ISCI is a cross-disciplinary research centre working to further our understanding of state crime: organisational deviance violating human rights

State Crime in Nigeria: #EndSARS Movement


by Tochukwu Amanda Ezeokana

The International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) understands state crime to be any act of deviance committed against persons, or organisations, which are abetted or outrightly encouraged by states, and which result in human rights violations[1]. Two major defining features of state crime are the state’s organisational deviance, and violations of human rights through the illegitimate use of force, control and violence[2]. According to Green and Ward (2004), these deviant acts must have been done in order to fulfil a state’s policies[3]; that is, the state must stand to benefit from the commission of these acts. However, because state crime is also crime sanctioned by state officials[4], by refusing to properly investigate allegations of human rights violations, a state can be said to be guilty by omission.

The #EndSARS Movement in Nigeria

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), was a special unit of the Nigerian Police Force formed in 1992. The primary role of this special unit was to investigate any crimes relating to robbery and the use of firearms[5]. Due to the special nature of this police unit, members were not required to put on official police uniforms in the discharge of their duties as that would easily give away their cover[6]. In tackling crimes of a violent nature, it is not unexpected that some lives may be lost but it is important to ascertain whether those lives taken were taken in a manner consistent with the law.

Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)[7], ratified by Nigeria in 1993, provides that everyone has the right to life which must be protected by law and under no circumstances should one be arbitrarily deprived of this right. Similarly, Article 4 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (ACHPR)[8], provides that this right is inviolable. The only exception to this right as provided in the above instruments is when such ‘deprivation’ is accordance with the execution of a sentence prescribed by a competent court of law. Additionally, Section 33(2) of the Nigerian Constitution[9], provides that it will not be considered an arbitrary deprivation of life when one dies as a result of use of force that is reasonably necessary.

It is worth noting that Police Force Order 237 states that a police may shoot suspects who attempt to avoid arrest[10]. SARS has been known to target (in the main) young men with ‘flashy’ gadgets, cars and the popular ‘locs’ hair[11]. In their defence, Section 29 of the Police Act (Nigeria) provides that police may stop and search, and even detain, a person when there is reasonable suspicion that they are carrying a stolen item[12]. When SARS encounter a young person with a car and the latest gadgets and suspect that they may be in possession of stolen property, any refusal or resistance to be detained can therefore result in a fatal shooting. This use of such disproportionate force to deprive citizens, especially male citizens, of their lives is inconsistent with the law and is extra-judicial in nature[13]. Some have argued that a lack of proper firearm training is also to blame, as it seemed that SARS did not know the difference between a shot taken that could claim the life of a person and a shot taken in order to deter or stop[14].

On 3rd October 2020, when a video circulated on social media platforms, revealing how operatives of SARS shot and gravely injured a young man at Wetland Hotel, Ughelli, Delta State, citizens of Nigeria opposed to these extra-judicial killings and took the streets to protest. On social media, the hashtag #EndSARS went viral as people called for the disbandment of the infamously brutal police taskforce[15]. By 13th October 2020, 26 demonstrations had been held, with protesters using the #EndSARS hashtag. 15 people were reportedly killed during these protests[16].

It is important to note that the Nigerian citizens who were engaging in these protests were well within their rights as citizens to do so as Section 40 of the Constitution provides that all citizens may freely assemble and associate with other persons.[17] This same right is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) at Article 20, where it provides that everyone has the right to freedom of ‘peaceful’ assembly and association.[18] Despite these protests being peaceful, SARS and the Nigerian government responded with violence. This would not be the first time that peaceful protests in Nigeria were met with violence as can be seen in the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP) protests against Shell[19]; and the protests in support of Biafra in 2016.[20] The same can be seen in this #EndSars movement as on 20th October 2020, peaceful protesters who sat and knelt in front of the Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos State, singing the national anthem and waving the Nigerian flag, were ambushed when the Nigerian army fired live bullets at them, killing several.[21]

The Culpability of the Nigerian Government

There is no denying that the Nigerian government was aware that the SARS unit was exceeding its powers and taking the lives of citizens[22], and the government actually notified Nigerian citizens that the SARS Unit would be disbanded several days after the protests began[23]. Despite the supposed disbandment of the SARS unit, police brutality remained rampant and the citizens kept protesting, showing that the protests were never about SARS specifically but more about putting an end to police brutality and extra-judicial killings for all Nigerian citizens.[24]

After the incident at the toll gate, official investigations were conducted into the extra-judicial killing of protesters by the Nigerian army on 20th October 2020, and the Nigerian Judicial Panel of Inquiry found that indeed soldiers of the Nigerian army had shot, injured and killed protesters[25]. Lagos State government denied having any involvement in the alleged killings and denounced any contrary information as being ‘fake news’. The Nigerian army initially denied its presence at the toll gate that day but later went on to say they were indeed present but did not fire live rounds but instead fired blanks towards the crowd to disperse them.[26]

