In the middle of the present pandemic, SARS is a well-known acronym for the predecessor to COVID-19. Yet SARS right now is not just an acronym for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, but also for a mysterious and violent Nigerian police unit. SARS and the protests against it, shed light on the importance of balancing the civilian, military, and police spheres of a society.
Nigeria in 1992 had a problem: the already-high violent crime rate was rising. Sensing a failure of the police to effectively combat crime, the Nigerian government established a new highly-militarized national police unit — the Special Anti-Robbery Squad — or better known by its acronym, SARS. 28 years later, it is difficult to discern if it was effective.
As the U.S. State Department directly and simply states, “crime is prevalent throughout Nigeria.” Armed robbers, kidnappers, murders, criminal groups, and smugglers all operate widely. The police are ineffective and often demand bribes. Even violent criminal groups operate with relative impunity. It would be wrong to claim that Nigeria does not have a crime issue, but given the continuing high levels of crime, SARS appears ineffective and often responds with shocking, indiscriminate violence. A brief glance at the actions committed by SARS demonstrates this.
SARS increasingly participated in activities that were associated with its criminal adversaries. “SARS has been accused of extrajudicial killings, unlawful detention, kidnapping, torture, extortion and robbery” along with harassment, beatings, and bribery. Between 2017 and 2020, Amnesty International counted at a minimum 82 incidents of torture by SARS personnel. From prosecutor to perpetrator, it ended up committing the same crimes it was supposed to prevent. Even the founder of SARS, Fulani Kwajafa, expressed his disappointment with the unit. Yet combating crime was only part of SARS.
Most telling, the other part of the original mission of SARS was to reduce banditry. As the famous historian Eric Hobsbawm argued, bandits are often expressions of local peasant hatred against the regional lords. The peasants identify themselves with the bandits, assisting them and not cooperating with efforts to capture the bandits — à la Robin Hood. Bandits become closely identified with the peasantry and while bandits do not seek to overthrow the government, they can be read as expressions of peasant disapproval of the authorities. SARS should be read in this light - as an organization tasked with not only fighting violent crime, but as also a violent repressor of internal dissent.
In early-October 2020, a video of the brutal beating and death of two Nigerians by SARS was posted, followed by other evidence of the squad’s violent actions. Protests started, demanding that SARS be dissolved and the multiple perpetrators be charged as criminals. Massive marches on government installations occurred throughout Nigeria as well as protests outside of Nigerian embassies around the world.
Then on October 11th the President of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, stated that, “The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force has been dissolved with immediate effect.” However, this pronouncement was then followed up with another declaration stating, “All officers and men of the now defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) are to be redeployed with immediate effect.” The protestors felt the twin pronouncements effectively failed to meet any of their demands. Disbanding the structure was a clear step, but no attempt was made to prosecute the corrupt and violent serving within SARS, as the protestors wanted. The pronouncements even offered SARS personnel new jobs within the existing police apparatus. In response to this disappointment the protests continued, with President Buhari ordering a violent crackdown.
But this should not be unexpected, after all President Buhari — when he was President between 1983 and 1985 — launched the Orwellian-named War against Indiscipline. Think that the War on Drugs used excessive tactics or that the War on Terror had an ill-defined goal? That was nothing compared to Buhari’s war. During the War against Indiscipline, “Nigerians faced physical punishment — even imprisonment — for such misdemeanours as queueing improperly or being late for work.” Buhari himself was a general and rose to presidency after a successful military coup, so such heavy-handed tactics are not surprising. What is surprising is that Buhari’s 1980s regime was so brutal and ineffective that he was overthrown by his fellow generals.
Herein lies the crux of the issue: the necessity of balancing the civilian government, the military complex, and the police apparatus. As Hobsbawm said, “all modern states have taken the view, at least since Napoleon, that the ideal relation between the civilian governments and the military is the subordination of the latter to the former.” This holds true even in Nigeria. When Buhari became president in 1983 he formally left the military. Civilian leaders might be former generals or engineer their own coups, but it is rare in any country that leaders hold both civilian and military commands simultaneously. This does not mean the military is not a factor to be balanced, only that the civilian-military balancing act has often been surprisingly successful.
The civilian-police balancing act, on the other hand, has remained mostly unevaluated. As the Nigerian situation demonstrates, the police apparatus can become so intertwined with the civilian administration that reform becomes difficult. The government should serve the people and the police should serve the people. The police are not simply an arm of the government, nor is the government beholden to the police. When the military fails in its mission, the civilian authorities open investigations and seek to understand why the military failed in its mission. If the police fail in its mission, then the civilian government authorities should act similarly. The role of the government for both the military and police should be to hold them accountable and ensure they are doing their jobs.
When the government becomes beholden to the military, it is termed military rule and looked down upon. When the government becomes beholden to the police, should it not be looked down upon equally? Although the police and the military are not simple equivalents, militarized police, parapolice, and paramilitary forces can blur the distinctions. It is time we recognize these dangerous currents and add the police into our conceptualization of the civilian-military balance. Just as we see the dangers in conflating the civilian and the military, we should also see the dangers in conflating the civilian and the police.
 Emmanuel Akinwotu, “Nigeria Protests: Security Forces Open Fire on Protesters in Lagos,” The Guardian, Oct. 11, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/11/nigeria-to-disband-sars-police-unit-accused-of-killings-and-brutality.  “Nigeria 2020 Crime & Safety Report,” U.S. Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council, April 28, 2020, https://www.osac.gov/Content/Report/b4c7348c-8cd8-4e1b-bf01-188e5b7ee9b9.  U.S. Department of State Overseas Security Advisory Council, “Nigeria 2020 Crime & Safety Report.”  Neil Munshi, “Nigeria Dissolves Violent Crime Police Unit after Anti-Brutality Protests,” Financial Times, Oct. 11, 2020, https://www.ft.com/content/558ef7b0-1c21-4726-bfd1-4a9af57f093f  “Nigeria: Horrific Reign of Impunity by SARS Makes Mockery of Anti-Torture Law,” Amnesty International, June 28, 2020, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2020/06/nigeria-horrific-reign-of-impunity-by-sars-makes-mockery-of-anti-torture-law/.  “End SARS: Hated Nigerian Police Unit’s Founder ‘Feels Guilty’,” BBC News, Oct. 16, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54567419.  Eric Hobsbawm, Primitive Rebels, (London: Abacus, 2017), 18-19.  Emmanuel Akinwotu, “Outcry in Nigeria over Footage of Shooting by Notorious Police Unit,” The Guardian, Oct. 6, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/06/video-of-nigerian-police-shooting-man-in-street-sparks-outcry.  Office of the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (@NGRPresident), Twitter, Oct. 11, 2020, https://twitter.com/NGRPresident/status/1315273093221318656.  “Nigeria Protests: Police Chief Deploys 'All Resources' Amid Street Violence,” BBC News, Oct. 25, 2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54678345.  It should be pointed out that President Buhari regained the Presidency in 2015 during free elections; hence he was President of Nigeria between 1983-1985 as well as 2015-present.  Maggie Fick, “Buhari Turns to War against Indiscipline as Economy Slides,” Financial Times, Aug. 21, 2016, https://www.ft.com/content/117a43b0-65e7-11e6-8310-ecf0bddad227.  Eric Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries, (New York: The New Press, 2001), 213-214.  Hobsbawm, Revolutionaries, 224.