Accused of brutality, extrajudicial killings and extortion one police unit in Nigeria has sparked a movement to rein in its excesses.

As journalist Kofi Bartels stepped out of his home in the southern Nigeria city of Port Harcourt in the morning of June 5 last year, he saw a group of five officers of the Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) beating a boy very close to his house and so he brought out his camera and began to film the incident. But the officers, offended by his actions, seized him and took him to the squad's headquarters where they beat him with wooden sticks and threatened to kill him.

"They also threatened to put me in a prison cell with an inmate who would rape me," Bartels, a reporter— until a few months ago—worked with the privately-owned Nigeria Info radio station, told TRT World. 

"I was taken to their torture room where officers slapped and punched me on my head which caused me to temporarily lose hearing in one ear."

"As a result of the torture," added Bartels, who has filed a case in court against the Nigeria police and is seeking compensation for the ordeal he went through at the hands of SARS officers, "I sustained a little fracture in one of my knees which still hurts till this moment."

The journalist, who wasn't charged with a crime, was later released by the officers after a former commander intervened hours after his arrest. Sadly, his story is just one in a number of growing events of SARS brutality across Nigeria that has got the entire country talking.

But it was another disturbing incident in Nigeria's commercial capital, Lagos, about a week ago that sparked mass fury and instigated renewed calls for reform.

On October 3, barely 48 hours after the country celebrated its 60th independence anniversary, a horrific video showed SARS officers dragging two young men from a hotel in Lagos and executing one of them in the street. The footage, which was taken by visitors at a hotel and shared on social media, fuelled anger propelled many more stories across the country on brutality and extortion by officers from SARS, notorious for human rights abuses.

"Just after the government recommended the wearing of face masks to contain the spread of coronavirus, SARS officers arrested me for not putting on one while I was driving alone in my car." Andrew, a 48-year-old public servant in the southern city of Port Harcourt who did not want his full name revealed for fear of retribution, told TRT World. 

"They took me to an ATM point and asked me to withdraw 10,000 naira (about $26) from my account and give the money to them before they can let me go."

The notorious squad operates mostly in plainclothes across Nigeria's 36 states, often creating roadblocks, or checkpoints, on highways for indiscriminate searches. Although the unit has been in existence for decades, it wasn't until three years ago that it began to face huge scrutiny for its extreme behaviour.

A report by Amnesty International, released in June, found that SARS members continue to use "torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish and extract information from suspects." The human rights organisation, which documented 82 cases between January 2017 and May 2020, found that the group targeted by the officers were young men between the ages of 17 and 30 "from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups."

"Young men with dreadlocks, ripped jeans, tattoos, flashy cars or expensive gadgets are frequently targeted by SARS," the Amnesty report said. "Many victims of SARS violations face obstacles and, in some cases, concerted opposition from the police authorities while seeking justice, including threats to their lives."

On Twitter, a number of videos posted this week by users of the app are disturbing. In one footage, witnesses accused a team of SARS officials of opening fire at a motorist and dumping him by the road before driving away from the scene with the vehicle of the victim. 

In a separate clip, an unarmed man was seen surrounded by a group of SARS policemen who gunned him down. Other videos showed SARS officers extorting money from people.

"Extortion is what many SARS officers do to helpless citizens," said Andrew, whose 39-year-old younger brother was once arrested for allegedly speeding and asked to pay 10,000 naira (about $26) to avoid being detained. "They sometimes arrest people indiscriminately and force them to pay a huge amount of money to regain their freedom."

After the video that showed SARS officers dragging the two young men in Lagos surfaced last weekend, the hashtag #EndSARS began to trend on Twitter with thousands using the hashtag to share stories of brutality attributed to the police unit. They also demanded the disbandment of the notorious squad for extrajudicial killings, harassment, illegal arrest and extortion of citizens, especially young people. 

Complete overhaul

On the streets of Lagos, hundreds of young people began a three-day protest on Wednesday calling for the scrapping of the unit and demanding reform of the entire Nigerian police force.

Across the country, prominent politicians like former Vice President Atiku Abubakar and former Senate President Bukola Saraki have joined in condemning the excesses of SARS and have demanded reforms while celebrities, including popular musicians Wizkid and Davido, have joined the rapidly growing #EndSARS campaign on social media.

In response to the outcry, Nigeria’s police chief, Mohammed Adamu, on Sunday announced a ban on routine patrols by SARS and other tactical police units focused on armed crimes from stop and searches. But with it being the fourth such ban in four years, the move is unlikely going to convince many that the authorities are serious about tackling the unit's impunity.

"To put a stop to these abuses, SARS officers have to be held accountable for actions and until that becomes the norm nothing will change." Edet Eno, a human rights lawyer, told TRT World. "Nigerians want to see the authorities take real action and deliver justice to the many victims of SARS brutality."

Two years ago, the government established a judicial commission of inquiry to look into the operations of SARS and recommend reforms but the commission’s report, which was submitted to the government over a year ago, was never made public. 

"To date, the Nigerian authorities have yet to show a genuine commitment to ending the lawless activities of SARS," said Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty International Nigeria, in a report on Tuesday. "Unless the authorities follow through with their promises to reform SARS and end the frequent extortion and ill-treatment of Nigerians, their empty words will be just that."

For a number of those who've been at the receiving end of SARS’ brutality, only a complete overhaul of the entire police structure in Nigeria can put a stop to growing human rights abuses by officers appointed to secure the very public they now intimidate.

"The authorities need to first start with fixing the recruitment process into the police force which is faulty," said Bartels, who has spent over a decade working as a journalist. "There are many criminal-minded persons recruited into the police force and that's why things are the way they are."