SARS vs the People: Why police reform has been delayed

SARS vs the People: Why police reform has been delayed
Nigerian youth protests. Source: Stears Business

Winston Churchill once said, “You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they've tried everything else.” 

It is a quote that could easily apply to Nigeria as well. 

As many of us know, power in Nigeria is routinely exercised through patronage networks that cater to the priorities of a few people. In many parts of the country, power is applied without much reference to the formal structures of governance or the Nigerian people—to whom leaders have never been accountable. 

The growing poverty among most Nigerians strengthens this system because it cements the role and importance of the elite and government. The result is that nothing happens until some people think something ought to happen.

Unfortunately, few things outside national elections are capable of uniting the interests of the nation’s elite enough to rally broad support for a single issue. An international crisis? Hardly. Economic reform? Sometimes. Police reform? No.

In the run-up to the 2015 presidential election, former president, Goodluck Jonathan, became the subject of change. Boko Haram had taken control over parts of Nigeria and had detonated bombs in the capital city, Abuja. Corruption also reached embarrassing levels, topped off with the president saying that “corruption was not stealing” during a presidential media chat. 

It was at this point that the elite in society had reached their limit—something had to “change”. Of course, there were many factors that led to Buhari’s victory, but a crucial piece of the puzzle was that both elites and the common Nigerian were on the same side.  

That hasn’t been the story with #EndSARS. 

The movement began in December 2017, due to mounting evidence of the unit’s unchecked disregard for the lives and property of citizens. In August 2018, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo directed the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris, to review the operations of SARS and asked the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to investigate the various allegations of rights abuses by the unit. In January 2019, as acting IGP, Mohammed Adamu relocated control of SARS to the Commissioners of Police, as opposed to the federal chain of command that previously existed.

These actions were the equivalent of window dressing, for a unit whose officers were killing people as far back as 2005. Deep down, few of the people with power really wanted anything to change.

Fifteen years ago, the then Deputy Commissioner of Police, Danjuma Ibrahim, reportedly ordered the shooting of six individuals. The tragedy, known as the Apo Six, should have served as a wake-up call. That never happened.

In June this year, in its report Time To End Impunity, Amnesty International reported at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. It also reported that letters sent to the police authorities to take action were not answered.


The truth is that the anger and energy behind the police complaints did not reach the threshold for the Nigerian elite to step up. SARS do not threaten the existence of the state’s elite in a way that calls for action. Not much was at risk.

However, the trigger for this latest round of protests was video footage showing SARS officers attacking a young man at a hotel in Ughelli, and making away with his vehicle. At this point, Nigeria’s youth decided they had seen enough—something had to change.

And this time, the announcement of SARS being disbanded or reorganised, which has been done three times since 2017, was not going to cut it. 

The scale and intensity of the protests in the last week indicate that any window for the reform of SARS or window dressing has closed, at least in the mind of Nigerians. Upon his return from Ondo State, having helped Rotimi Akeredolu get re-elected, Lagos governor Babajide Sanwo-Olu met a different city to the one he left behind. He was greeted with chants of ‘shame shame shame’ by protesters as he tried to appeal to them. His subsequent comments, however reasonable they might have sounded, were met with a profound lack of excitement. 

For those who have decided that SARS is beyond reform, that lack of excitement is the dominant feeling. All that has been said so far has been said before, to no effect.

Indeed, the reaction of the police to the peaceful protests, especially their actions in the immediate aftermath of statements by IG Adamu and the President, makes the point more eloquently than any #EndSARS protester ever could.

Every other video on social media shows police firing shots, using water cannon and/or tear gas to disperse the protests. In Surulere, Ikechukwu Ilohamauzo, a bystander, was killed by a stray bullet, his hands still in his pockets. Two ladies were seen being hustled into Area C headquarters by policemen for the crime of peaceful protest.

The mere fact that the Nigerian Police Force cannot restrain itself at a time of maximum national—and international—scrutiny, means that they cannot even be bothered to put up a front. The mask has not just slipped, it was thrown away a long time ago.

These protests are energising the people. So every day, young people inch closer and closer to that invisible threshold for action; the point at which reform is no longer a camera statement, but a necessary reaction for the safety of Nigeria’s decision-makers.

The Occupy Nigeria protests in 2012 ended up defining the Jonathan administration, and these #EndSARS protests are doing the same for the current government. The current president may appear teflon, but that will only be true until it is no longer. With less than three years till he leaves office, any positive legacy risks being overshadowed by widespread and potentially long-running civil unrest.

It remains to be seen if the elites have the political will necessary to tackle this problem. Speaking on Monday afternoon in a clip that was less than two minutes long, Buhari said that dissolving SARS is the first step in a wider reform of the police. The other steps had better come quickly because the people are picking up pace.


Joachim is a Senior Analyst with SBM Intelligence


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Joachim MacEbong

Joachim MacEbong

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