#EndSARS and Nigerian National Security
Adam Stevens, John Wilmerding, Mahum Vance, AFRICOM
October 25, 2020
In the last few weeks, protests have erupted all over Nigeria, specifically in the Lekki and Alausa regions in Lagos, calling for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS. The #EndSARS movement does not focus solely on the SARS unit itself but also demands systemic change to the practices of police brutality and extrajudicial killings of civilians who are legitimately or illegitimately suspected of violent crimes. The current death toll is estimated to be above 56. Despite the movement’s positive message of reform and social justice, #EndSARS and the associated demonstrations will likely disrupt Nigeria’s security apparatus as a whole in the coming weeks and months. With the recent disbandment of SARS, due to long-standing allegations of police brutality, the Nigerian government aims to transform Law Enforcement into a more responsible and peaceful institution. This is simply the first step in confronting deep-rooted issues surrounding national security in Nigeria. Beyond the infectiousness attached to the #EndSARS protests, there has been little discussion about the effects these protests may have on the fight against the Islamic State’s West African Province. Does the dissolvement of SARS make the Boko Haram presence in northeastern Nigeria more or less secure? How will the reshaping of Nigeria’s security apparatus affect its operations?
Map of Lagos with Lekki and Alausa shown
SARS was originally formed in the mid-1980s as a special unit in response to an increase in violent crimes such as robberies, carjackings, and kidnappings across Nigeria. The SARS unit found early success stopping violent crime, but the force has descended into what could be called vigilantism; the founder of the unit has gone so far as to label its recent behavior as banditry. Protests against police violence have been met with more violence; just recently 12 people were killed as the Army gunned down peaceful protestors in the suburbs of Lagos. Violent clashes between protestors and the military have caught international attention, with news outlets from Al-Jazeera to CNN extensively covering the incidents. Peaceful protesters are calling for the military to “not be deployed to combat civil protests, but be sent to areas of insurgency to reclaim Nigeria’s territories under the control of Boko Haram.” The United Nations has also recently denounced the state of affairs, criticizing the violent reactions of the state. Though still in the thick of the turbulence Nigeria must prepare itself to confront a crippled security system and potential Jihadist aftereffects of widespread anti-government sentiment.
In examining the recent use of protest in Africa, the cases of Sudan and Egypt have become the most infamous; and while social media played a grand part in highlighting their real-life situations on the global stage, results often still felt symbolic. Some protests lead to direct change, while others do not, which is why the responses to mass government protests have varied from regime to regime. Moreover, though no concrete correlation can be drawn between protesting and a rise in terrorism, one could point to the turbulence resulting from violent clashes as potential fodder for jihadists, and antigovernmental propaganda. Lawmakers within Nigeria and organizational heads abroad should prepare for this turbulence by working with NGOs experienced in detecting terrorist tactics. For example, stakeholders should prioritize capacity building programs that adapt to local needs, include both counterterrorism and law enforcement professionals, in efforts to one, curb police brutality and two, deter potential spikes in Islamist insurgency.
Through the duration of these protests, released video footage shows police forces violently dragging protesters and detaining them. One protestor reveals that she was not sure what triggered police forces to release tear gas, but with stinging eyes, she ran in panic searching to reunite safely with her friends and fellow protestors. It is likely that high tensions remain as clashes seem to escalate without reason and Nigerian authorities have yet to prosecute SARS officers charged with torture. The clashes between protestors and police have not remained peaceful all throughout, which is why campaigners are calling for a top-down structural reform of all police units.10 In efforts to avoid ex-SARs officials being absorbed into a new unit, policymakers are encouraged to create an independent body within the unit to solely investigate the prosecution of officers.
Specifically, SARS, the catalyst for these protests, has been guilty of myriad extrajudicial killings in the state. While, as mentioned above, the protests do not focus solely on this organization, but on Nigerian policing as a whole, this group is emblematic of the larger issue of police brutality. Beyond killings, SARS has had accusations of torture levied against them, among other heinous acts. Thus, it is obvious to even the casual observer that the human rights abuse allegations merit such unrest. It is therefore imperative that these human rights abuses by Nigerian law enforcement be investigated independently, by NGOs or other stakeholders, and retribution afforded to the victims. Policymakers will also be keen to use findings from such inquiries to spearhead reform in Nigeria’s premier policing groups. As of today, chaos reigns in Lagos, massive demonstrations rage on while trash burns in the streets. On Friday, October 23, protestors stormed a warehouse where they discovered hoarded COVID-19 relief supplies, only feeding the anti-government sentiment. Currently, there are unconfirmed reports from the CTG threat hunter team of threats made on the nation’s oil and gas infrastructure by the Niger Delta Avengers. These threats promised attacks unless the Nigerian government made quick and meaningful moves to disband SARS and meet the demands of the #EndSARS protesters. Unrest only seems to be ramping up.
