by Alexander O. Onukwue
After an explosion in reports of crude and unprofessional conducts, including abuse of power and gross violations of rights of citizens, calls for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) intensified in the past week.
The long-dreaded men in black were the subject of much commentary on social media especially over the weekend, resurrecting the description of the security outfit as a ‘severe acute respiratory syndrome’ that must now be eradicated from the country for good.
SARS: FOR SECURITY OR TERROR?
The primary responsibility of a legitimate government is the provision of security of the lives and properties within its territories. In Nigeria, this duty has been performed chiefly by the Nigerian Police Force. In its efforts to be effective in carrying out its duties, the Police could set up some special units and detachments to deal with certain issues. These units could take the form of a joint task force with other law enforcement agencies; for instance, the OP MESA in Lagos state which is made up of the Army, Navy and Air Force working with the Police on crime fighting. But SARS, a stand-alone unit of the Police, is arguably the most feared internal security apparatus in the country.
If there was one allegation against SARS, it would be the reasoning that a reasonable number of persons who get into their net do not come out alive. Stories told over the weekend reflected this belief of the outfit as a killer syndrome. According to the accounts being shared, some persons suffer detention till they are able to produce N200,000 or face death, many others have tales of harassments from SARS officers who seem to have a predetermined notion that every young person with more than one phone is a ‘Yahoo boy’ or girl.
SARS broke my NMA IDcard and said I am not a doctor because i wore joggers and tshirt.. Proceeded to slap me and detained me in their whilst I Was returning to hospital for a call.
Two weeks later this Same guy that slapped got rushed into the hospital …
— Jephthah (@jephaletan) December 3, 2017
…for an head injury from machete. I was the OMS doctor on call. He and the thieves they arrested. I almost refused him treatment to be candid but I had to respect his life and my oath as a doctor
— Jephthah (@jephaletan) December 3, 2017
While he recovered I visited him regularly Nd made sure he remembered my face. He and his colleague. I recounted the experience to them… His excuse i wasmt dressed like a doctor.. TF do I hv to knot tie at night?? Didnt u see my idcard and wardcoat?
— Jephthah (@jephaletan) December 3, 2017
They told me. I looked like yahoo boy fronting as doctor said people print fake ID. I just weak.
— Jephthah (@jephaletan) December 4, 2017
LIVING IN DENIAL
The Police have denied that SARS is doing anything wrong. An Assistant Commissioner of Police, Abayomi Shogunle, in a belittling manner that betrays professionalism and any sound public relations etiquette, asked Nigerians to wake up from their dreams and avoid areas where SARS operates.
To all those having frightening dreams- “shot/beaten by police”. Pray to God not to allow it happen + avoid areas where police are responding to incidents in real life.
If such dreams persist, GO SEE A PSYCHIATRIST.
We only deal with real life police complaints @PoliceNG_PCRRU.
— Abayomi Shogunle (@YomiShogunle) November 30, 2017
Jimoh Moshood, the police spokesman, says “SARS is doing fantastically well”. Mr Moshood said there should be no need to call for an end to the squad, that there has been no case of violation of human rights against any SARS personnel and only those with skeletons in their cupboards would call for the proscription of SARS.
It has become customary for the Police to react to complaints about its performance from the starting point of denial. This was the tactic employed when the Corruption Survey, carried out by the National Bureau of Statistics in collaboration with the UNODC, was published indicting the Force as the Nigerian agency with the highest perception for collecting bribes. That created an episode were the ACP Shogunle engaged in a spat with the NBS boss on Twitter. Then there was the Global ranking of Police organisations in the world and Nigeria ranked at the bottom with Uganda, again eliciting strenuous denials by the Nigeria Police. The recent case of the reinstatement of some officers of the Police who had been involved in the killing of the Apo Six also bring to mind the denials of the Police that it had extra-judicially killed those innocent persons at the time, branding them as suspects of a crime.
SARS has been a terror because of this impulsive propensity to round up young people and hold them in terrifying conditions in the name of crime fighting. Whether it is in Ikeja or Abuja or Awkuzu (in Anambra state), anyone picked up by SARS is in immediate danger of losing his life. Relatives are made to stump up huge amounts of cash and be as regular as possible to the detention cells to ensure their arrested wards are alive while negotiations for release proceed. There is no sense that arrested persons would be tried in a court of law or given a chance for fair hearing. If nobody comes for an arrested person, the assumption is that such individuals will be killed.
BUT NIGERIANS ARE NOT FOOLISH
However, Nigerians are united in disagreement with these denials. The denials by the Police that these kinds of atrocities do not happen are symptomatic of the relationship between the organization and the general public, one which would never lead to the Police being a friend. To continue denying that SARS is not in need of fixing is to regard Nigerians as foolish and ignorant persons. It is unfortunate that the subject of SARS manner of operations has taken long to be amplified on social media but now that it has become a subject of discourse, the responsibility lies with the government to revise the original intent behind the creation of the unit under the Police Force.
The Police cannot be a friend of the public it harasses, tortures and kills indiscriminately. As far as the law guarantees a right to fair hearing for everyone, even criminals until proven guilty, every law enforcement agency in the country must be seen to abide to this fundamental right. Any outfit running contrary to its operations to this provision of the law is illegal and constitutes an acute syndrome that must be done away with.
SARS, A THREAT TO FOREIGN INVESTMENT
The attention of international bodies have been drawn to this and if no action is taken towards amending the image of the Police, there will be possible effects on the Governments aims of attracting more investment in the country. Nobody will bring his money or business into a country where his local staff will be treated as criminals for looking good. It would be in the interest of the Executive to heed the counsel of Amnesty International to investigate the activities of SARS, evaluating if its operations are in line with human right expectations. Gains made on the ease of doing business ranking cannot be sustained if a young potential business owner has to worry about how he will be treated by SARS officers because he owns an iPhone X or drives a Range Rover.
The need to maintain a crime-free society and peace should not be at the cost of instilling fear into the generality of the populace. It amounts to a step forward and five backward.
#ENDSARS: THE 2019 IMPERATIVE
President Buhari has yet to respond on the SARS issue, but former Vice President Atiku Abubakar who could become his chief challenger in 15 months has called for an end to the “arbitrary harassment of young Nigerians by Police”.
The arbitrary harassment of young Nigerians by Police (who should be protecting them) has no place in a democratic society.
The #EndSARS protest shows Nigerian youth are upset and the matter needs urgent attention.
— Atiku Abubakar (@atiku) December 3, 2017
In formally announcing his return to the PDP, Atiku cited the alienation of the youth by the Buhari administration and promised to restore hope and confidence to the younger population of the country. Buhari’s ascent to the presidency in 2015 was aided in significant measure by tapping into the anger of the Jonathan administration’s slow action on the matter of Boko Haram and the abduction of the Chibok Girls. Perhaps the harassments and amoral acts of SARS are not on the same scale as terrorism and abduction. However, with Mr. Abubakar seeking to tap into the fears and dismays of the youth with the current administration, neglecting to act decisively on this matter could be the Buhari’s government’s way of shooting itself on one foot.
That would be just like SARS is said to infamously do to some of the young men it captures and detains.