In October the End SARS movement took international news after the execution of a young hotel owner outside of his hotel. I interviewed my good travel buddy, colleague, and PHD candidate at New York University Langone, Deborah (Debbie) Onakomaiya to find out more.
What is SARS?
SARS is the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. A unit in the Nigerian police force.Formed in 1992, their main function is to address armed robbery. SARS officers do not wear a uniform and are heavily armed.
What SARS really does.
The problem is that over time the unit stopped only focusing on armed robbery and started abusing their power and privilege by setting up roadblocks to extort people they profile.
Debbie explained “Yahoo yahoo. Meaning yahoo boys are typically young men aged 18-35 who are profiled for being internet frauds.” When people are stopped at the roadblock they may have their phones taken, be forced to go to the bank and pay officers, kidnapped, and/or sometimes killed.
Since 1992 the SARS unit has threatened people by letting victims know that they will kill them and there is nothing the victim can do about it.
What is going on now.
The End SARS protest was started in 2017 due to the government claiming to disband the unit but simply renamed the unit to The Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The government’s response has not changed since 2017 and the unit remains instated. They are known to torture people until the admit to a crime.
The current protests were triggered by a video of the execution of a young hotel owner who was shot in front of his hotel and thrown out of his car. The SARS officers involved in his execution drove off in the victim’s car. The current End SARS protests have been the largest due to the mass response across the 36 states of Nigeria and the globe.
Debbie has fortunately experienced the violence of SARS but her family members have. Her brother while returning from a college party with friends, SARS targeted them, lined them up, and threatened to kill them if they did not give them money. “We will shoot you and no one will find you.”, is what the members told them.
Her mother, a bakery owner, got hijacked by SARS claiming that her car was stolen. They had her mother drive to the SARS station. On the way to the office her mother was able to call Debbie’s father and let him know she had been hijacked, and where they were taking her. While on the phone the SARS members threatened to kill her. Debbie’s father along with a lawyer and other witnesses were at the office when her mother and the SARS members arrived.
Another unfortunate SARS incident happened in 2012. A 20 year old man, Chijioke Iloanya, was arrested by SARS while attending a baby dedication. His parents tried bailing him out at SARS station. SARS claimed they did not have their son. However the mother spotted her son being escorted to a vehicle. She was told the vehicle was supposedly going to another facility. SARS sent Chijoke’s family on a wild goose hunt to find their son. One officer admitted to “wasting” their son, while another officer took money to supposedly release Chijoke. The victim’s family to this day has no body or closure about what happened to Chijoke.
There have been several other stories such as Chijoke’s, including women being raped and or killed By SARS. This violence is not just committed by the SARS unit but across other “security” organizations.
Protestors are now demanding justice and reform. Here are their plans to move forward.
What the Protesters have done, will do, and want to do:
- “Clean up”: Protesters will continue to clean where they protest.
- “Online Protest”: Utilizing online platforms to increase awareness.
- “Offline Community Engagement”: Educating the community, providing tools and credible resources about what is going on.
- “Timelines”: Keeping track of what has been done, what is being done, and what needs to be done to keep the government accountable.
- “Strategy”: Focusing on education, voter registration, and promotion of Young People in government through political consciousness and representation.
- “Structure”: Created to make the movement sustainable on all levels.
- “Representation”: Amplifying the diverse voices of coalitions keeping the demands and movement alive.
Source: BNI, A Statement From The Coalition of Protest Groups Across Lagos and Nigeria
For tips on how to start from where you are with what you have check out my previous article. Special thanks to Deborah and Raphael Osagiede for sharing experiences and resources.