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A History of Police Brutality in Nigeria. A Case Study of Sars 1992-2020


This study was carried out on the history of police brutality in Nigeria: a case study of SARS 1992-2020. The spate of violent and unlawful killings by officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) Unit of Nigerian Police in South West region of the country has not only queried the efficiency required by the police in discharging their responsibilities but has also greatly undermined human security. Consequently, the lawless situation in the state has engendered acrimonious relationship among the citizenry which has further heightened the security dilemma in all ramifications. It is keenly observed that most of the killings are rampant in Lagos, Osun, Oyo, and Ogun States in the region which have recently generated a lot of social media and physical protests by the populace but despite this, the menace still persists. Lives of several young and adult Nigerians; students, football players, private and commercial drivers and other innocent ones have been cut short in the name of searching for the ‘Yahoo boys’ and bribe-takings. The study examines the instances, trends of violent and unlawful killing of civilians in the country by officers of Special Anti-Robbery Squad of Nigeria Police; and the factors triggering the brutality; and also interrogates the threats posed by the criminal acts to the peace and security in Southwest Nigeria and national security.  The study in its findings indicates that the violent/unlawful killing occurs as a result of unprofessionalism, lack of funds/resources, uncontrolled anger/emotions, corruption, unprofessionalism, use of illicit drugs, drinking of alcohol while on duty among others on the part of officers of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and as well absence of Police reforms in Nigeria. Social contract and failed state theories are employed for the study. The study, however, concludes that, the Nigerian government should brace up in ensuring adequate security of lives and property for her citizenry, the need for urgent Nigeria Police reforms in the country, adoption of merit in recruitment process into the Force, fighting corruption to the core among others in checkmating the menace.





1.1       Background of the study

1.2       Statement of the problem

1.3       Objectives of the study

1.4       Research questions

1.5       Significance/ Justification of the study

1.6       Scope of the Study

1.7       Research methodology

1.8       Operational Definition of Terms



2.1       Overview of the Nigerian Police Force

2.2       Overview of Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)

2.3       Concept of Police Brutality

2.4       Concept of End SARS

2.4.1    Initial protest and reaction

2.4.2    Five-for-Five demands

2.5       Theoretical review

2.5.1    Failed State Theory

2.5.2    Social Conflict Theory



3.1       Concept of Human Rights Violation

3.2       The Prevalence of Police brutality and Human Rights Abuse in Nigeria

3.3       The Import of the END SARS Protest on Human Rights Abuse in Nigeria



4.1       Instances and Patterns of Unlawful Killings by Officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police

4.2       Causal-factors aiding the violent and unlawful killings of civilians by the police/SARS officers in Nigeria

4.2.1    Unprofessionalism on the Part of Nigerian Police Officers

4.2.2    Influence of Politics

4.2.3    Deficient Guidance on the Nigeria Police Act

4.2.3    Lack of Adequate Resources and Poor Working Conditions

4.2.4    Uncontrolled Anger/Emotions on the Part of SARS Operatives

4.2.5    Corruption and Bribery

4.2.6    Use of illicit drugs/Drinking of Alcohol by Officers while on Duty

4.2.7    Culpability on the Part of the Nigerian Government

4.2.8    Inadequate Distribution of Budget/Appropriation

4.3       Implications of unlawful and brutal killings of civilians by officers the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to Peace and National Security



5.1       Conclusion

5.2       Recommendations

5.3       Implication for further research





1.1       Background of the study

It is a common saying that the police are your friend. But in a country like Nigeria, the opposite is the case. It is evident that ordinary citizen thinks the policeman is anything negative, and not a friend (Omilana, 2019). The Police all over the world are state authorities vested with the responsibility on law enforcement and maintenance of order in the society. In carrying out their responsibilities, the police may be authorized to use reasonable force when the need arises. The constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Police Act, international conventions, professional ethics and other statutes regulate and as well constrain the use of force by police in discharging their statutory functions (Taiwo, 2018). Despite these regulations, the police in many societies resort to using extreme force beyond limits as permitted by law in discharging their duties and in the process grossly disregard of the rule of law and resorted to killings extra-judicially, torture and subject civilians or citizens to all sorts of inhumane and ill-treatment; unfortunately, the same citizens that they have earlier sworn to protect (Segun, 2016).

