SARS: To End Or To Reform?
*This cover article was originally published on August 10, 2018. It was republished in light of its relevance to the ongoing #EndSARS protest*
James Ademuyiwa, a social media marketer, does not believe the police is a friend. After two nasty experiences with men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Abeokuta and Lagos, his disposition is more than justified. The first time he was arrested for committing no crime, he was walking down a street in the Ogun State capital.
Immediately tagged a Yahoo boy — the Nigerian label for an internet fraudster — without evidence or justification,
his phone was confiscated.
Without asking any questions, knowing he would be saving himself from wounds or bloody harassment, he handed them his phone. Nothing incriminating was found on it. Yet, he was told he had to pay to ‘bail’ himself.
James’ encounters with the now dreaded police squad mirror thousands of others by young Nigerians, with some ending in fatalities.
“No police officer should violate the rights of even criminals,” says Segun Awosanya, a convener of the #EndSARS #ReformPoliceNG Movement.
“But here, we have people who break the law under the guise of upholding the law; people who take the laws into their hands under substance abuse to do whatever they want. And they believe nothing will happen.”
Awosanya and others like him are spearheading a nationwide campaign aimed at the abolition of the anti-robbery squad and reformation of the entire police force.
The #EndSARS campaign began on social media to protest the activities of the police unit which have been accused of extortion, harassment, robbery, intimidation and extra-judicial killings. There have also been public demonstrations for and against the continued existence of the dreaded anti-crime unit of the Nigeria Police Force.
To achieve its aim, the movement, which has found relevance with a band of Nigerian youths, is hoping Nigeria’s parliament will act on the Police Act amendment bill before it and also institute a public hearing on the “on human rights abuses by Police/SARS in collaboration with National Human Rights Commission.”
“On the civil side, we are filing a class action suit of N100 billion against the Nigeria Police and also a lawsuit at [the] International Criminal Court on Terrorism on the defenseless youth of Nigeria by the Police as guaranteed by Article 15 of the ICC Statute which allows citizens to refer cases to the ICC, where the state is UNWILLING or UNABLE to take action,” Awosanya says in a post on his Medium page.
The vexatious issue has taken the front burner in national discourse, resulting in the big question about how SARS came to be.
The origin of the special squad
In the 1980s, Nigeria saw a plethora of robbery attack on homes, bank premises and on highways. Many lost their lives and property. This led to a public outcry, forcing the police to set up a special squad of policemen to answer to the menace of robbers in the country. Mr Mike Okiro, the Former Inspector-General of Police and Chairman of the Police Service Commission, in an interview with Daily Trust in December 2017, said, “the idea was that they would be in mufti and armed, simply for the very important element of surprise. They would take cover and, communicate with walkie-talkies, hit the armed robbers. They did that and the robbery attacks went down drastically and, at a point, stopped altogether.”
The former police boss, however, said the squad later became errant and its different formations across the country started acting in ways that negated the spirit of their creation. “I’d say the original idea of SARS has been bastardised,” Okiro said.
“The squad was feared before, and I mean by criminals. But by the time it spread to other states, it seemed like anyone would be carrying arms, dressed in mufti, with a T-shirt with SARS emblazoned on it. Anybody can wear such an outfit.”
The campaign against SARS reached its peak in late 2017, causing #EndSARS to trend for weeks on social media. The outrage expressed in the digital space, which had resonated with celebrities, quickly morphed into street protests in different parts of the country. The leadership of the Nigerian Police responded by reorganising the squad which was fast becoming a blight on its already less-than-sterling public image.
But it insisted that the squad was doing what it was established to do. “Undoubtedly, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) have been doing very well in fighting violent crimes such as armed robbery, kidnappings and cattle rustling in the country in the recent time and this has resulted in drastic reduction of incidents of the mentioned violent crimes nationwide,” Nigerian police spokesman Jimoh Moshood said in a statement last December.
Weighing the odds
People like Awosanya and rap artist Michael Ugochukwu Stephens, popularly known as Ruggedman, think SARS has become more of a menace to the Nigerian society than a deterrent to criminals.
“They are now bullies,” says Ruggedman, whose younger brother was arrested by SARS unjustly.
A 2016 report by Amnesty International indicates that persons detained by SARS, both men and women, “are subjected to various methods of torture and ill-treatment in order to extract information and ‘confessions’. Such methods include severe beating, hanging, starvation, shooting in the legs, mock executions and threats of execution.”
The reason for this barefaced brutality, according to Awosanya, is not farfetched. He describes how police personnel are drafted into the anti-robbery squad as corrupt in itself. He says that the officials are made members of the squad after they have paid a certain amount of money to their superiors. Allegations of the Nigerian police being enmeshed in corruption are not unfounded.
A report published by the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) in partnership with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) shows that the Nigerian judiciary is the second most corrupt public institution in the country after the Nigerian police.
Abayomi Shogunle, who heads Nigerian Police’s Public Complaint Rapid Response Unit, says SARS may be a victim of unjust accusations. He tells Guardian Life that it is important for members of the public to lodge complaints with the Nigerian police through appropriate channels. Perhaps this is his way of ensuring that proper evidence is provided for accusations against the questionable actions of the unit.
In fact, the police, in the recent past, acted quickly against men and officers who have been found wanting of crimes. It has also intensified its anti-corruption campaign too.
In a separate interview with Channels TV earlier this month, Shogunle insists that the bulk of accusations against the squad are unfounded.
“Why are people not going to the courts? Because they don’t have evidence or the facts they will use to pursue their cases,” Shogunle says. He claims most of the complaints against SARS are localised in Lagos State because of better “access to internet facilities”.
“Maybe it’s because more people in Lagos have more access to internet facilities than other people in Nigeria or maybe because of the high commercial activities in Lagos or maybe because most of the online media platforms are based in Lagos.”
But Israel Oladipupo ‘Ladi Speaks’ Ogunseye, whose mother was a member of SARS between 2014 and 2015, is of the belief that the narrations seen on social media are telling of what SARS has become. He is aware of the possibility of people lying outrightly or exaggerate their encounters with the SARS.
He says, “most of the stories being reported on social media to have been known to be true. Only proper investigations into these matters and cases can show us which is true and which is not true.”
Like Ogunseye, Awosanya believes that a lot of the cases of SARS criminality mentioned on social media have [a] basis in reality.
With data miners, a dedicated website and professionals spread across Nigeria, the US and the UK, the credibility of the cases #EndSARS #ReformPoliceNG Movement handles are ascertained. He tells Guardian Life that his organisation verified about 350,000 cases of SARS brutality in 2017 alone. The number, in spite of the uptick in activism against police brutality, has risen to about 450,000.
To end or to reform?
With the #EndSARS campaign still gaining fervency, Awosanya says it is imperative for the Nigerian police to see the wholesome reorganisation and reformation of the whole force as important.
One of the things the Inspector-General of Police did after the anti-SARS got to a head last year was to order an immediate reorganisation of the squad formations across the country.
But a reorganisation without reformation and reorientation of the personnel may achieve little or nothing.
Awosanya is pessimistic about reforming the squad. An outright proscription, he says will be deterrent enough. But Tomiwa Talabi, founder of LagosLife, UnilagGist and TheGistNG, who himself has been at the receiving end of SARS brutality says reforming the squad is better.
“SWAT is an awesome benchmark for what SARS should look like,” he says.
Rapper Ruggedman notes that whichever option the police hierarchy chooses, the current squad must be taken off the street “because they belong there in the first place.”