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Baby and the bathwater

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SARS. Photo; BBC

It is difficult to mourn the passing of SARS, the late but not lamentable Special Anti-Robbery Squad unit of the Nigeria Police Force whose death was formally announced last Monday. The dreaded SARS was killed by angry Nigerian youths who fought via street protests against its numerous atrocities including extortion, illegal arrests and detention often ending in extra-judicial killing.

SARS, a child of necessity, was created as a counter force to the increasing dare-devilry of armed robbers. It was the police’s own version of a balance of terror and truth be told, it proved effective against notorious armed robbers and kidnapers. Its initial accomplishments included the killing of Shina Rambo, a notorious armed robber whose gang operated from the nearby Republic of Benin but was a terror mostly in Lagos and parts of the South West.

It also brought down a latter day kidnap ring leader, Henry Chibueze, alias Vampire in Imo State.  This particular victory over this blood sucking vampire of a crooked man was celebrated in Imo State and beyond.

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While the SARS heroism lasted, Nigerians hailed the gallant members who made it possible for people to sleep with their two eyes closed. But all this was too good to last. Fame and success entered their heads and a few bad eggs among them turned the unit into a money minting factory. They moved to the highways apparently in pursuit of armed robbers. But instead of dealing with their arch enemies alone, they spread their activities to innocent road users who were forced to pay ransom to use the roads. Not kitted in official police uniform, it was difficult to distinguish them from armed robbers.

Four times the police high command ordered them from the roads, but four times they treated such orders with utter contempt. Instead, they grew wilder and more ferocious.  They literally turned the highways into “hell-ways” for commercial vehicle drivers and their passengers.

Not satisfied with the N50 dirty notes they were collecting routinely on the highways, they moved back into the cities to do business with the so-called yahoo boys who specialised in cyber- crimes. Unscrupulous SARS members even became willing tools in the hands of aggrieved persons who hired them to score old wounds. They made themselves available also as debt collectors to help retrieve wayward, runaway girl friends back to the original owners.

In the absence of state police, which is being strenuously canvassed by some governors, SARS became a useful alternative force. In some states, politicians used SARS to train tough looking state based local criminals as their bodyguards for use against opponents.  Such hoodlums are well armed even though shabbily kitted to make them look like the dreaded SARS men. Except those in the know, the ordinary poverty-ridden and awe-struck citizens have no way of distinguishing between the fake and the genuine and they dare not attempt to find the difference.  They might not live to regret their impudence. Unfortunately, all the atrocities of the hoodlums in the garb of SARS are chalked up as part of the nefarious activities of the genuine SARS sent from Abuja to help fight criminals.

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Those who talk glibly of reforms as a way of sanitising the system and make the anti-robbery squad more humane and operate according to their rules of engagement, are seemingly unaware that various attempts had been made in the past to reform the squad, some at the instance of Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo and others directly from the Police Service Commission in conjunction with the IGP. But the attempts to make them better and more professional crime fighters came to naught. Apparently, they too, like the criminals they are set up to fight, have some unseen godfathers that protect them and immunise them against official disciplinary measures.

The stories of some of their exploits are sometimes too grisly and gruesome to be true. Yet they are true. You must have heard of one bullet. According to those in the know, one bullet, not to be mistaken for the proverbial silver bullet, is what was required to take care of those of their victims who refuse to play ball.

When they raid youths in their hang out spots or in some rundown slums, they cart away innocent citizens as well and they ask them to bail themselves with as much as N300,000. In the eyes of SARS members, it is a crime for any youthful Nigerian to drive a nice car or carry a sophisticated phone set or for a man to have dreadlock. It is worse for a boy to wear imitation ear-ring like a girl. If anyone falls into this profile, he must be a yahoo boy indulging in cybercrime to dupe unsuspecting people.

Apparently it is the missionary duty of SARS to purge the society of such youths. When these youths get into SARS net, they are automatically guilty until they prove their innocence. And the only way to prove their innocence is to pay a hefty ransom.

Failing to do so is at their own peril.  The recalcitrant victims may end up receiving only one bullet which would dispatch them to the world beyond.

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This heinous crime, this crude and senseless murder, is dignified by all manner of strange coinage, one being the more fashionable term known as extra-judicial killing. But hardly do these criminals know that extra-judicial killing, or any unauthorised killing for that matter, can plunge the society into unimaginable calamity like the current Boko Haram insurgency for which one government after another has failed to find an answer.

It was the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf in police custody in Borno State that sparked reaction from his followers who were determined to take revenge on any policeman in sight. They graduated from there and started to burn down police stations and confiscate their arms. Today, a decade later, they have metamorphosed into international terrorism organisation.

What looked like another extra-judicial killing, though officially denied and strenuously disputed, is at the core of the current protests that finally led to the disbandment of the SARS.

Some recap. Saturday October 3, a video started to trend on social media claiming that a SARS policeman had shot and killed a young man in Ugheli, Delta State. The story had it that the police went away with the man’s Lexus SUV jeep. True or false, the story sparked youth uprising which quickly spread like wildfire. Hashtag #EndSARS sprouted like the mushrooms and there was no controlling its spread. It went beyond our shores. And like the Black Lives Matter protest that followed the police’s brutal killing of George Floyd in the USA, the EndSARS protest took a life of its own.

It became not only an embarrassment to the Buhari government; police trying to quell the riot was forced to use force which was like spraying petrol into a raging fire. Some lives were lost in Ogbomosho where the revered traditional ruler, Oba Oladunni Oyewumi and his visitor, Sunday Dare, the youthful Minister of Sports, were smuggled out of the palace to escape the ire of rioters. The protests, the first of its kind since the second coming of Buhari, took a pan-Nigerian outlook. It united the youths and gave them a voice.

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Three or four days into the protests, the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced that he had disbanded the SARS. The President made a two-minute broadcast the following day and announced that the culprits would be severely punished.  The sack of SARS, according to the president, is the beginning of reforms in the police force. But let it also signal the beginning of more responsiveness by government to other burning national issues.

Having found their voice and have successfully demonstrated a show of strength there is no telling where and when the youths would again bare their fangs. With Nigeria, there is no shortage of issues and in a democracy like in war, fair can be foul and foul fair.

But if care is not taken, by killing SARS we would have succeeded in throwing away the baby and the bathwater, opening our doors wide open to armed robbers and kidnappers and other categories of criminals whose tribe is growing exponentially from day to day.

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