The SARS (Special Anti Robbery Squad) was founded 28 years ago after a series of armed robbery attacks that brought the country to its knees. In 1992, Nigeria was a jungle with armed robbery and kidnapping attacks increasing as each new day dawned. Former IGP Mike Okiro, the then Commissioner of Police in Lagos, and a few other policemen bounded together to create the unit. The task force brought down notorious armed robbers like Shina Rambo who terrorized the Southwest in the ’90s. With its success in Lagos, the unit spread across the remaining states in the nation.
At the time of its creation, SARS operatives were undercover agents who dressed in mufti. Their main focus being violent criminals. Over the years, the same methods which made them successful in the ’90s are now the reason the squad gets away with torture, extortion, and murder as there is no way for victims if left alive to identify their oppressors. It is owing to this that the #EndSARS campaign has been relaunched to raise awareness on its methods and to propose its abolition.
We spoke to five young people to get stories of their experiences with SARS.
They came at night. They broke my door. I was unclad and terrified and they said they got reports that a robbery was going on and they automatically guessed it was my apartment because a guy was sighted coming in. They forcefully took my boyfriend’s phone and went through it. For every unanswered question, it was followed by a slap. One of the men threatened to rape me and he squeezed my breasts. I was crying and pleading with them. They later left after we gave them money.
I was sleeping over at a friend’s hostel when we suddenly heard a loud bang on the door. Someone had invited them to settle a dispute between her and her roommate but they decided to terrorize the whole floor. After banging on the door for a long time and no one answered they proceeded to leave thinking it was empty but one person kept saying he could smell people in the room. Unfortunately, someone returned to the room and we were forced to open the door. They realized we were in the room and started beating us. One of them had a machete he used in hitting my back a couple of times. They searched the room and found nothing and proceeded to extort us of our money. I was just a 200 L student. I had never received such treatment in my life.
I was kidnapped by SARS. I was on a bus going to Ibadan from Oyo town. We got to this checkpoint where they asked us to come down. They took stock of everyone and told the driver to leave without me. They were led by a woman who searched me and threatened to hit me and take me to jail if I refused to enter. I was forced into one of those Micra buses they use as public transport in Ibadan. The other male officers saw I was resisting and said “Put handcuff for im hand”. One of them started going through my phone and saw a message NCDC had sent to me weeks before after I had tested positive for COVID. He told his colleagues and they asked what country I went to and got COVID because they didn’t believe COVID was in Nigeria. I told them I had never left the country. They let me go afterward because they were afraid of catching COVID and didn’t find anything on me. I think I was lucky but I was baffled at how daft they were. These are the people supposed to protect us?
My friend and I left school from Abeokuta to Lagos and as we got to the outskirts of Lagos we could see a small white bus signaling us to stop and we recognized them as SARS. I advised my friend not to because we smelt of weed and had some in the car. We hoped that if we acted totally oblivious, they would stop chasing. We kept on driving fast while they followed us for about 5km. They started fading and we thought we had lost them only to suddenly find them back behind us. This time they were shooting so we knew the game was up. My friend started to slow down and at that moment one of the bullets went to the back of his neck, he lost control of the car and we ended up crashing into a roadside shop. I don’t remember what happened after that but my friend died that day and the bullet caused more damage than the accident. I was in the hospital for 3 weeks and came out with a shattered leg and they had to cut it off because it started to decay. People present at the scene reported that the SARS officials did not stop to see the accident they had caused.
Emmanuel Nnaji, 24
I first encountered SARS during my National Youth Service in 2019 when travelling to Abuja. I was asked to alight from the car. When I got off, my laptop and phone were searched. They went through my WhatsApp chats and e-mails. This happened at about three checkpoints. They claimed I was looking good and happened to be the only guy in the vehicle. Were they trying to say it’s a crime to dress well? They are hating on young guys and pinning them as ‘yahoo boys’ without tangible evidence.
The real experience that threw me off took place on the 9th of September, 2019 at about 10:20 am. I was right in front of an Anglican church in Oshogbo waiting for my colleagues. I was absent-minded while using my phone when two armed men jumped at me like a wanted criminal before taking me to their bus. I told them I was a Corps member and they laughed asking if I knew how many of my colleagues they have arrested. My identity card meant nothing to them. They found nothing on my phone and requested money which I declined. First, it was a public area and I didn’t want to give people the impression of being guilty and trying to find my way out. Secondly, if they had approached me in a friendly manner and ‘begged’ for money, I would have stashed some into their pockets. The other time they tried it, my roommate was arrested. They broke into my room and took my laptop to their station. I was unaware until I was called to tell them my password. Annoyed, I put a call across to my lawyer and told them I was coming with him. They told me not to bother, released my roommate and gave him my laptop. I have been harassed by them about six to seven times now.
The first time I was harassed by them was during my service year in Osun State. I was taking a stroll with a friend on Station Road when we heard someone saying we should run. We thought he was joking and ignored him. Suddenly, a bus parked before us, and one of the men asked us to get in. Taken aback, I refused because it wasn’t even an official car but public transport. There was a policeman around and he came over to ask what was going on. Next, I was asked to unlock my phone. Again, I refused because it was personal property. Due to this, I was hit on the head with a gun by an officer and taken to their office where I made some calls. When my Local Government Inspector came around, he was told I looked like a thug. Can you imagine? They changed the entire story.
My friend and I were headed home towards Gbagada. Halfway there we were flagged by men in mufti. We were questioned and our phones were scrutinized. They searched for words like “client”, “dolls” and “bitcoin”. Of course, some words popped up and we were at this point profiled as fraudsters. They made us abandon our car and forced us into their vehicle and they drove us along Ikorodu Road. They picked up more people on the road and made us lap each other. They told us to help ourselves by paying 200,000 naira each. Failure to do so and we’d be charged with fraud. They had picked up some women too. Our phones and clothes were seized and we began to bargain with them. Eventually, we beat it down to 50,000 naira. They swore not to accept transfers so they drove around until they found an ATM around Berger. I gave them the money and they left me on the street in my underwear at midnight.
Stories were gathered by Tolu Oke and Dami Akintola