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The Rise and Suppression of #EndSARS

On October 20, Nigerian soldiers were deployed to massacre the country’s own youths, killing at least 12 people who had peacefully assembled to demand accountability for rampant police brutality in Africa’s most populous nation. Before this tragedy, now known as the Lekki massacre, the #EndSARS movement had drawn tens of thousands of Nigerians into the streets for more than two weeks, bringing global attention to a rogue unit of the Nigerian Police Force, called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, which has a documented history of abusing its power. After promising reform, the government increasingly targeted protesters with violence, and last Thursday, the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari, banned public protests amid national curfews. Ahead, everything else you need to know about the rise and suppression of Nigeria’s largest protest movement in generations.

What does police brutality look like in Nigeria?

The #EndSARS movement has taken aim at SARS, a tactical police unit assembled in 1992 to curtail violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping. Over the years, SARS has become the most flagrant source of state violence and corruption that citizens encounter. Youths, the demographic propelling #EndSARS, report harassment, bribery, and even kidnappings by SARS officers, who criminalize young people for “dressing like” prostitutes and Internet scammers, merely because they own smartphones and laptops, drive “flashy” cars, or have tattoos and dreadlocks. A 2020 Amnesty International report, “Nigeria: Time to End Impunity,” documented 82 horrifying cases between January 2017 and May 2020 of SARS extrajudicial killings, extortion, and torture methods, including “hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions, and sexual violence.” Citizen reporting sites including End SARS and The POBIN (Police Brutality in Nigeria) Project score more testimonies of abuse.

What sparked the protests?

On the morning of October 3, two days after Nigeria celebrated 60 years of independence, a tweet by Chinyelugo (@AfricaOfficial2) went viral, sounding an alarm that “SARS just shot a young boy dead.” Hours later, mobile phone recordings with the hashtag #EndSARS began trending, documenting the gruesome scene of the unidentified young man’s lifeless body abandoned on the roadside and citizens pursuing the officers, who they witnessed steal the man’s Lexus SUV.

Over the following days, many more Nigerians shared their own harrowing SARS experiences using the hashtag, which actually made its first appearance as a social media campaign and petition three years earlier, after a viral police murder in December 2017. This time around, with the mobilizing power of popular influencers on Twitter, the online protest moved to the streets. Since October 8, protesters in 26 of Nigeria’s 36 states have organized daily mass demonstrations, vigils, a sit-in of the National Assembly, and blockades of airports and major roads—until the tragedy on October 20.

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