Stuck between the terror of leaving his house or dying slowly in a small apartment in Ajao Estate, a neighborhood in Lagos, Nigeria, Daniel faced another full-fledged anxiety attack after he discovered he had only two tablets of his antiretroviral drugs left.
It had only been three weeks since the president announced a lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Lagos, Africa’s largest city, and security was deployed to ensure that no one defied the lockdown orders. However, the 27-year-old banker was already making plans to defy that order—and he was ready for whatever he might get out of it. “I just couldn’t think anymore. I tried to continue watching Game of Thrones to help me forget I had a serious problem, but I couldn’t concentrate. I just walked into the bathroom, brushed my teeth, put on some clothes, and stepped out,” Daniel tells TheBody.
However, on driving to the clinic, he was stopped by men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). “As I was driving, I joined the queue,” Daniel says. “At first, I thought it was the traffic, but when I pulled closer, I realized I was on a checking point—and on discovering they were SARS, I panicked. … They asked me to join the queue of those supposedly pulled over by them. On waiting, I realized that most of those with me were young men like me. Something wasn’t sitting well.”
However, Daniel waited for 20 minutes before the police walked up to him and started questioning him about his job, his car, and where he was headed—to which he answered correctly, as well as providing evidence to them. But, he says, that didn’t stop them from harassing him: “One of them started screaming at me as if he was trying to convince me to believe I was lying.”
Despite being gripped by fright, Daniel still maintained his ground, convincing the SARS officers of his right. After a long, uncivil argument, he says, they threatened to arrest him if he didn’t pay a fine of 20,000 naira (about $50) for breaking the lockdown order—but that didn’t go well for Daniel. “I convinced them I only [had] 5000 naira (about $13), though I [had] more than that. They started shouting at me, telling me how they will kill me on the spot and nothing will happen since I have just violated the lockdown order. I was scared that I had to plead with them to take the 5000 naira. Yet they refused.”
Luckily for Daniel, they decided to let him go after waiting for more than an hour and 30 minutes as well as collecting the 5000 naira from him.
In 1992, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad was formed as a small unit in the police force to restrain all forms of internal terrorism in the society like robbery, kidnapping, and cultism. With the disreputable legacy they have garnered over the years, they are nothing less than the villain they have been asked to fight against. This unit has been responsible for torturing, harassing, extorting, and raping young Nigerians—all for having iPhones and laptops, dressing flashy, and having cars.
Moreover, Daniel’s story isn’t just his story; it is the story of thousands of young Nigerians who say they have witnessed the violence of these men. James is one of these people. On Sept. 3, the 25-year-old law graduate says he was headed home when the Special Anti-Robbery Squad stopped the public vehicle he had boarded and asked him to come down. “I had gone to make a local government of origin certificate for my younger brother at my home town. I was on my way back home when I was stopped from the vehicle that was carrying me,” James tells TheBody.
James says they had only told him to step down because he was wearing fancy jeans and a polo and carrying a bag. To James, he was heavily frightened—not because he had done anything wrong, but because he had heard stories about the squad’s operations. “One of them asked some questions, which I answered, but another insisted that I enter the vehicle, which was a Sienna. He even seized my phone. Few of the guys who entered the same vehicle with me had their phones checked and were let go. But mine could not be checked, as another officer had seized it. After some time, they forced I and another guy into the last seat of the Sienna and started taking us to an unknown location,” James says.
As they drove to an unknown location, the police kept asking the civilians questions about their lifestyles. They also tortured them, James says, until the other boy confessed he was into cybercrime. But for James, the torture continued until they searched his phone and found nothing, and then they dropped him off in an unknown spot.
This is what thousands of young Nigerians see in the hands of these tyrants. Daniel and James are among the few whose story isn’t more severe and scary. When Phillip, a 20-year-old student, tells me about his encounter with the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, his story is extremely disturbing. According to Phillip, these men kidnapped him in June 2019 on his way to a barbershop. Without explanations regarding his alleged crimes, they forcefully dragged him into their van and drove to their station. “I thought they were kidnappers,” Phillip says. “They dragged me into their patrol van and handcuffed me. I only saw they were SARS officers because of their T-shirt. I pleaded with them that I did nothing wrong. I even cried. They gave me unimaginable blows I didn’t know I will ever receive in my life.”
Phillip only realized what he was being arrested for when they got to the police station. The officers told him to sign a note stating he was homosexual and that he had just come from his lover’s house. He refused, still pleadingly crying for his release, but, he says, they pushed him into the cell and told prison inmates to beat him up for being homosexual. “I thought I will die, I was really scared. I didn’t feel like I will make it out to tell the story,” Philip tells TheBody during a phone call, sobbing at the same time.
In 2014, Nigeria’s president signed the Same-Sex Marriage (Prohibition) Act. The law punishes same-sex union with 14 years’ imprisonment. In the northern part of the country, the death penalty can follow. This law hasn’t just kept a lot of queer persons in the box but has been used to harass femme people in the country.
Phillip’s encounter with the SARS police didn’t just end there. The next day, he says, they bathed him with a pepper-like powdery substance. “They poured a powder substance on me. I didn’t know what it is, but it was so itchy. They told me to mention all the men I have done something with, and when I didn’t provide any name, they started preaching how evil I was—how homosexuality will get me in hell,” Phillip says. The experience was such a disastrous one that after he was released, Phillip was met with a depression that led him to attempt taking his own life. No one should be allowed to go through Phillip’s encounter.
Since Oct. 8, thousands of young Nigerians all over the country have been protesting for the abolition of this unit. In response, the government agreed to disband SARS on Oct. 11. It’s not the first time this kind of protest has occurred; neither is it the first time this unit has been disbanded. In 2017, 2018, and 2019, the same promise was stated, yet men of this unit went back on the street terrorizing young Nigerians, using them to build their wealth, and charging them with unimaginable crimes. If anyone gets them provoked, there is always a likelihood that they might kill that person, while also including that nothing will be done about that. According to the People’s Gazette, more than 30,000 persons have been killed by the SARS police in just 16 years—and yet, justice for these people is still not served.
Daniel joined in the earliest protest because he wanted to get justice for himself and for others who have been brutalized by these men. “I didn’t intend to join the protest, but being a past victim prompted me to,” he says. “For three years, I have lived with HIV, yet I haven’t had any problems. It’s knowing that the virus won’t kill me at all—rather, these tyrants will. I joined the protest to end that, and I’m happy I did.”
For James, the protest has seen him online, making sure that the #EndSARS hashtag trends on twitter. Despite the outcome of things in the country now, young Nigerians are not deterred from demanding changes to things, not just police reform but the general condition of the country. Pain is evident in this struggle—and people are ready to have it to get change.