Although SARS has already been disbanded, the aim of the original protests has broadened in scope. In reality, #EndSARS was always a synecdotal goal meant to represent sweeping reforms in the country’s criminal justice system. As far back as 2008, reports have surfaced describing a “guilty until proven innocent” mentality within the courts and widespread mistreatment of the mentally ill, and general issues with police misuse of force. With such longstanding and troubling issues so deeply ingrained in the criminal justice system, the government of Nigeria must rise to the challenge of addressing them, without risking mass social unrest that may well last beyond the current spate of protests.
Protesters at the endSARS protest in Lagos, Nigeria
The Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) has grown emboldened, having recently captured a handful of armed vehicles with no reported casualties from a Nigerian military base. In all, Nigeria currently faces myriad challenges to its rule of law and public security. To meet all these challenges seems a daunting task, even to more stable nations. This does not mean that Nigeria should move to quickly quell the #EndSARS protests; these protestors have legitimate complaints and are well within their rights to protest against what they believe to be an inequity. At the same time, Nigerian security forces cannot simply sit by guarding protests while skeleton crews in the North fight bandits and terrorists shorthanded.
Ruthless, extrajudicial killings by government security forces have been the calling card of the Western Sahel over the last few years. Countries just to the South are facing similar issues: Burkina Faso, and now Nigeria, both straddling the southern edge of the biogeographic zone known as the Sahel, have made international news due to egregious abuses of power. These abuses have been a central catalyst for terrorism in the Sahel, and it should not then be shocking to see the same effect in Nigeria. To protest is an act of civil disobedience, as it is in this case, civilians standing against their government. Tensions will only be exacerbated, and anti-government sentiments will only rise due to the bloody recourse of the state. The rise in tensions and frustration will likely fuel jihadist’s recruitment and propaganda. It should be easier to pull people into your jihad when the government is pushing them from the other side. Groups like Boko Haram and ISWAP can offer security to the civilians who feel as though state security forces no longer serve to protect them. Furthermore, jihadist forces can offer resources, such as food and supplies; they have shown the ability to obtain resources at will, by looting and raiding villages that are unaffiliated to them. Impoverished and disenfranchised groups, feeling less secure than ever, could be easily seduced by the physical and economic protection jihadists may provide. If the Nigerian government does not deal with protestors diplomatically, and with grace, it is likely that they are sending civilians straight into the open arms of the Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) or Boko Haram.
Nigeria is heading down the path of increased civilian resistance and increased civilian radicalization; how can they get back on track? Nigeria’s security future will depend on the goodwill they have earned with their citizens: Continuously bu movement, as protest can lead to mixed successes and tends to have minimal coverage across mainstream media. The Counterterrorism Group is dedicated to detecting, deterring, and defeating terrorism worldwide, through our 24/7 monitoring of terrorist activities and international counterterrorism efforts.é between the government and the citizens is currently being burned away by these consistent abuses by the police. The key factor in earning back respect and more importantly trust will be transparency. Transparency requires an investment in the future and the betterment of one’s nation. The issue being faced by Nigeria is not a unique one. It should not resort to solely looking internally, but internationally as well. Countries all across the world, most notably the US, have had to face the grim reality of police brutality, and are wrangling with how to become more transparent. Nations facing this issue must take a stand and act to improve their practices: A clear statement would be a national investment in new training, either government-led or led by international NGOs, new regulations on the use of force, and new technology such as body cams and nonlethal weaponry. Nigeria would be wise to embrace watchdog groups that can speak on behalf of the people. Building trust through transparency will ensure that the government remains the main broker of security and protection, halting recruitment by ISWAP and Boko Haram. This is not something that they will need to do alone. With the eyes of the international community already watching Nigeria, the nation would be wise to seek aid from foreign nations in the form of financial aid, law enforcement training, third party investigators, and increased reporting on further abuses: currently, groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have decried abuses from security forces in nations like Nigeria, and in the Sahel, but without any government buy-in, they have little power to make the necessary changes. Enhanced counterterrorism training and aid will not only appease the cries of desperate Nigerian citizens but should also lead to increased efficiency and effectiveness.
As the #EndSARS protests wear on, the choice that the Nigerian government must make becomes clearer: Nigeria must move immediately to disband the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, implement sweeping policing accountability reforms, and satisfy the remaining demands of the protestors in short order. Nigerian security forces are simply not adequately equipped to handle the threats of banditry and terrorism while simultaneously quelling civil unrest. The best solution does not involve shutting down protests – if the problems endemic to Nigerian policing are effectively solved, it can only serve to improve political stability for the future. If the Nigerian government continues to stall legislative progress on the matter, they will find themselves overwhelmed by the challenges facing their nation’s security. The sooner the outcries of the #EndSARS protestors are addressed, the sooner national security forces can refocus on violence in the northern regions.
At The Counterterrorism Group (CTG), the AFRICOM Team is tracking developments regarding the Islamic State in West Africa and its activity in the region at large. Additionally, we are closely monitoring incidents related to the current #EndSARS movement, as protest can lead to mixed successes and tends to have minimal coverage across mainstream media. The Counterterrorism Group is dedicated to detecting, deterring, and defeating terrorism world wide, through our 24/7 monitoring of terrorist activities and international counterterrorism efforts.
________________________________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)
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