Brutality, described as one of the most extreme forms of violence, resulting to both psychological and physical consequences is sometimes considered as an indispensable interrogation mechanism for gathering strategic intelligence (Constanzo & Gerrity, 2009; Makwerere et al., 2012; Justice Project Pakistan, 2014). Empirical studies have shown that torture and other forms of violent abuse can have enduring negative effects on both survivors and perpetrators, and is ineffective for obtaining reliable information in interrogation (Egede, 2007; Constanzo & Gerrity, 2009).

Unlawful or extrajudicial killings, as it implies refers to killings outside the dictates of the law and the recent upsurge in the menace, torture, degrading and inhumane treatment of citizens in the society by the officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) reveals a need for the appraisal of the criminal justice system so as to prevent judicial usurpation and a lack of reverence for constituted authority which could result in the complete breakdown of law and order (Bakare, 2018). Pursuant to the objective of bringing to a fore the depth of the unlawful killings by the officers of the Nigerian Police, most especially the unit known as the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Nigeria. In the same vein, several instances on extra-judicial killing activities of Officers of the SARS need to be examined in the region. The Nigerian citizens are rough handled, mishandled and brutalized in various ways through; beating, shooting indiscriminately, maiming and killing of citizens, unnecessary restrains such as handcuffs and leg chains, unnecessary use of firearms against suspects and innocent members of the public, torture of suspects in order to forcefully excerpt confession and extortion of gratification (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

One of the main challenges of the civilian government which came to power in Nigeria in 1999, after the election of Olusegun Obasanjo as Head of State, was to ensure the respect and protection of human rights as both the Nigerian armed forces and the Nigeria Police Force had been responsible for numerous human rights violations during the previous period of military government (Chrisantus, 2019). This challenge has become so gruesome in the approach employed by the Nigerian Police in the fight against crime over the past two decades (Amnesty International, 2019). The proliferation of anti-crime operations by the federal police has resulted in extrajudicial executions, deaths in custody, acts of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in police detention centres throughout the country (CLEEN Foundation, 2016). The general public concern over crime has increased the pressure on the police to arrest as many armed robbers as possible. But this outcry by the population has also been used by the Nigerian police to systematically justify human rights violations as being an unavoidable part of this fight against crime (Chrisantus, 2019).

It is pertinent to note that with the ratification of the Convention against Torture in June 2001, Nigeria has reaffirmed the obligation it subscribed to when ratifying the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, to prevent its security forces from committing torture and other forms of ill treatment under all circumstances and without any exception (Amnesty International, 2017). Article 1 of the Convention against Torture defines torture as:

‘’….Any act in which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity..

The Nigerian constitution provides that: “every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly- (a) no person shall be subjected to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment” (Human Rights Watch, 2010). In the same line, the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights of which Nigeria is signatory states: Every individual shall have the right to the respect of the dignity inherent in a human being and to the recognition of is legal status. All forms of exploitation and degradation of man particularly slavery, slave trade, torture, cruel inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment shall be prohibited (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

However, the practice remains inconsistent with the obligation to prohibit torture as there are many cases of police brutality and blatant abuse of human rights carried out in the public especially by men of the SARS unit under the guise of fighting crime in the society. There are cases of extortion, torture and ill treatment by SARS. It is carried out with a pattern of abuse of power by SARS officers and the consistent failure by the Nigerian authorities to bring perpetrators to justice (Oshinnaike, 2020). This highlights the deficiencies in Nigerian police accountability that contributes to, and exacerbates these violations. Detainees in SARS custody have been subjected to a variety of methods of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, water boarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence. Amnesty international documented 82 cases between January 2017 and May 2020 (Amnesty International, 2020).

