Nigerian students at UTA reflect on the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, police brutality in Nigeria

SARS protesters in Lagos, Nigeria, take a knee for the country's national anthem.

With police brutality running rampant in Lagos, Nigeria, and protests breaking out across the country, many Nigerian students feel the impact of SARS right here at UTA.

Muhammadu Buhari, Nigerian head of state, promised Sunday to disband SARS, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has gained notoriety for brutalizing Nigerian citizens. On Monday, he vowed to crack down on rogue police officers.

Biology sophomore Efe Amrovhe, who grew up in Nigeria before moving to the U.S. in 2019 for college, said SARS targets citizens depending on where they live in Nigeria. It’s all about money.

Since his parents have money and live in a nice area of Lagos, Amrovhe never even saw a SARS officer when he lived in Nigeria. But he’d hear about them from his friends.

Although he never had a personal encounter with SARS, he said most of his friends could share stories of their experiences. Staying out late, driving a nice car, carrying an iPhone or having dreadlocks, tattoos or earrings can all result in SARS targeting you, he said.

Amnesty International has documented over 82 cases of abuse and extrajudicial killings by SARS officers from January 2017 to May 2020.

One of Amrovhe’s friends was stopped by SARS and forced to allow them to search his phone. He was learning Spanish at the time and changed his default language to Spanish on his phone, so the SARS officers accused him of being a hacker because they couldn’t understand it.

“It’s really just, like, off the books,” Amrovhe said. “They’re just doing things that really don’t make sense.”

SARS was created in 1992 and tasked with the responsibility of tackling violent crime in Lagos. The squad operated as a faceless, un-uniformed 15-officer team that traveled in two unmarked buses. The anonymity was fully intentional and considered essential for taking on the gangs persecuting Lagos at the time.

Over time, SARS established itself throughout the country. Since the officers traveled anonymously, they quickly came to abuse their power.

Recently, the country has seen multiple outbreaks of protests. Nigerian police have reportedly retaliated with the use of guns, water cannons, tear gas and other violent measures to contain protesters. At least 10 people have died in the protests.

Biomedical engineering senior Justin Jinanwa said the problem with SARS abusing their power is how commonplace it’s become. Outbreaks of violence happen daily, and Nigerians recognize it as a fact of life, despite protests.

Although he wasn’t born in Nigeria, his parents were, and he’s visited the country several times.

Even people who visit Nigeria will likely have a run-in. Simple acts like grocery shopping could lead to SARS initiating an investigation. And an investigation can easily lead to violence or the officers stealing money.

Frederick Engram, criminology assistant professor of instruction, said Buhari’s promise to disband SARS is performative at best. Throughout recent years, there have been numerous instances in which the Nigerian government vowed to crack down on SARS, yet they’re still troublesome today.

Engram said the situation is similar to the U.S., where instead of addressing the widespread, systemic issue of police brutality, the government addresses it in “silos,” treating it as a “one bad apple” situation.

Recently, there’s been talk of Buhari replacing SARS with SWAT, yet another form of law enforcement, but Engram said that would almost be worse.

“The answer to terrible police is not more police,” he said.

Amrovhe, however, said there’s “not even a chance” SARS will change or get disbanded. Buhari’s words are merely empty promises so he can pretend he’s doing something now that the protests are widespread and gaining more global attention.

“Our government is incompetent, and they don’t really care about the people,” he said.

If the government officials did care, they’d take the time to screen and properly train police officers, he said. Just by watching videos of the havoc on social media, Amrovhe said he can see that SARS officers don’t even know how to properly hold a gun.

“I’ve played Call of Duty; I know I can shoot a gun better than they can,” he said.

The issue with “reforming” SARS is that the officers don’t care that they’re killing people, Amrovhe said. They need to be disbanded, not reformed.

Jinanwa agreed that SARS must be disbanded, but is more optimistic than Amrovhe. Now that people are protesting not just in Nigeria but in the U.S., change is possible, he said. SARS still kills people daily, so it’s unlikely that this change will happen anytime soon. But there’s a reason to be hopeful.

The issue of police brutality in Nigeria parallels the issue of police brutality in the U.S.: anti-Blackness, Engram said. Some people may wonder how Nigerian police can be anti-Black, when they’re Black themselves, but Engram said you don’t have to be a white person to be anti-Black.

“You can very well be a Black person and still uphold white supremacist narratives,” he said.

The Nigerian police system was established to stifle dissent from colonial rule, Engram said. In the same way, American police can be traced back to the slave patrol, which was created to instill fear in African slaves so they wouldn’t rebel.

Philip Sanusi, political science and public health senior, was born in Nigeria and moved to the U.S. when he was 12 years old. At that age, he was barely aware of SARS.

Over the years though, as the violence grew, he couldn’t help but grow passionate about it. The people suffering in Nigeria are the same as him, he said. The only difference is that he had the opportunity to move to another country.

Now in America, he still sees police brutality, which only strengthens his empathy for Nigeria, he said. Everything that people fight for in America is the same as what Nigeria fights for.

And the answer, Engram said, is the same as what Americans are calling for: a defunding or disbandment. SARS is 100% a complete abuse of power, he said. There isn’t a reason to create a tactical force outside of the initial police force already established.

Instead, the government should focus on the needs of its citizens rather than minimize and dismiss them, he said.

Even from almost 7,000 miles away, there are still ways Americans can help the situation in Nigeria, Engram said. Simply being vocal is a large part.

In Nigeria, there’s no media coverage of the atrocities, he said. In America, though, we can openly discuss the issues and spread awareness.

Social media is a powerful tool for change, Engram said. Once more countries become aware of what’s going on, they’ll be unlikely to tolerate it, and Nigeria will be unlikely to get away with the brutality without other countries interfering.

The #EndSARS, #EndSARSnow and #EndPoliceBrutalityInNigeria hashtags recently gained global attention, with expatriate Nigerians and various public figures calling out the brutality on social media. Chance The Rapper, John Boyega, Rio Ferdinand and Trey Songz are just a few of the celebrities to speak out.

Amrovhe tries to do his part here in the U.S. by sharing information and attempting to educate his peers.

“My heart just goes out to the people who are dying every day,” he said.

Jinanwa said the answer to every problem starts with education. Once more people understand the severity of what’s going on in Nigeria, more people can pitch in to a solution. For his part, Jinanwa has tried to share information on social media and have conversations with his friends.

“It’s really a lot of educating others, sharing the news and really trying to protest in my way over here,” he said.

Even a simple post on social media can have a far reach and show Nigerians that they aren’t struggling alone, he said.

Of course, social media isn’t a perfect fix, Engram said. The entire world saw how social media brought the death of George Floyd in May to the forefront of social conversation, but still, police brutality continues. Nevertheless, it’s a step.

“It’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and the first thing we can do is not let up,” Engram said. “Continue to be vocal, continue to share these stories, continue to share it on social media, continue pushing it to be on mainstage, continue to force politicians to discuss it, continue to force academic institutions to discuss it, continue to fight when people who work in those spaces try to silence you or threaten you or make you feel like what you’re saying is unconventional and ridiculous.”

@CecilLenzen

features-editor.shorthorn@uta.edu

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