The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was a Nigerian Police Force unit created in late 1992 to deal with crimes associated with robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnapping, cattle rustling, and firearms. It was part of the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID), headed by Deputy Inspector General of Police Anthony Ogbizi.
SARS was controversial for its links to extrajudicial killings, extortion, torture, framing, blackmail, kidnapping, illegal organ trade, armed robbery, home invasions, rape of men and women, child arrests, the invasion of privacy, and polluting bodies of water by illegally disposing of human remains.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was founded in late 1992 by former police commissioner Simeon Danladi Midenda. The major reason SARS was formed was when Col. Rindam of the Nigerian Army was killed by police officers at a checkpoint in Lagos in September 1992, later leading to the arrest of three officers. When the information reached the army, soldiers were dispatched into the streets of Lagos in search of any police officer. The Nigerian police withdrew from checkpoints, security areas, and other points of interest for criminals; some police officers were said to have resigned while others fled for their lives. Due to the absence of police for two weeks, the crime rate increased and SARS was formed with only 15 officers operating in the shadows without knowledge of the army while monitoring police radio chatters. Due to the existence of three already established anti-robbery squads that were operational at that time, Midenda needed to distinguish his squad from the already existing teams. Midenda named his team Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). After months of dialogue the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force came to an understanding and official police duties began again in Lagos. The SARS unit was officially commissioned in Lagos following a ceasefire by the army after settlement.
SARS was one of the 14 units in the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, which was established to detain, investigate, and prosecute people involved in crimes like armed robbery, kidnapping, and other violent crimes.
During its formation, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad was known to operate covertly. SARS operatives were not allowed to wear a police uniform or publicly carry guns or walkie-talkies. They were given unmarked vehicles with sometimes no license plates or private plate numbers during duty.
In mid-1996, the SARS Lagos branch arrested two security guards at their place of work under suspicion of assisting a robbery. The two guards were not charged with a crime when arrested. In January 1997, the bodies of the guards were placed at a morgue without an explanation for their deaths.
In October 2005, a SARS operative killed a bus driver in Obiaruku, Delta State, for failing to pay the operative a bribe. The operative was removed from their SARS position and arrested on charges of murder.
In 2009, after several years of operations, the squad grew in number and strength. Due to the surge of internet fraudsters and cultism in universities, SARS operatives infiltrated Nigerian universities and made several successful arrests, but in the process harassed innocent people. According to a publication by the Nigerian news website Pulse.ng, “What SARS became was a national scourge that witch-hunt machinery against Nigerian youth with dreadlocks, piercings, cars, expensive phones and risque means of expression.”
In May 2010, Amnesty International disclosed that it would be suing the Nigerian Police over human rights abuses, stating that SARS operatives in Borokiri, Port Harcourt, had arrested three bicyclists and detained them for over one week while they were “beaten every night with the butt of a gun and iron belt.” On 20 May 2010, a Federal High Court in Enugu State ordered the then-Inspector General of Police Ogbonna Okechukwu Onovo to produce a Special Anti-Robbery Squad officer who had shot dead a 15-year-old boy at his high school. According to the SARS officer, the teen was mistaken for a kidnapper. On 27 July 2010, Sahara Reporters published an extensive editorial report detailing how SARS and other police units had made a profit of ₦9.35 billion ($60 million) from roadblocks and extortion within 18 months.
On 3 June 2011, the Nigeria Police Force discovered an attempt by SARS operative Musa Agbu to bomb the Force’s headquarters.
Following several reports of human rights violations submitted by members of the public to the office of the Inspector General of Police, on 7 August 2015, the then-Inspector General of Police Solomon Arase announced he would split the SARS unit into two units, an operational unit and an investigations unit, in order to curtail cases of human rights violations. In September 2016, Pulse.ng compiled a report on Nigerian police brutality entitled “Meet SARS, the Police Unit with license to kill”, highlighting the brutality and ignorance of the squad’s rules of engagement.
A September 2016 report published by Amnesty International detailed extensive torture and detainment without trial. The report detailed SARS forcing confessions, withholding food, and other abuses.
On 10 August 2019, while SARS operatives were on a raid in Ijegun to arrest kidnappers in the area, several shots were fired in a bid to subdue the kidnappers; one of these shots hit a pregnant woman who was reportedly killed instantly. An angry mob was said to have lynched two of the officers on the spot.
On 21 August 2019, four SARS operatives were arrested and charged with murder after being caught on film manhandling and then shooting to death two suspected phone thieves in broad daylight. The suspected thieves were shot dead after they had already been arrested.
On 5 September 2019, operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Lekki, Lagos, allegedly kidnapped, tortured, and robbed Nigerian rapper Ikechukwu Onunaku for no clear reason. According to publications by Punch Nigeria, SARS operatives forced Onunaku to make several ATM withdrawals.