It all started with a viral video about an incident in Ughelli, Delta State on October 3, 2020.
From what was described by eyewitnesses, officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had arrested a young man driving around in his car.
The officers were then alleged to have shot and killed the young man while transporting him, and thrown him out of a moving police vehicle.
The video started trending on Twitter and led to a resurgence of a mainly online campaign to scrap the unit notorious for its well-documented history of abuse of power.
When the Police came out with its findings about the Ughelli incident hours later, it said the man was not shot but had actually jumped out of the vehicle (although his brother claimed he was pushed by officers). Also, he didn’t actually die.
More important to note, it wasn’t SARS officers involved in the incident. It was the Safe Delta Squad, a special operational squad created by the Delta State Police Command in December 2019.
The facts of the matter did not change public perception about the incident, and the online campaign against SARS, innocent of this particular crime, was gaining what would turn out to be the biggest steam since it first made waves in 2017.
The #EndSARS campaign has risen and fallen with each new event of SARS brutality hitting the news over the past three years, with sparsely attended protests kicking off here and there.
The campaign reared its head again in 2019 when police officers, believed to be attached to SARS, killed Kolade Johnson in Lagos during an illegal raid in his neighbourhood.
However, Johnson was not killed by SARS, but by officers of the Special Anti-Cultism Squad (SACS) of the Lagos State Police Command.
This pattern is not to say that SARS is not guilty as charged about many of the things it has been exposed for, it absolutely is and more.
In fact, the only reason the police unit has become the target of this misattribution phenomenon is exactly because its officers became the face of police brutality across the country.
SARS has plenty of blood on its hands.
For every one person that died from the brutality of SARS officers, countless more lived to tell the horrifying tales of harassment, extortion, torture, and sexual violence suffered in the hands of officers of the unit.
The fuel that burned the current protests to what is now regarded as the most-publicly charged and youth-led civil resistance in decades is years of unchecked menace.
SARS officers became the law onto themselves and ran wildly across the nation, becoming the evil they were created to get rid of.
The eventual dissolution of the unit announced days ago is a well-deserved victory that protesters can be proud of.
But, as many have come to quickly realise, the victory is not quite as clean cut yet, and the bigger problem requires an even bigger fight – the entire institution of the Nigeria Police Force.
As much as SARS became the poster child of police brutality, dissolving the unit and creating a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit isn’t going to solve the core problem of police brutality.
For every life unjustly ended or terrorised by a SARS officer, there are two equally ended or terrorised by officers of other units of the Force (the same units SARS officers are now to be redeployed).
The same hole from which SARS emerged is the same one that produced SACS that ended Kolade Johnson’s life, and produced numerous other such tactical units whose existence is not threatened by the wave of anger that has swept SARS away.
Since protests against police brutality started last week, at least a dozen deaths have been reported across Nigeria, many of them done by officers not affiliated with SARS.
Many protesters have also been viciously arrested and assaulted by these regular police officers.
And that is the bigger problem that the EndSARS protests are now addressing.
The Nigeria Police Force is propped up by unnecessary violence that officers have fooled themselves into believing is necessary to maintain law and order.
It’s why torture and intimidation of Nigerians by police officers is so commonplace even though they are, on paper, against the law.
SARS was a symptom aggressively announcing the presence of a major disease, and SARS is now, hopefully, gone.
But the main disease is a Police Force that has dragged its feet for years on cleaning house and implementing a transparent process of accountability that keeps bad apples in check.
There is little public trust in the Nigeria Police Force, and it is because it has allowed itself to get too comfortable with a culture of violence that has wrecked Nigerian lives over and over again.
Nigerians are tired of that culture of violence, and continuation of the protests is proof that there is only so far the people are willing to be pushed, and assaulted, and killed by people whose duty it is to do the opposite of those things.
Many in government and leadership positions have expressed shock that protesters have not packed their bags and returned home after the dissolution of SARS, but it’s painfully obvious that protesters have realised what appears like full measures are actually really just half measures being disguised as a great response to their agitations.
SARS was a real menace and will not be missed on that note, but it is not the ultimate problem with the general culture of terrible policing in the country.
If the government ever hopes that the protests disappear as quickly as it wants, it must be ready to really commit to a major purging of the system, not a cosmetic name change that leaves abusers in the system.