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Nigeria disbands unpopular police unit after protests

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PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP or licensors

SRAS

Nigeria on Sunday dissolved a special police unit set up to fight violent crimes after deadly protests and a social media campaign backed by music and cinema celebrities rose up against years of alleged abuses.

The president's office and the Nigeria Police Force announced the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) with immediate effect.

The police statement also announced an investigation into allegations "of crimes committed against citizens", adding that "the culprits will be punished".

The investigation will involve human rights groups and civil society organisations, it said, adding that former SARS officers are to be redeployed into other units.

'We won!'

The news sparked joy at a rally attended by hundreds outside the Nigerian embassy in London, where Nigerian Afropop star Wizkid shouted "We won!"

"Your voice has been heard. This is a new Nigeria -- we are not scared to speak our mind," he said.

Growing concerns over the squad's conduct exploded after a recent video went viral showing the alleged killing of a man by a police officer in Delta state -- footage that authorities denied was real. The arrest of the man who shot the video sparked even more outrage.

A protestor and a police officer were killed on Thursday while another sustained life-threatening injuries during a protest in the southern town of Ughelli, said Hafiz Inuwa, Delta State police commissioner, adding that nine people were arrested.

On Friday, hundreds of people marched in many of the main cities in the south of the country of 200 million people.

A number of Nigerian celebrities joined the campaign, and at one point on Friday #EndSARSnow was the top trending Twitter hashtag in Nigeria.

Singers Runtown and Falz even encouraged their fans to take to the streets, organising demos in the economic hub Lagos.

Despite the dissolution, some people were skeptical.

"You see, it’s not the first time the government are banning SARS. It’s the third time now. At the end they will soon come up again. So for me, it’s not acceptable", said Innocent, a resident of Lagos.

In June, a report by Amnesty International listed what it alleged were 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by the SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.

The abuses were carried out under the supervision of high-ranking officers, it said.

Torture allegations

It accused the squad of the "systematic use of torture" and alleged the existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force.

Amnesty said the victims were predominantly male aged between 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups.

"Often (they) are unlawfully arrested... held in detention and forced to pay huge bribes to secure their release. Those unable to pay are subjected to torture or other ill-treatment," the report said.

The Nigeria Police Force also said Sunday it would set up a mechanism to prevent future abuse.

A "Citizens' and Strategic Stakeholders' Forum" will have regular contact with the force at all levels to address issues of concern, it said.

On October 4, when SARS was suspended and reporters questioned Nigeria's vice president about the issue, he denounced police violence.

"I'm very concerned, in fact, very angry about what I see happening to young men and women who are arrested, in some cases maimed or killed by men of the police force," Yemi Osinbajo said.

Amnesty said it had issued a report on the alleged abuses in 2016, receiving "assurances" of reforms.

Anti-torture legislation was passed in 2017, "yet shocking violations committed by the unit have continued," it said.

Osai Ojigho, director of Amnesty's Nigeria branch, said in the report: "The continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards."