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A look at the #EndSARS movement and why Nigerians are protesting against police brutality

Nigerians protesting police brutality have been demonstrating in the streets for two weeks, and the hashtag #EndSARS trended on Twitter even after the police promised to dismantle the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad police unit earlier this month.

Authorities promised to dismantle Nigeria's controversial SARS police unit, but protesters are skeptical

People hold banners as they protest police brutality in Lagos on Tuesday. Authorities have imposed a round-the-clock curfew in Nigeria's largest city. (Sunday Alamba/The Associated Press)

Nigerians protesting police brutality have been demonstrating in the streets across Africa's most populous nation for two weeks, and the hashtag #EndSARS has been trending on Twitter even after the police promised to dismantle the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit earlier this month. 

So what is SARS, what attempts have been made to address police abuses in Nigeria and what do protesters want?

What is 'SARS'?

Police formed SARS in 1992 to tackle violent crimes such as carjacking, armed robbery and kidnapping. Because SARS was initially designed as a covert force, officers did not wear uniforms.

The unit developed a reputation for brutality, with Amnesty International accusing it of harassment, extortion, rape, extrajudicial killings and torture. Nigerians said it frequently targeted young men with tattoos, dreadlocks or expensive cars or phones.

The police force has repeatedly denied the accusations levelled against SARS, though it said earlier this month that "unruly and unprofessional" officers had been arrested and were facing disciplinary actions.

What sparked the current protests?

A video allegedly showing SARS officers shooting a man in Delta state before driving off in his car began circulating in early October, sparking the current protests. Police denied the incident.

Police initially responded to protests with force, including the use of tear gas, water cannons and live rounds. By Oct. 16, at least two had been killed in Lagos and at least three had been killed in Oyo state.

The violence has continued this week, with the Lagos state governor saying 30 people were hurt at a toll gate in the Lekki district on Tuesday evening, when, according to witnesses, soldiers shot at protesters.

WATCH | Protest against police brutality in Nigeria turns violent:

Nigerian security forces open fire on protesters

3 years ago
Duration 2:01
What started as a protest against a Nigerian police squad accused of brutality turns violent after security forces open fire on demonstrators.

In a news release the following day, Amnesty International said its on-the-ground investigation found that 12 protesters had been killed by Nigerian security forces on Tuesday in Lekki and Alausa, another district in Lagos.

Amnesty said at least 56 people have died across the country since the protests began.

How has the government responded?

Police initially banned SARS from routine patrols and ordered members to wear uniforms. After continued protests, police said they had disbanded SARS with immediate effect on Oct. 11.

President Muhammadu Buhari pledged police reform, and a federal council ordered states to set up compensation funds for victims of police brutality.

On Oct. 13, police announced that a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team would "fill the gaps arising from the dissolution of the defunct SARS."

Authorities in Abuja said protests were banned due to coronavirus concerns, and in Lagos, videos circulated on Twitter of men armed with knives, clubs and other weapons attacking demonstrators.

Authorities imposed a statewide round-the-clock curfew in Lagos beginning Tuesday afternoon.

A woman wearing an "END SARS" face mask speaks with the police outside the Nigerian Consulate during a demonstration against Nigeria's controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) police unit in London, England, on Wednesday. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Why are protesters skeptical?

The government has pledged to reform, disband or investigate SARS on multiple occasions, including a promised 2017 Senate investigation and a 2018 overhaul and investigation.

Nigerians and observers say little has changed. Protesters say SWAT teams could simply become SARS under a new name, and they now carry #EndSwat signs.

What do protesters want?

Protesters have five main demands:

  • The immediate release of all arrested protesters.
  • "Justice" for those killed by police and compensation for their families.
  • An independent body to investigate and prosecute police misconduct within 10 days of a claim.
  • Independent psychological evaluation of disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed.
  • Increased salaries for police so they are "adequately compensated" for protecting lives and property.

With files from CBC News