For SARS Awkuzu, it is an organised system of extra-judicial killings

When SARS appeared in China in 2002, it shook the world not just because it spread worldwide within months and became a pandemic, also because it was deadly. Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus – transmitted through the air when someone with the disease coughs, sneezes or talks. No known transmission has occurred since 2004 and no treatment exists except supportive care. But it has become a household name, this time not as a deadly disease but as a deadly Nigerian Police unit keen on reducing a demography thought to be the future of the nation.

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is known locally and internationally for extortion, torture, framing up suspects and even blackmail  – you can add exchange of suspects with innocents. There’s no bold history of the group breaking a dreaded cult group or a criminal gang. And, for years counting, they have continued to trend on social media for their ruthlessness and consistent disregard for human lives. The SARS story is one we will tell all our lives.

More recently, Awkuzu SARS (the unit in South-East Anambra) entered the #EndSARS conversation and you will weep at the stories friends and families have to tell. But cries won’t help.

The arrest of one Chief Bonaventure Mokwe, his wife and some of his workers by the Police in Anambra on August 1, 2013, sent shock waves all over the country. He was arrested after human heads were allegedly found in his hotel, Upper Class Hotel, Onitsha. Mokwe, alongside four of his employees, were publicly paraded and later detained at the SARS office in Awkuzu and later, arraigned at the Magistrate court 11, Onitsha, on a four-count charge of conspiracy and murder, unlawful possession of two human heads and two AK 47 rifles with rounds of ammunition. They were also accused of killing one Nnalue Okafor.

The story must have painted a picture of an artist who was ready to write history on his canvas  – a story we would have loved to tell but what’s in the kitchen? A pot of hot coal ready to explode and burn the whole kitchen.

Mokwe’s story took a twist.

Immediately after their arrest, a foundation committed to promoting police accountability and respect for human rights called Network On Police Reforms In Nigeria (NOPRIN), took up the responsibility of fighting for the rights of the suspects, coming out with startling discoveries.

Mokwe did not murder Nnalue Okafor. In fact, Nnalue was earlier arrested and detained at SARS, Awkuzu, months before the arrest of Mokwe. His whereabouts are yet unknown.
Describing Mokwe’s arrest as a frame-up, the foundation stated; “Chief Mokwe’s arrest and the destruction of his property were based on spurious and defamatory allegations of murder and unlawful possession of human heads and arms. While Chief Mokwe’s wife was released after some hours in detention, the rest were severely tortured and held in unlawful police custody for more than three months before they were charged to a Magistrate Court on October 17, 2013, and were remanded in Onitsha prisons.

“On November 4, 2013, they were granted bail by an Onitsha High Court. Since then, investigations and the facts that have emerged after these events have exposed the mind-boggling atrocities going on at the Awkuzu SARS and how politicians and other influential individuals use SARS as a tool for victimisation, oppression and injustice.”

In 2015, a doctoral student of philosophy at the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, Anambra, Justin Nwankwo narrated his ordeal at the hands of the SARS operatives for Mokwe’s case.

“August 1, 2013, is a day I will never forget in my life, as it marked the beginning of an ugly experience I passed through for three months. It was the day I was arrested alongside 13 others who worked in the hotel I managed while pursuing my educational career,” he said.

In a featured article by Eagle Online, it was reported how a member of one of the armed community vigilante groups belonging to one of the communities that share common boundaries with the Awkuzu SARS headquarters in Awkuzu Community, was arrested by the Awkuzu SARS in early January 2013, and detained for two weeks for armed robbery. The freed vigilante operative said Awkuzu SARS detention cells are serially numbered from 1, 2, 3, and 4 in that order. Those in cell 4 and above are condemned detainees waiting for extrajudicial executions – done on a daily basis. He revealed that there are several torturous ways Awkuzu SARS operatives kill their detainees extra-judicially and those who cannot afford huge illegal bail sums ranging from ₦50,000 to ₦200,000 or more as the case may be, are among those being executed extrajudicially.

In 2014, NOPRIN called a press briefing.

