SARS reform has begun, but are there any real plans to ensure police accountability?

SARS

SARS will… attend to armed robbery, kidnapping, apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences, and nothing more.

That summarizes the directive issued by Acting President Yemi Osinbajo on Tuesday to the leadership of the Nigeria Police on the necessity of reforming its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit that has become synonymous with everything devious and deadly in Nigeria. Osinbajo’s directive has been responded to by the Inspector General of Police Ibrahim Idris with an outline of new structural changes that will now see the almost-lawless unit rebranded in name, dress and trainings. It is testimony to the resilience of Nigerians who have made demands over the past year for the end of SARS through online petitions and demonstrations across the country with banners bearing the tales of several tragedies.

SARS, it turns out, will not end. There will continue to be a special squad for anti-robbery, only under a different mode of operation. The “overhaul” demanded by Osinbajo requires that what becomes of the FSARS – as it will now be called – attend only to its core duties. In that sense, citizens demand for #ENDSARS has been revised to an upgrade by the Police which, considering the reality that robbery and kidnapping remain credible threats to peace and prosperity in the country, should appear a good bargain.

The timing of the Acting President’s intervention is curious. This response to the eternal SARS-related agony has been overdue and should have been initiated by the Inspector General following overwhelming evidence. Until now, high ranking personnel of the Force like the ACP Abayomi Shogunle have sought to poke fun at the movement, questioning the truthfulness of complaints. It should make the automatic acknowledgement of the need for a new direction and desire for professionalism from the Inspector General to be taken with the requisite pinch of salt.

 

Nevertheless, the IG has initiated the new directive. The seventh item of its statement relates to “a new Standard Operational Guidelines and Procedures, and code of conduct for all FSARS personnel to ensure that the operations of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad is in strict adherence to the rule of law and with due regards to international human rights law”. Amongst the “new” in these guidelines is that there will no longer be search and stop exercises except when distress calls require it but Nigerians would want to know more. What occasions would qualify as “distress” anyway or will it still be at the discretion of the officers?

 

A Change of Guard

Until now, SARS used to be under the Force Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Department (FCIID) which deals with the “investigation and prosecution of serious and complex criminal cases within and outside the country”. The new direction of the outfit will now see it under the Force Headquarters Department of Operations with an FSARS Commissioner of Police answerable to the Inspector General of Police through the Deputy Inspector General of Police, Department of Operations.

It is a new arrangement that has been questioned by Ona Ekhomu, a security consultant who spoke to Channels TV on Tuesday night, on the basis that “Intelligence does not run in ops” because intelligence “runs as a corollary of investigations”. The Police describe its Department of Operations as being “central to all Police operational activities in Nigeria especially in the areas of crime prevention and maintenance of law and order”. FSARS will now join the Counter Terrorism Unit, Border Patrol amongst others as being under Operations but it remains to be seen how its indispensable need for access to Intelligence and Investigation facilities will thrive.

Intelligence and Integrity

“The Federal Anti-Robbery Squad will be intelligence driven and will be restricted to the prevention and detection of Armed Robbery, kidnapping and the apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences only”

We cannot expect to have all the details of what an “intelligence-driven” unit, as the presidential directs, will be made of. What must be expected, however, is that the FSARS, and the entire Police Force eventually, will be a more professional outfit of men and women whose commitment to service derives from the sense of dignity and integrity. Only with this foundation could an environment for intelligence truly blossom and bear fruit. Intelligence, in its gathering and sharing processes, requires collaboration, trust and confidence, none of which are possible without the assurance that integrity provides.

And speaking of professionalism, the FSARS would have to outgrow its Yahoo and Gmails. Even home cleaning start-ups already know the advantage of the email with a professional domain name.

The Language of Reform Matters

Changing the SARS uniform and having officers name tags on them are well and good, to the extent that this rending of the dress is accompanied by other sentiments and actions that portray a disposition for easier relations with the public. Calling the heads of the FSARS operations in state and zonal commands “new FSARS Commanders” could still prove distant to an already traumatized public. While the Police in the country is sectioned by commands, referring to a Police officer as a commander is cognitively challenging because Policemen are, in fact, not commanders in the sense that the Army uses the designation. Policemen are really everyday men and women with trainings in intelligence and the use of weapons for law and order. To militarize this rather civil description with a title that grants them the mien of discretionary force would not cause the change so sorely needed in the minds of citizens that the Police is not a Force to be feared but to be collaborated with. For the Chief Superintendents of Police (CSP) or anyone whose rank is not lower that an SP whom the IGP will make heads of the State and Zonal Commands of the FSARS, a title more in line with reform and connections with a civil public is necessary.

New Training Program or a Whole New Value System?

The best training schools, regardless of the organisation facilitating, could not fundamentally change the approach of Policing in Nigeria without an honest, internal review by the Police of its systems of value. To be sure, this is as much a Nigerian problem that cuts across all levels of our lives; the Nigeria Police today reflects the inclinations of citizens to oppress each other. From the relationships between senior and junior students in Secondary school boarding houses, between urban matrons and their maids of rural origin, to those of landlords and gatemen, the ease with which violence – a slap, a threat to “deal with” the other – becomes the resort for proving strength and superiority, as against reason-based persuasion, is tied to Nigerianness in a real sense. It is to be hoped that should a drastic change take place in the chief law enforcement agency of the State such that inherent human dignity is placed above the often impulsive lust for punishment, every stratum of Nigerian life as we know it will take the hint and adjust for the better.

Reparations and Reconciliations

The National Human Rights Commission will meet a transparent and willing team at the new FSARS for its investigations of alleged unlawful activities according to the Police statement on Tuesday.

With the deluge of complaints across the nation, the panel will not struggle for cases with which to begin its “inquisition”. It can start with the most recent involving journalists of Premium Times who, it appears, some SARS officers have chosen as targets to inflict their final acts of brigandage and unlawful treatments before the new directives go into force.

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