It is surprising to note that few cases have investigated and hardly any officer has brought to justice on account of torture and other ill-treatment. In few instances where cases became public knowledge, the police authorities usually promised investigations. However, Amnesty International has found that no investigation or prosecution of perpetrators took place in any of the cases documented. The Federal Government of Nigeria has repeatedly promised to reform SARS (Omokolade, 2020). On 14 August 2018, the Nigerian Vice-President ordered an immediate reform of SARS, citing the widespread public outcry against their conduct, as the basis for the order (Premium Times, 2020). He also directed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to set up a judicial panel to investigate SARS alleged unlawful activities. Hours later, the police authority announced a list of reform measures aimed at increasing SARS’ public accountability for its actions (Paquette, 2020). The measures include the change of name from Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS), the appointment of high-ranking police officer to supervise the operation of FSARS and the restriction of FSARS operations to the prevention of armed robbery and kidnapping.

Despite these promises of reform and accountability for violations, SARS officers continue to subject detainees in their custody to torture and other forms of ill-treatment with total impunity (CLEEN Foundation, 2018). Amnesty International (2020) believes that the ongoing impunity enjoyed by SARS officers for human rights violations points to deficiencies in policing practice and the absence of an effective police accountability system as reflected in the lack of political will by the federal government to effect reform which climax in the recent protest and mass looting of property and destruction of government infrastructures. This study is therefore carried out on the history of police brutality in Nigeria.


1.2       Statement of the problem

Police brutality, use of torture as interrogative technique and other wanton abuses of human rights remain some of the major flaws of the Nigeria Police Force which has attracted public odium, opprobrium, and condemnation to the Force (Amnesty International, 2015; Ogunode, 2015). The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigeria police tasked with fighting violent crimes such as robbery and kidnapping, has been known to use brutality and all manner of violence condemned in all the conventions against human rights in obtaining information from the public. It continues to commit torture and other human rights violations while discharging their law enforcement duties. This has attracted a lot of attention and has been condemned at all levels (Makwerere et al., 2012).

The increased brutality of the police and the violation of human rights resulted in the recent agitations by Nigerian youths against SARS extra-judicial killings, which were recently reignited by a video shared via social media showcasing a SARS officer assaulting a young Nigerian in Delta State on October 3, 2020. Subsequently, several other pictures and videos of similar assaults and extortion by officers of the SARS resurfaced in the social media with an End SARS hashtag created to further amplify the issues in national conversations. This led to uncoordinated protests by youths calling for the dissolution of the SARS and metamorphosed into a national protest since October 8, 2020 (Business Day, 2020).

High numbers of innocent civilians have been unlawfully killed and eliminated by drunk and trigger-freaked SARS police officers in Lagos, Ogun, Oyo and Osun States respectively (Segun, 2016). The said SARS officers would storm any location; it could be checkpoints on inter-state roads, beer parlous, cinemas, club houses and host of others to enforce unlawful arrests in the name of looking for “yahoo-yahoo boys” or internet fraudsters and criminals in the states (International Centre for Investigating Reporting, 2018).

Unnecessary and unlawful use of firearms by the Nigerian Police is not a question of a few isolated cases, but of a widespread phenomenon. Many unlawful killings happen during police operations. In other cases, the police shoot and kill drivers who fail to pay them bribes at checkpoints. Some are killed in the street because, as the police later claim, they are

“Armed robbers”; others are killed after arrest, allegedly for attempting to escape. Many disappear in police custody – and are likely to have been extra-judicially executed (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

Besides, the unlawful search of phones and laptops, illegal profiling of youths as fraudsters, extrajudicial killings and subjecting arrested persons to torture by officers of the SARS highlights the deficiencies in the police accountability system and practice that have characterized the Police Service over the years (Amnesty International, 2020). Between January 2017 and May 2020, the Amnesty International (AI) documented 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extra-judicial killings by officers of the SARS in Anambra, Enugu, Imo and Lagos States alone (Amnesty International, 2020). Although the federal government has disbanded the SARS unit of the Nigerian Police, but nothing much has been achieved in the area of police reforms in its practice of human rights violation in the area of training. It is in the light of this that this study examines the history of police brutality in Nigeria: A case study of SARS 1992-2020.


