenda told Vanguard, a Nigerian news site.
“The secret behind the successes of the original SARS was its facelessness,” the former police commissioner said in the 2017 interview. “We operated in plain clothes and used plain vehicles that could not be associated with security or any government agency.”
Over the years, critics say, officers have taken advantage of that stealth mandate, ordering people off the road and taking their valuables without cause.
“SARS has made itself a nuisance and a tool of oppression,” said JJ Omojuwa, a Nigerian blogger with 933,000 followers on Twitter, who is among those calling for dissolution.
Temi Afolabi, a lawyer in Lagos, said officers have a reputation for searching phones at random and detaining people for outrageous reasons.
“If there is one mention of dollars or if you have one White friend, they say, ‘Oh, this is evidence of fraud,’ ” he said.
They scanned his phone at one checkpoint in February and scoured his car. When he protested, he said, they ordered him into a convoy of unmarked vehicles. No one said where they were going or why.
Afolabi, 29, began to panic and thought of his cousin, who was getting married the next day.
“If I disappear tonight, they’re not going to be able to have the wedding,” he remembers thinking. “I’m a groomsman.”
Mercifully, he said, the convoy stopped. Afolabi dashed out of his car with his key in his pocket. He waited under a streetlight at a busy intersection until the police drove away.
“What could they chase me for?” he said. “I had nothing on me.”
Texts from American friends got one tech founder in trouble.
Yele Bademosi, chief executive of Bundle Africa, a mobile payment company in Lagos, said his business cards didn’t clear things up when SARS officers pulled him over in September 2019 and asked how he made money.
“I was talking to White people,” the 29-year-old said, darkly, “so I must be taking money from White people.”
The officers ordered him onto an unmarked bus, he said, where he spent the next four hours watching the men stop car after car.
Throughout the ride, he said, officers kept asking him for money. His wallet, however, was practically empty.
“One said, ‘You’re a nice-looking guy,’ ” he said. “ ‘Don’t make us rearrange your face.’ ”
They forced him to open his banking apps and drove him to an ATM, he said. Then they dumped him at a gas station at 3 a.m.
These days, Bademosi turns away whenever he sees police. Fury grips him.
The episode gave him a business idea: a special ATM password that fools predators with a fake, tiny account balance.