Osinbajo and SARS public relations tragedy
Consistent with his usual knack for seeing seemingly intractable challenges through to a tolerable state, Acting President Yemi Osinbajo’s order to the Inspector General of Police to “overhaul” the controversial police unit called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and follow-up directive to the National Human Rights Commission to set up a panel to probe allegations of rights abuse by the unit, are most commendable. Considering the persistent complaints and reports alleging wanton impunity and gross human rights violation by operatives of SARS, the order and directive are responsive gesture to a belated reform.
The Acting President had directed the Inspector General of Police to, with immediate effect, overhaul the management and activities of SARS and ensure that any unit that would emerge from the process, should be intelligence-driven and restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping, and apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences.
Osinbajo also “directed the IG to ensure that all operatives in the emerging unit conduct their operations in strict adherence to the rule of law and with due regard to International Human Rights Law and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of suspects.”In the new deal, operatives are also required to bear proper identification anytime they are on duty. He further directed, “the National Human Rights Commission to set up a special panel that will conduct an investigation of the alleged unlawful activities of SARS to afford members of the general public the opportunity to present their grievances with a view to ensuring redress.”
In swift response to these orders, the IG immediately carried out directive of reforms that seemed too good to be true. A statement issued on his behalf by the police spokesman, acting Deputy Commissioner of Police Jimoh Moshood, explained that under the new arrangement, a new Commissioner of Police had been appointed as the overall head of the FSARS nationwide. The police chief also ordered immediate “medical/psychological evaluation of all FSARS personnel” and “redesigning of new uniform with identity name tag for all FSARS personnel throughout the country.” He furthered declared that: “Henceforth, FSARS personnel will not perform ‘Stop and Search’ duties except on distress call to respond to armed robbery and kidnapping offences only.”
Whilst it is laudable that the government seemed to have given heed to the clamour of well-meaning Nigerians who wanted an abolition or comprehensive re-organisation of SARS, greater commendation should go to the civil movement ‘#EndSARS’ for their relentless campaign against the crass lawlessness and terror machine that SARS has become. Once again, the people’s power has been rewarded for its consistent and tenacious protests against the wanton arrests and brutality against ordinary citizens.
Notwithstanding, Nigerians should not be flattered by the immediacy of the IG’s response, since this latest order is the fourth directive given by the same presidency. Although the IG’s swift response is commendable, the immediacy and alacrity with which the re-organisation took place seemed like a mockery of the Acting President’s order. The term used by the acting president is “overhaul” and it should be instructive to the police that this term has a lot of weight and implication; it suggests that the re-organisation must be holistic and even disruptive.
So far, nothing in the change of name and the change of commissioner suggests a serious re-organisation. If anything, the change is perceived as a deliberate de-capacitation. How can a Federal SARS commissioner in Abuja monitor on the spot criminal activities as they occur? The operatives of SARS and their modus operandi have truly not changed. Founded in 1992 by a Deputy Commissioner of Police in Lagos, Mike Okiro who later rose to become IGP to swiftly combat on-the-spot armed robbery and prevent life-threatening criminal activities, SARS has become a terror unto the masses.
Their ubiquitous presence in street corners, which is deliberately meant to intimidate, is often a show of its misconceived militarisation and brute force. And owing to this hyped instrumentalisation of violence, people of means and influence as well as relatives use SARS operatives to intimidate others, settle domestic disputes and simple disagreements. The consequence has been the ignominy, distrust and aversion towards the now notorious SARS.
With many of its men on duty looking more like miscreants in their dressing, SARS personnel operate using rented minibuses and rickety motorcycles and trail suspects in a menacing manner that often creates public nuisance. Oftentimes their targets are young persons who show signs of means. If you were a youth moving around with a bag containing a laptop, or driving in the company of friends in a good car, you were likely to be accosted and sometimes harassed by SARS operatives. Terrible tales have also been told of unjustified arrests of persons, only for such persons to be extorted and even sometimes led at gunpoint to automated transfer machines (ATM) to either withdraw cash or transfer same to accounts of the policemen. This is unconscionable.
Between the time Osinbajo gave his order and last weekend, SARS operatives have carried on with its trademark recklessness and impunity. In places far away from the scrutiny of the powerful, SARS operatives still carry on laws unto themselves. Only last week they were implicated in the killing of a student in Osun State.
All this is indicative of the absence of diligent oversight and collapse of administrative structure in the force. Not many are in doubt that they know that there is nothing that is going to be done about the impunity and lawlessness of the FSARS operatives. It is for this reason that the response of the IG would remain tokenist, either in the change of name, or in the change of the commissioner, unless that police unit adheres to its term of reference.
What SARS’ operatives are doing at the moment is a departure from its term of reference and an infringement on the law of the land. The IG must go and do as stated. He must overhaul that unit with a great deal of sincerity of purpose.
The excesses and unbridled lawlessness of SARS speakvolume of the ingrained culture of impunity pervading law enforcement agencies and even uniform-wearing organisations. It is not unusual to see all manner of uniform-wearing personnel wielding power in a most inappropriate way and even brutalising people. True, the uniform of any organisation or institution symbolises the identity and ethos of such body. For national paramilitary services and law enforcement agencies, the uniform reflects the authority and dignity of such agencies or institutions. He who puts on a uniform reflects the institution or agency the latter represents. As a national symbol, the uniforms of state institutions deserve some respect both from the persons who wear them and others who share in the symbolism they portray. It is for this reason that uniforms should not be abused either by its wearers, observers or members of the public.
In our usual condemnation of the widespread impunity perpetrated by the police, this paper reiterates that: there is nowhere in the Nigeria Police Act that empowers the Inspector-Generals and Commissioners of Police to turn their offices and commands into illegal instruments of brutality and aggression to be employed by the high and mighty against perceived offenders. The Nigeria Police is not a private militia… It is a security service of the state, whose primary purpose is to maintain law and order, and ensure security of lives and property.”
Last December, Retired Bornu State Commissioner of Police, Simeon Danladi Midenda, formerly of the Federal Criminal Investigation Department of the Police, and founding head of SARS concurred with The Guardian when he explained the origin of the controversial state of SARS. According to him, “SARS never existed outside Lagos. Today, SARS exists in every state command. How it got to where it is today, I have no knowledge. One thing that is clear to me is that they have deviated from the original concept.”
While attributing “the secret behind the successes of the original SARS” to its facelessness and its mode of operation, he narrated: “We operated in plain clothes and used plain vehicles that could not be associated with security or any government agency. Members could not carry Walkie Talkie openly talk less of guns. With the spate of robberies in Lagos, we realised the danger of carrying weapons openly. We also realised that by carrying weapons openly, we have destroyed the element of surprise. We will now be known by robbers while they will remain unknown.”
To quell the controversies engulfing SARS today, this newspaper supports a call for a return to the original concept. So, they should undergo reorientation and thereafter, disappear from public view and remain faceless. They should avoid receiving direct and frivolous complaints from members of the public.
In the main, the Police authorities should note that SARS, now FSARS, has become a black sheep in its family. And so that public relations tragedy should be treated as a damage to be purposefully controlled – in public interest.
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