Subjected to intimidation, abuse and oppression, Nigerians have launched a campaign to end police brutality. Using the hashtag, #EndSARS, the campaign began online last weekend after a video in which officers attached to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad shot a man in Yaba, Lagos, went viral. The campaign, which has attracted global attention, has also drawn responses from the National Assembly, the Presidency and the United Nations. But as usual, the police authorities are on the defensive. This time, they must be made to eat humble pie.
Citizens must stand up when it is clear their rights are being serially violated by agents of the state. The Nigeria Police Force is notorious for corruption, the use of excessive force, false arrests, illegal detention and searches without warrant. The Yaba incident, in which SARS officers were attacked for allegedly shooting a man, is typical of their excesses. The video soon attracted a deluge of other video recordings of police officers battering unarmed citizens across the country. An online petition was launched calling for SARS to be disbanded. The campaigners, who are mainly youths, plan to embark on protests in major cities to drive home their point.
Police brutality is turning the force and citizens into adversaries. The views being expressed online tally with the activities of SARS on the streets. With SARS officers, no youth is safe on the streets of Lagos, Abuja or Port Harcourt. Nigerians, in spite of the fact that they are contending with a high rate of crime, are fed up with the brutality of SARS. Under the pretence of crime detection, youths are randomly stopped and searched. Any material, especially cell-phones and laptops, even a few thousands of naira, become incriminating items for the bribe-seeking policemen. SARS men intimidate youths, humiliate them, and extort money from them, through their ATM cards and POS terminals. In one such incident in Lagos, police officers were seen battering a suspect with gun butts. Shocking, too, was the story of a medical doctor, who was responding to an emergency call around 1am last May; he was “robbed” by SARS operatives in the Iyana-Ipaja area of Lagos State. The SARS men detained him and forced his wife to go and withdraw N45,000 with his ATM card when the officers threatened to implicate him for armed robbery. With them, there is no civilised rule of engagement with the public. It is, indeed, a reign of terror.
But, initially, a ray of hope came when Muhammadu Buhari assumed office in May 2015. Police behaviour became civil. With the President inattentive, police exploited this to return to their crooked conduct. Under the incumbent Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, they have become almost uncontrollable. With SARS, it is now an offence to wear a tattoo, own more than one cell-phone or ATM card, a laptop or any other gadget.
Instead of getting off from their high horse, the police have launched propaganda blitz to criminalise the campaigners. This is evident in the case of Moses Motoni, an official of BudgIT, an NGO tracking budget performance in Nigeria. He was arrested, detained without charges in Kaduna for convening a town hall meeting in Bida, Niger State and handcuffed to the seat of the car that took him to Abuja. At a point, the police brashly alleged that the campaign was politically motivated.
Crime control does not entail brutalising and violating the rights of innocent people. In September 2016, Amnesty International indicted the NPF – especially the SARS – for widespread torture and brutality. “SARS officers are getting rich through their brutality. In Nigeria, it seems that torture is a lucrative business,” the report, entitled, Nigeria: You have signed your death warrant, said. It detailed the horror stories of detainees, who were maltreated by officers. In a recent report by the World Internal Security and Police Index International, the Nigeria Police was rated the worst police organisation in the world. The November 11 report, which was nevertheless seriously challenged by the Nigeria Police, based its assessment on parameters such as capacity, process, legitimacy and outcomes, which were also used to measure 126 other countries.
To further give credence to the report, another one by the Human Rights Watch, out in August, exposed Nigeria Police as an organisation where extortion and human rights abuses of the public thrive. Victims of extortion in the country, as recounted by the respected international agency, include travellers, those running errands, traders and many others who could be accosted on the road and made to cough up some money. It mentioned the obnoxious system of “Returns,” where junior officers who perpetrate the acts of extortion extend the proceeds to the senior ones along the chain of command. This may sound contemptible, but it constitutes a daily feature in the society, which those in authority should frontally address.
But the atrocities of SARS are symptomatic of the entire Force. It is clear that police investigating police has a tendency for self-protection. The IG should create a civilian body to investigate police cases of misconduct. The police should be made to establish units or “early warning systems,” as is the case in the United States that identifies officers with high rate of citizens’ complaints and deal with them. Incorrigible elements among them should be thrown out of the system. Litigation and heavy court fines on the Force are crucial in achieving a well behaved police. This is where the judiciary has a big role to play.
Nigerians should stand up against abusive police. But the society will be better served by changing the scrap SARS campaign, to that of demanding a radical or total overhaul of the unit for operational efficiency and effectiveness. The campaign is not just a wake-up call to the youth, but to all Nigerians, especially non-governmental organisations, the National Human Rights Commission and Office of the Public Defender in every state of the federation, to redouble their efforts to ensure that any atrocity or misconduct of these notorious breed of policemen does not go unreported.
Idris’ panicky response of a promise to reform SARS – reserve supervision at the zonal level to officers with the rank of deputy commissioners of police and immediate re-training – is not enough. Horrific crimes have been committed; those responsible must be identified, prosecuted in the courts and dismissed from the Force. The reorganisation of SARS should be holistic: some of its personnel have no business remaining in the police as no amount of retraining can erase their inclination for atrocious conduct. The IG should send the topmost SARS officers on administrative leave to pave the way for unfettered investigations into the notorious outfit.
Ultimately, the responsibility to cleanse and reform the police and its squads rests squarely with Buhari and Idris. Buhari has not lived up to his promise of change just as the return to discipline, efficiency, decorum and respect for the citizenry expected from a police force in a democracy has eluded Nigerians. The President is too detached from the people he leads and often finds it difficult to identify or empathise when their lives and welfare are under threat. A responsive leader would have swiftly initiated action, demanded answers from the IG and ordered thorough investigations and reform of the killer SARS squads.
Nigerians should mount pressure through all legal means to free themselves from an oppressive police force. The public scrutiny of the police through cell-phone video recordings should be sustained. This is the global trend.