Tanzina: Hi, everybody, I'm Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway.
Tanzina: It's been more than a week of protests against police brutality in Nigeria. Tens of thousands of Nigerians have taken to the streets where police officers have opened fire on demonstrators and arrested hundreds. At least 10 protesters have been killed so far. Protesters have been calling for police reform and specifically the end of a unit that has been accused of human rights abuses. The unit is called the Specialized Anti-Robbery Squad or SARS. Over the weekend, the president of Nigeria said the unit would be disbanded, but demonstrators remain skeptical and are continuing to protest until all of their demands are met.
Joining us now is the BBC's Nigeria correspondent, Mayeni Jones from Lagos. Welcome to the show, Mayeni.
Mayeni: Hi, Tanzina.
Tanzina: We said that people are protesting this unit, but was there something that set off the protest to begin with?
Mayeni: The process initially started early in October when a video appeared on social media appearing to show some young men being dragged by SARS officers out of a hotel. It's unclear when the video was taken, but it was shared very widely on social media in Nigeria and started a resurgence in a hashtag that had been seen in the past, which was the hashtag #EndSARS. This hashtag first appeared we think in 2018 and had been used a couple of times before when similar videos have been posted showing SARS officers allegedly brutalizing members of the public but this time around, it picked up a lot of speed and this movement, this youth led movement that seems quite organic, has emerged from it.
Tanzina: What types of policing tactics are Nigerians protesting and who are SARS targeting generally?
Mayeni: Nigerians have been protesting everything from extortion to torture to extrajudicial killings. They say that members of SARS particularly are allowed to act with impunity and targets often young members of the public who perhaps are carrying mobile phones or laptop, they accuse them of being internet scammers. They also occasionally target people driving nice cars, and particularly the young or female, asking them how they made their money. They say that these practices are completely unacceptable, and that they're taking advantage of their position as plainclothes policemen to extort people for money and carry on brutal acts of violence against members of the public.
Tanzina: Now, we mentioned that the president of Nigeria has since said that he would disband this unit but protesters are still wanting demands to be met. What specific demands are they asking for, Mayeni?
Mayeni: They have a number of demands. They have five key demands. They want all protesters to be released. They've asked for justice for victims of police brutality, who've been killed and compensation for their family. They want an independent body to oversee an investigation into police misconduct. They've also asked for a psychological evaluation and retraining of members of SARS. They want to increase salaries for policemen across the board.
Tanzina: Protesters have been killed by law enforcement about 10 people we understand so far. Has there been any accountability or justice for those people?
Mayeni: That's one of the key reasons why protesters are still out on the street despite the dissolution of SARS. For them, the dissolution doesn't constitute any actual justice for victims. They say the fact that people have been killed during this protest and no officer has been charged, no investigation's been launched, nothing appears to have been done, shows that the authorities are not committed to reforming police in any substantive way.
They say that they'll keep coming out onto the streets until they see some actual change beyond just [unintelligible 00:04:25] from the government, beyond promises of reforms that they see they've seen before. They want to see officers charged, they want to see changes put into law, and they want to be assured that police officers in Nigeria will no longer be allowed to act with impunity.
Tanzina: Let's talk a little bit about who these protesters are. Are they largely young people? Are they women? Are they men? Who are we seeing that's taken to the streets?
Mayeni: That's what's been very interesting about this latest wave of protests. It's just the sheer diversity of people who've gotten involved. You have members of the Nigerian diaspora sending money from abroad, from the US, from Canada from the UK. You have young middle class people who live in Nigeria, who were educated abroad, who are lending their skills be its legal skills, medical skills, skills in logistics and organizing. Then you have ordinary Nigerians, perhaps who've lived here their whole lives, who are often targeted by the police because they're seen as powerless or not too well connected.
All these diverse groups are coming together at these protests, because they say that the violence committed by SARS and the wider police because this is also a protest about abuses of the police in Nigeria as a whole affect everyone.
Tanzina: One thing that's been discussed is that the Nigerian government said that they would disband SARS, but they have already introduced a different unit named SWAT. Is this the same thing with a different name?
Mayeni: That's the accusation that's been leveled at the government. I think people were particularly skeptical because of the speed with which this new Special Weapons and Tactics Team or SWAT was set up. They say that it shows that this was just a knee jerk reaction from the authorities, and particularly from the head of police, and that it's not been thought through, that it's just going to be SARS, but perhaps more heavily armed and with a different name.
They're completely distrustful. There's been a breakdown of trust completely between the police, the government, and young people in Nigeria. Many people are looking towards SWAT. Within an hour of the announcement being made that it would be formed, the hashtag #EndSWAT started. When we hit protests in Lagos, during the week, there were already a number of signs up saying EndSWAT.
Tanzina: This is happening in a moment here in the United States, where we've seen at least the past couple of months, really an uprising for racial justice, particularly against police brutality. Would you say that there's some of this influence that has maybe influenced some young people in Nigeria?
Mayeni: Definitely speaking to protesters here, there's a sense that it's a particularly interesting moment in time. I think many of them, yes, were inspired by what they saw in America this year. I think there's also been recently, protests that have been led by young people, particularly the Sudanese protests last year, that showed that young Africans could effect change in their country. I think many young people are frustrated in the wake of seeing both those protests and the change that they've made, that things for them in Nigeria are not changing.
I think the pandemic has also been instrumental. Many people have found themselves stuck at home, their livelihoods shattered and they realize that their governments can do very little for them, whereas governments in other countries have stepped in, paid salaries, helped out in some ways, the Nigerian government hasn't been able to do that in any substantive way. I think all of these elements have come together to create the perfect storm in which we found ourselves right now.
Tanzina: Mayeni Jones is the BBC's Nigeria correspondent. Mayeni, thanks for joining me.
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