Protests across Nigeria and abroad sparked after video footage of the SARS police force pulled two men out of a hotel and onto the street in Lagos, shooting one of them. The act was one among a long series of brutality complaints against the federal police group; Amnesty has documented more than 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial execution between January 2017 and May this year alone.
The hashtag #EndSARS began trending on Twitter in Nigeria and abroad as people took to the streets in frustration and rage at the unlawful and violent acts of the state. The people were not alone as some of the biggest figures in Nigerian music joined the fray to speak truth to power.
Why have artists taken a central role in this wave of activism?
For one, the youth have been specifically targeted, and in a country where more than 60% of the population is aged under 24, the generational divide is potent. In a police unit that is known for shaking down young Nigerians with “flashy” appearance or non-conformative lifestyles, there is a strong sense that the force is contentious to a generation of digital natives, freelancers and youth who don’t fit into the traditional perceptions of success. Local reports indicate random police searches, brutality, and shake downs are a commonplace.
In a comment made on African Independent Television, Vandefan Tersugh, former SARS commander said, “I have seen you with a car, and now I have assessed your age, and I know in Nigeria how difficult it is for someone who is 20, 30 to start having a car worth N7 million. I cannot, as a policeman, see you there and assume something is not wrong with the way you are with the car.”
In other cases, it’s even more personal. Nigerian singer Oxlade, who made waves with his debut EP Oxygene earlier this year, saw his manager Ojahbee, dragged, beaten, and arrested for participating in a protest. There were also alleged attempts to pin Ojahbee with false murder charges following his arrest. When Ojahbee’s mother came to demand his release, she was attacked by police.
Wizkid, who has been vocal in his condemnations of SARS, led a rally in London against the police squad and announced he will be postponing his long anticipated album originally scheduled for October, 15th, in order to maintain focus on the cause.
Davido led a march in Abuja with a strong voice that amplified the crowd, and has now been given the go ahead from the Inspector General of Police, IGP, Mohammed Adamuto set up an independent panel to evaluate SARS officers.
Falz was also spotted leading a protest in Lagos.
Finally, Burna Boy took to Twitter to voice his opposition and spread awareness about a relief fund he recently launched with superstar backers including American artist and executive Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Social media was a frenzy of support from artists old and new looking to put their weight into reform. Following protests and public outcry, President Muhammadu Buhari issued a directive to disband the group and Nigeria’s chief of police stated they will be investigating abuses committed by SARS during their reign.
PRESIDENTIAL DIRECTIVE: The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force @PoliceNG has been dissolved WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT.— Presidency Nigeria (@NGRPresident) October 11, 2020
The Inspector General of Police will communicate further developments in this regard.
This is a symbolic win for Nigerian civil society and, though concrete measures have yet to be taken, it is a testament to the power of the people on the ground, and the necessity for artists with platforms to speak out against violence and corruption. However, Wizkid put it best in a Tweet following the group’s disbandment, “This is just the beginning!! We won our fight to #EndSARS… now Reform the Nigerian police!! #Endpolicebrutality! We deserve good governance!”
This isn’t the first time SARS has been disbanded, nor the first time the Nigerian government has promised police reform. No charges have been brought against former SARS officers and protests continue to ask for a broader reform rather than a business as usual shuffling of the political deck. In certain cases following the disbandment, the government has actively hindered the cause, freezing the funds of Feminist Coalition, a group that has raised over N25 million for protesters, forcing them to turn to alternative mediums to collect funds via cryptocurrencies. As protesters are met with brutality, violence, and lethal force for taking a stand, it is difficult to imagine a foreseeable end to the unrest.
PAM sends sincere wishes to the people of Nigeria for the courage and strength needed to continue the fight for a better tomorrow.