ABUJA (Reuters) - A police official defended a unit of the Nigeria Police Force that has been accused of human rights violations, saying many claims of brutality were unfounded and the country needed to be defended against violent crime.
A social media campaign has called for the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to be disbanded. It has gathered pace in recent days as people shared stories of alleged maltreatment by the unit’s officers, as well as photographs and videos.
Lawmakers in the Senate, the upper house of parliament, voted on Tuesday to open an investigation into the allegations.
Nigerian police have been dogged by accusations of human rights abuses for years. The police force has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
“When you check most of these allegations ... it is somebody else that is saying that something happened to another person,” said Abayomi Shogunle, who heads the Nigeria Police Force’s complaints unit.
“We have reached out to all these people: tell us who this victim is, tell us the place where it took place, tell us the date and time. They are not forthcoming,” said Shogunle, an assistant police commissioner.
The social media campaign gathered pace after a video was circulated on social media of a youths chasing police after a man was allegedly shot dead by officers in the commercial capital, Lagos.
Reuters could not verify whether the incident took place or details of when and where the video footage was filmed.
The campaign, which has seen the EndSARS hashtag trending on Twitter, on Monday prompted the head of the police force to announce an immediate re-organisation of SARS nationwide and an investigation into abuse allegations.
Shogunle said a specialist crime unit was needed in a country where kidnapping for ransom is a common problem in some regions, along with burglary.
Clashes between semi-nomadic herdsmen and farmers over herding rights have also led to bloodshed in central and northern parts of the country. More than 30 people were killed in such clashes in a northeastern town last month.
“The question is what do we replace them with? Who will perform those tough, difficult, life-threatening duties that SARS are performing at the moment?” he said.
Street protests are also being planned in Nigerian cities.
“This has been going on for a long time and it’s crazy that the people actually supposed to be your friend, to protect you, are the ones assaulting and abusing you,” said Charles Oputa, who is planning to hold an event in the capital, Abuja.
He said he did not believe the restructuring announced by the country’s police chief would take place.
Writing by Alexis Akwagyiram, editing by Larry King