Author: Hilary Matfess
Affiliated organization: Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)
Type of publication: Article
Date of publication: December, 2020
#EndSARSNow protests have rocked Nigeria. Although they are a national movement, demonstrations have largely occurred in the country’s southern states. Some Nigerian officials have characterized the campaign as targeted toward President Muhammadu Buhari, but this view fails to consider that the scale of the protests in the south is a reflection of the pattern of police abuse in the country. Though incidents of police violence occur throughout Nigeria, they are felt acutely in the south; it is no wonder then, that the loudest calls for police reform are coming from this region.
A Southern Problem?
In Lagos State, where #EndSARSNow protests shut down roads and schools, police violence has been consistently high and rising. Since 2015, Lagos State has recorded both the highest number of events in which the police have targeted civilians and protesters and the highest number of fatalities reported from these interactions. As the maps below demonstrate, southern states have borne the brunt of much of the police’s use of force against civilians and protesters. Of the 10 states with the highest number of events where police have targeted civilians or responded to peaceful protesters, only two (the Federal Capital Territory and Kaduna) are located outside of the country’s south. There is also a geographic pattern to the distribution of support for the protests; consider, for example, a recent survey in the aftermath of the #EndSARSNow protests found that 85 percent of Lagos State residents support the protest, compared to 70 percent across the entire country.
Though some have suggested that the geography of the #EndSARSNow protests are the result of a partisan bias against Buhari, it seems more likely that it is a function of where police abuses have been concentrated.
A History of Brutality and Protests
The #EndSARSNow campaign is not a new phenomenon. It was first used in 2017 and resurfaced early this October after footage spread showing Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) officers engaging in extrajudicial killings. The recent protests against SARS should thus be understood as a rejection of the status quo, in which members of the security sector engage in violence against civilians with little fear of being held accountable. A report from Amnesty International released this summer, which examined abuses by SARS, concluded that “few cases are investigated and hardly any officers are brought to justice on account of torture and other ill-treatment.”
#EndSARSNow protests found that 85 percent of Lagos State residents support the protest, compared to 70 percent across the entire country
But SARS is not the only problematic unit within the Nigerian Police Service (NPS) or the country’s broader security service apparatus. For years, human rights organizations have documented pervasive abuse and corruption within their ranks. A 2014 Amnesty International Investigation, for example, found that torture was widespread and so institutionalized that some stations had special rooms where torture would be conducted. This report tied corruption to these abuses, noting that “police often detain people, sometimes in large dragnet operations, as a pretext to obtain bribes, alleging involvement in various offences ranging from ‘wandering’ (loitering) to robbery. Those who are unable to pay the bribes for their release are often tortured as punishment, or to coerce them to find the money for their release.” The troubling turn that policing has taken in Nigeria in recent years is also reflected in the latest round of Afrobarometer data in 2017, which found that more than 40 percent of those polled said that the “ability of ordinary people to get help from the police when they need it” is either “worse” or “much worse” compared to recent years.
The Prospects for Reform
The #EndSARSNow protests have shed light on an aspect of security in Nigeria often overshadowed by communal violence in the middle belt or the Boko Haram insurgency in the north: the threat of police-led violence in the south. Examining the geographic patterns of state repression and #EndSARSNow protests underscores that the protests are a response to the everyday threats that Nigerians in the country’s south face from the security services. A survey of 1,500 Nigerian suggests that decentralization of the police, a measure proposed by the Nigerian Senate earlier this year, is a more popular policy solution than the dissolution of SARS and creation of a SWAT unit. Decentralizing policing, establishing community policing units, and pressing for public accountability may improve policing throughout the country—and are particularly important reforms in Nigeria’s southern states.