Dozens of youth on Monday gathered at the Freedom Park in Lagos to protest against the incessant brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, of the Nigeria Police Force on citizens.
Armed police officers watched from a distance as the youth, one of them clutching a public address system, moved into a nearby motor park to sensitise people about the “atrocities” of the SARS officers.
SARS is a specialized arm of the police established to combat armed robbery and other violent crimes.
But in recent years, the officers have engaged in widespread extortion of citizens and extra-judicial killing leading to an online campaign to scrap the squad.
The campaign, with the #EndSARS hashtag, trended on social media for several days last week, with the organisers calling for a movement of the protest offline to engage with ordinary Nigerians.
Ini Abasi, a businessman, said he was at the protest to lend his voice to the struggle.
“Regardless of what happens, whether we are battered today or tomorrow, this struggle must succeed, the Nigerian Police must be reformed to reflect our collective aspiration,” Mr. Abasi said.
“The police, SARS cannot continue to hold young people, grown ups and matured people to ransom in the Nigerian state. If justice is not seen to be done, then justice is not done.”
Another protester, Temitayo Tella, said he had been harassed thrice by the SARS operatives despite showing evidence of running a thriving business in Lagos.
“I have a staff of not less than ten people working under me, yet they will harass us without any sort of pity, extort us,” said Mr. Tella.
“The last one, I was on an emergency call from my family house, I got there, after solving the issue, I was stopped at the bus stop.
“I had a laptop and my car keys with me. The question that was being asked was that they needed a receipt for the laptop I was holding, I was at the extreme of Lagos where I couldn’t get it.”
Mr. Tella said had to call his mother to come and “settle” the police officers.
“Eventually, on her way back, she fell down and broke her wrist. This must have been happening to several Nigerians all across the country.
“We need a total reform of the police force not just scrapping of SARS.”
The Monday protest in Lagos, which was scheduled to hold simultaneously in major cities across Nigeria including Abuja, Ibadan, Warri, and Owerri, was billed to begin at 9 a.m.
But two hours after the scheduled time, a handful of people had trickled into the protest ground. At a time, the number of reporters and cameramen outnumbered the protesters.
The police officers, who arrived at about 10 a.m., kept a safe distance but approached at some point to take photographs of the protesters.
Majeed Oluwadurotimi, a protester, attributed the low turnout of the protest to fear of police brutality.
“I think people in Lagos most especially are afraid, we can’t shy away from that fact,” Mr. Oluwadurotimi said.
“When I came here as early as 8 a.m., I could see some people moving around, people were like ‘let’s see if people will turnout.'”
But Olorunfemi Adeyeye, one of the coordinators of the Lagos protest, said a crowd doesn’t need to turn out for the protest to be deemed successful.
“Every movement that will be serious starts small everywhere in the world, you don’t need a mass to really cause change,” said Mr. Adeyeye, the National Secretary of Alliance of Nigerian Students Against Neo-Liberal Attacks.
“But I’m very sure that as the advocacy continues, we’ll have more people joining.
“This protest is giving it a non-virtual look, it has always been online, on Twitter, on Facebook, to make the people understand that Nigerians, especially the youth, are angry at the human rights abuses going on by the SARS officers.”