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Nigerians want an end to the police force known for brutalizing young people



LAGOS, Nigeria – With protests erupting in Nigeria and Nigerian immigrant communities around the world, the country’s president promised a skeptical public on Monday that he would crack down on fraudulent police officers accused of brutalizing citizens.

President Muhammadu Bukhari’s promise came a day after his government announced it would dismantle the widely feared police force, known as the SARS, for a Special Anti-Robbery Squad.

“The dissolution of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to comprehensive police reform,” Mr Bukhari said in a televised statement, speaking for the first time since the protests began last week. “We will also ensure that all those responsible for the misconduct are brought to justice.”

For many, Mr Bukhari’s response was too short, too late, and they predicted they would not mind calming angry young Nigerians who were blocking major routes in cities across the country in protest against the police force.

A protester in Lagos, 26-year-old Olasunkanmi Amoo, said President Bukhari’s statement was a hollow promise – and she noted that the demonstrations had not stopped.

“We’re still out,” she said. “People are very careful because you can say whatever you want, but if you don’t do anything, we will still be here. We’ll be back tomorrow. We don’t trust him and we don’t trust him. ”

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was set up in 1992 to deal with the problem of violent crime in Lagos. He acted as an impersonal 15-member team traveling in two unmarked buses, often wearing neither uniforms nor nameplates.

Anonymity was considered vital to the conquest of the gangs that were openly terrorizing Lagos at the time. But as the police force grew, establishing itself across the country, its impersonal nature opened the door to abuse, making it difficult to identify and report fraudsters and encourage them to act with impunity, critics say.

The SARS department is accused of targeting young people who look well-dressed, shaking them for money and torturing and harassing and even killing those who resist. Amnesty International reports that it has documented more than 82 cases of abuse and extrajudicial killings by SARS officials from January 2017 to May.

Many of the victims were between 18 and 35 years old, the human rights group said. Almost half of Nigeria’s population of 182 million is under the age of 30, one of the highest concentrations of young people in the world.

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The government has said before that it plans to close the unit, but its employees are still on the streets.

“The government disbanded SARS in 2017, 2018 and 2019,” said 25-year-old Omobolan Adams, a Nigerian student at Boston University. “We’re not buying it this time.”

Protesters say they will not be satisfied until the president issues an executive order and clear action is taken not only to disband the SARS but also to resolve wider police issues. Their demands include psychological assessments for reassigned SARS officers and compensation for victims of police violence. They also demand better pay for police officers in order to reduce the financial exploitation of citizens.

Protesters also demanded the release of those arrested in recent demonstrations and demanded that police use only rubber bullets during civil unrest.

Protests erupted in major Nigerian cities, including Lagos and the capital, Abuja, and outrage quickly spread online.

The hashtag #EndSARS on Twitter soon attracted global attention, resonating especially in the United States, the birthplace of the Black Lives Matter movement. The Nigerian protests were received by top American stars such as Chance Rapper and Cardi B.

Demonstrations in solidarity were held in the Nigerian diaspora in cities such as Atlanta, Berlin and London. In New York on Sunday, young protesters gathered in front of the Nigerian Consulate General in Midtown to share their own stories of police brutality while in Nigeria and to demand action from the Nigerian government.

“Young people in Nigeria are tired,” said Ms. Adams, a 25-year-old Boston University student who helped organize the event with other activists she met on Twitter.

She pointed to the harsh repression against protesters in Nigeria.

“People are being subjected to tear gas,” she said. “People were shot. We are here today to amplify the voices of Nigerians. Now is the time.”

The protests, which began last week, were sparked by reports that a young man in the Delta state of southern Nigeria had been killed during a search and search operation on October 3rd. Police said SARS officers were not involved.

As protests over the killing escalated, protesters faced increasingly brutal repression by security forces.

A man, Jimoh Isiaq, was killed during demonstrations in Oyo State on Saturday, and an unidentified observer was killed in Lagos on Monday when police fired bullets at crowds of protesters, witnesses said. Protesters and journalists were also shot and beaten in Abuja. Dozens more have been arrested and remain in custody.

The demonstrations were the largest in Nigeria in recent years, vying with protests in 2012 over rising fuel prices during the term of President Goodluck Jonathan.

Exhausted by weak governments and corrupt leadership for decades and divided along religious, ethnic and class lines, Nigerians do not often join mass protests.

But since last week, protesters of different economic status and religion have taken to the streets to express their demands. Top Nigerian celebrities such as pop stars Wizkid, Davido and Tiwa Savage attended rallies in major cities. And the protests bridged the generational gap as seniors briefly joined the demonstrations this weekend.

Shola Lowal reports from Lagos and Adenike Olanrevaju from New York.


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