Abuja, Nigeria – When Osas Osaretin left his home in Abuja in June last year to shop, he could not have imagined the ordeal that would follow.
As he made his way to Wuse, a busy market in the Nigerian capital, the 21-year-old was pulled over by three Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) agents for what he believed to be a check-up. routine documents for his vehicle. Police officers armed with rifles ordered him to get out of his car and hand over his cell phone for a search.
“They didn’t even allow me to park the car properly and started yelling at me to bring my phone so they could check my messages and the call log,” Osaretin recalls.
“At first I resisted and tried to explain to them that I had done nothing wrong and I wondered why they wanted to consult my phone contacts,” he told Al Jazeera.
“One of the officers behind me slapped me so hard and picked up the phone forcefully. They asked for the pin of the phone at gunpoint and began to read my messages.
Osaretin said SARS agents took him in and accused him of advance fee fraud against him over certain WhatsApp messages he exchanged with a friend who lived abroad. Osaretin’s parents had to pay 300,000 naira ($ 783) before being released after four days in detention.
“I’m lucky to be alive because some of the young people who were captured by SARS never made it out alive,” he said.
The case of Osaretin is not isolated. For years, Nigerians have accused the notorious police unit of harassment, unlawful arrests, torture and even murder.
Anger mounted this week after video showing the alleged murder of a man by an officer in the southern Delta was circulated widely online. Police denied the video was real, but protesters across Nigeria took to the streets for several days demanding an end to police brutality.
A policeman and a protester were reportedly killed during a protest against alleged police brutality Thursday in Ughelli, Delta state.
“The Force will no longer tolerate any attack on its personnel or any member of the law enforcement community by a Protestant individual or group under any pretext whatsoever,” police said, citing the Inspector General of Police. (IGP) from Nigeria in a series of Twitter posts on Friday.
“The IGP notes that citizens’ protests remain a legitimate means of expressing their concerns and views. However, it must be carried out with all the sense of responsibility and within the limits of the law ”, declared Mohammed Adamu.
On Saturday morning, young protesters, some holding signs, gathered under a large bridge in the Berge neighborhood of Abuja, in the latest protest against police violence.
Resident Amara Nwankpa said he “wanted to speak up and come forward for all victims of police brutality and SARS atrocities, many of whom cannot speak for themselves because they are dead.”
Lawrence, 21, a teacher at a private school in Abuja who also took part in Saturday’s protest, said: “SARS has long harassed young Nigerians for lifestyles such as driving cars, owning computers. wearable, wearing dreadlocks, which they consider criminals. “
He shared one of his past relationships with officers from the unit: “Last year, as they returned from an observation center with my friends, four SARS officers emerged from the shadows. and accused us of being cultists, which we denied and explained where we came from. .
“Then they asked for our phones; I said “why”? The next thing that followed was a hot slap on my face… They forcefully collected over 8,000 naira ($ 21) from us, ”he told Al Jazeera.
Many have also taken to social media to share their stories of abuse using the hashtags #EndSARS and #EndSARSProtest. Footballers, musicians and other celebrities also supported the online campaign.
“To all the young people who take this as seriously as they should, let me say that you are all true heroes!” comedian Debo Adebayo posted on Twitter. “Whether they like it or not, Nigeria is ours and we will not let ourselves be slaughtered day after day!”
President Muhammadu Buhari said on Friday that he had met Adamu and called for “patience and calm”.
“Our determination to reform the police should never be questioned. I am regularly informed of ongoing reform efforts to end police brutality and unethical behavior, and to ensure that the police are fully accountable to the public, ”Buhari said on Twitter.
“The IG already has my firm instructions to conclusively address the concerns of Nigerians about these excesses and ensure that misguided staff are brought to justice.”
Last week, following the arrest of two SARS operatives and a suspected civilian accomplice in Lagos for “extortion and intimidation of innocent citizens”, Adamu banned the anti-theft unit from performing stop and search operations and road checks. as soon as roadblocks are erected, “with immediate effect”.
Adamu said police officers should no longer work in civilian clothes but always appear in their uniform or approved tactical dress, adding that their remit was limited to cases of armed robberies, kidnappings and other violent crimes “when the need arises. ‘actually felt’.
But this decision has failed to appease protesters, who say they are tired of hearing promises of reform.
“SARS must be banned,” Lawrence said. “Previously there had been calls for SARS reform, but they always came back stronger with evil.”
Nwankpa agreed, “This is the fourth time in five years that this government has promised to reform SARS. Enough is enough. It must be abolished now and the police need immediate reform. “