After the report from the Judicial Panel of Inquiry, it was expected that justice would be served for the family of the victims yet nothing has been seen to be done, and several protesters are still in jail without trial for simply exercising their rights[27]. This is a clear instance of state crime as the Nigerian government failed to set effective checks and balances on the SARS unit to prevent abuses of power, thus facilitating violations of human rights. The Nigerian government has also not been held accountable for their role in the violation of several domestic and international rules on the right to life. Better systems for the reporting and investigation of human rights violations must be created, as well as reform of the Nigerian police force, if any change is to come about.


[1] ‘About State Crime’ (International State Crime Initiative, n.d.) <>  accessed 23 January 2023.

[2] Shalhoub-Kevorkian N, David Y and Ihmoud S, “Theologizing State Crime” (2016) 5 State Crime Journal 141 <> accessed 4 January 2023.

[3] Jana Bufkin, ‘Book Review of State Crime: Governments, Violence and Corruption’ (2005) 6(1) Western Criminology Review 161-162.

[4] Dawn L Rothe and David O Friedrichs, ‘The State of the Criminology of Crimes of the State’ (2006) 33(1) Social Justice, 147-161.

[5] Samuel Osborne, ‘Nigeria: What is SARS and why are people protesting against police?’ (Independent, 21 October 2020) <> accessed 23 January 2023.

[6] Libby George, ‘Why are Nigerians protesting against police brutality?’ (Reuters, 16 October 2020) <> accessed 23 January 2023.

[7] UN General Assembly, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 16 December 1966, UNTS, vol 999, p 171, art 6.

[8] Organization of African Unity (OAU), African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (“Banjul Charter”), 27 June 1981, CAB/LEG/67/3 rev. 5, 21 I.L.M 58, art 4.

[9] Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, s 33(2).

[10] Force Order 237: Rules for Guidance in Use of Firearms by the Police.

[11] ‘SARS: Nigeria ‘rogue’ police unit banned from stop and search’ (BBC, 4 October 2020) <> accessed 24 October 2023.

[12] Police Act [Nigeria], Cap P19 LFN 2004, 1 April 1943, Section 29.

[13] Ameh Ejekwonyilo, ‘How Nigerian security operatives ‘extra-judicially’ killed 13,241 in 10 years – CDD’ (Premium Times, 6 December 2021) <> accessed 23 January 2023.

[14] Evelyn Usman, ‘Why Police Killings Persist – Investigation’ (Vanguard, 7 January 2023) <> accessed 9 June 2023.

[15] Uwazuruike, Allwell Raphael ORCID: 0000-0002-3746-9254 (2020) #EndSARS: The Movement against Police Brutality in Nigeria. Harvard Human Rights Journal. ISSN 1057-5057.

[16] Ayandele DOJ, “Lessons from the #Endsars Movement in Nigeria” (ACLED, 18 February 2021) <> accessed 4 January 2023.

[17] Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999, s 40.

[18] UN General Assembly, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” 217 (III) A. Paris, 1948, article 20.

[19] Kelvin Ebiri, ‘MOSOP threatens to petition UN over military, police raid of Ogoniland’ (The Guardian, 21 September 2016) <> accessed 24 January 2023.

[20] ‘Nigeria Security forces ‘killed 150 peaceful pro-Biafra protesters’ (BBC, 24 November 2016) <> accessed 23 January 2023.

[21] Obiora Ikoku, ‘#EndSARS: Two years since the massacre’ (Red Pepper, 17 November 2022) <> accessed 24 January 2023.

[22] ‘Nigeria: Authorities repeatedly failing to tackle impunity enjoyed by notorious SARS police unit’ (Amnesty International, 6 October 2020) <> accessed 1 June 2023.

[23] Emmanuel Akinwotu, ‘Nigeria to disband Sars police unit accused of killings and brutality’ (The Guardian, 11 October 2020) <> accessed 23 January 2023.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Chinedu Asadu, ‘Nigeria panel finds army, police killed peaceful protesters’ (AP News, 16 November 2021) <> accessed 24 January 2023.

[26] ‘Nigerian army chief denies his soldiers shot and killed anti-Sars protesters’ (Telegraph, 15 November 2020) <> accessed 24 January 2023.

[27] ‘Nigeria: Two years on, more than 40 #EndSARS protesters still languishing in jail’ (Amnesty International, 20 October 2022) <> accessed 24 January 2023.

[ISCI Intern Article]