1.3       Objectives of the study

The main objective of the study is to examine the history of police brutality in Nigeria. A case study of SARS 1992-2020. The following are the specific objectives of the study:

  1. To examine the historical overview of the Nigerian Police Force and the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
  2. To examine the prevalence of police brutality and human rights abuse in Nigeria.
  3. To examine the causal-factors aiding the violence and unlawful killings of civilians by the SARS officers in Nigeria.
  4. To examine the implications of unlawful and brutal killings of civilians by officers the special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to Peace and National Security.
  5. To carry out an overview of END SARS Protest and its impact on Human Rights Abuse in Nigeria.
  6. To provide possible solutions to the issue of police brutality in Nigeria.


1.4       Research questions

  1. What is the historical overview of the Nigerian Police Force and the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS)?
  2. What is the prevalence of police brutality and human rights abuse in Nigeria?
  3. What are the causal-factors aiding the violence and unlawful killings of civilians by the SARS officers in Nigeria?
  4. What are the implications of unlawful and brutal killings of civilians by officers the special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to Peace and National Security?
  5. What is the overview of END SARS Protest and its impact on Human Rights Abuse in Nigeria?
  6. What are the possible solutions to the issue of police brutality in Nigeria?


1.5       Significance/ Justification of the study

The issue of police brutality and human rights abuse is an issue of global concern especially as it affects its operation within the shores of Africa, particularly in Nigeria. The way policemen treat members of the public on the highways and in custody are very alarming and disheartening because it is anti-human right preservation in nature. Members of the public are treated like animals and dehumanize by subjecting them to cruel treatment especially in a bid to extract confession from suspected criminals. The situation is so gruesome that it resulted in a nationwide protest recently which culminated in the disbanding of the SARS unit within the Nigerian Police Force. The seminar is therefore important because it will among other things provide the Nigeria Police Force with a blue print to evaluate the operation of the Nigerian police and implement policies that will bring about change in their operational framework in the area of police-public relationship which is filled with suspicion and also provide training to enhance their investigation and interrogation in line with international conventions and procedures that guarantees the integrity of human rights.

This study will be of benefit in the aspect of History, as it will the future generation know what happened in the year 2020 in the #EndSARS protest. This study will also assist in creating awareness on police brutality, not just in Nigeria but in the global setting. This study will further enlighten citizens about their fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech and so on.

This study will also portray the effect the #EndSARS protest as caused on the Nigerian economy. Furthermore, it will show the need for the Nigerian Government to listen to the pleas of her citizens.


1.6       Scope of the Study

This study examined the history of police brutality in Nigeria. The study addressed the police brutality and human rights violations, using SARS as case study. This research covered a period of 30 years, from 1992 to 2022.


1.7       Research methodology

The study employed qualitative research method and this is based on case studies generated from the interviews conducted by Amnesty International across states in Nigeria on issues of police brutality and human rights abuse. The reports obtained from the case studies were based on interviews conducted with victims of police brutality in incarceration and those obtained from civil rights liberties groups in Nigeria, who are responsible for the protection of human rights in Nigeria. The qualitative research method was used to get quality information on the happenings of police brutality and human rights abuse so as to understand the dimension and gravity of the problem.

Secondary data was also be sourced from the existing literature on the subject such as books, journals, newspapers, magazines, conference papers, periodicals and other related documents.


1.8       Operational Definition of Terms

The following terms are defined in the study

Police brutality: The unwarranted or excessive and often illegal use of force against civilians by police officers.

Human rights abuse: The deliberate maltreatment of groups of human beings including violations of generally-accepted fundamental rights as stated by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

End SARS: A protest by Nigerian youths calling for the abolition of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit of the Nigerian Police Force as a result of their brutality and exploitative activities while discharging their official duties


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