“NOPRIN also wishes to use this occasion to once again, call the attention of the Nigerian Government to the need for it to demonstrate a genuine commitment to ending impunity for police abuses. This it will do by ensuring effective investigation of, and punishment for, all cases of extrajudicial killing, torture and all unlawful and unprofessional exercise of police powers. Failure to ensure accountability for abuses sustains impunity just as failure to ensure redress denies justice to the victims.”

NOPRIN called out impunity by police officers and utter disregard for human rights. It asked the government to stop paying lip service to police reforms, stop forming presidential committees for the same reason and do the job.

“The authorities and operatives at SARS Awkuzu operate as though they are above the law and beyond legal control and accountability. The failure by the Anambra government to ensure the investigation into allegations that SARS Awkuzu was responsible for the killing of the people whose dead bodies were found in Ezu River in 2013 is a clear case of abdication of constitutional responsibility,” NOPRIN stated.

In 2016, a human rights organisation, Amnesty International, highlighted that the use of torture is the only form of interrogation used by SARS on suspects. AI added that the major forms of torture included beating, starvation, prolonged detention and hanging.

The report reads, “For example, Ekene, a 24-year-old university student, was arrested in Awka, Anambra, by police officers from SARS station in Awkuzu in December 2015. His lawyer told Amnesty International that he advised Ekene’s mother to pay N100,000.00 (approximately US$317) after the Investigating Police Officer insisted that otherwise, he would not release him.”

23-year-old Miracle was arrested in February 2017 and detained at SARS detention centres in Awkuzu and Neni in Anambra, on the allegation of laptop theft. He told Amnesty International that he was tortured and hardly given any food during his 40 days in detention by SARS before he was charged and brought before a court.

“At SARS Awkuzu …their leader directed them to hang me. They took me to the back of the hall and tied me up with ropes. They tied my hands behind me, tied my two legs together and then tied the rope binding my hands with that around my legs behind me, causing my chest to protrude. They had two, already prepared iron stands where they hang people. They passed an iron rod through the ropes and then lifted me up by the rod and hung me from the iron stand. Then they started to use all manner of items to beat me, including machetes, sticks, inflicting me with all manner of injuries… When the first officer came to check and saw that I was almost unconscious, he went to call their team leader, who then asked them to bring me down. They dumped me inside the interrogation hall…”

In 2019, a High Court in Ogidi ordered SARS officers and an officer of the Nigerian Police Force to pay the sum of ₦5 million as compensation to Ugochukwu Oraefo for extortion, illegal arrest, unlawful detention and torture.

Oraefo, an Onitsha-based businessman, was arrested in 2018 at his factory by men of the squad and taken to their office at Awkuzu, where he was unlawfully detained, subjected to excruciating torture and criminally extorted the sum of ₦6 million as ransom.

The officers had accused Oraefo of working with kidnappers and having also paid some money to kidnappers, without alerting the police. But the victim rather confessed that he paid the ransom to kidnappers who had called and threatened to kidnap him and also warning him not to disclose it to the police.

The victim, who spoke to journalists upon his release, said he was kept in detention and tortured for five days, after which a mock execution was carried out on him, with the threat that he would also pay them to secure his freedom.

This is one story too many. And now, SARS Awkuzu is in the news – for the wrong reasons – and you have an idea that your life is in your hands.

Read about the trend here.

Nigeria’s Federal Government has repeatedly promised to reform SARS. On August 14, 2018, Nigeria’s Vice-President, Yemi Osinbajo ordered an immediate reform of SARS, citing the widespread public outcry against their conduct, as the basis for the order. He also directed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to set up a judicial panel to investigate SARS alleged unlawful activities. Hours later, the police authority announced a list of reform measures aimed at increasing SARS’ public accountability for its actions. The measures include the change of name from Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS), the appointment of a high-ranking police officer to supervise the operation of FSARS and the restriction of FSARS operations to the prevention of armed robbery and kidnapping.

Call it ‘shades’. Meanwhile, it’s obvious our ‘cries’ on social media won’t do much.

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