For once, the government is wearing a human face. Apparently touched by the agitation against the serial brutalities traced to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, acting President Yemi Osinbajo last week ordered the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, “to, with immediate effect, overhaul the management and activities of SARS.” For recognising that SARS’ cup of iniquity, impunity and brutality is full, the directive can launch the police system on the path of change.
Osinbajo’s order, though belated, generated contrasting emotions. For those who believe SARS can be reformed, the government has taken a huge step forward. Conversely, for the innocent victims of SARS’ unjustifiable excesses, this is half-measures. To this group, SARS is beyond redemption and should be dismantled completely.
The campaign to disband SARS has many merits. Although SARS was established to combat armed robbery and kidnapping, it metamorphosed from a diligent unit into a terror force against the citizens. With the police authorities and the government paying little attention to its draconian operations, SARS officers made human rights violations their identikit. Having no firm leadership to call them to account, they maimed, extorted and killed extrajudicially at will.
On several occasions, officers tortured their victims to the point of death, forcing their innocent victims to transfer money to their private bank accounts electronically. Some of these victims posted the transactions on the social media. Despite these exposés, the IG and government looked the other way. This is the height of irresponsibility in governance.
For instance, last March, a victim, Lucky Joseph, alleged that SARS officers stripped and pulled him by his manhood during a public assault in Obio-Akpor, Rivers State. His offence was that he insisted that he did not want the officers to implicate him during a stop-and-search operation. For this, he was brutalised. In another incident in Asaba, Delta State, an Instagram user, Jane Mena, narrated how SARS officers assaulted a pregnant woman, which resulted in the loss of her pregnancy. In Ilupeju, Lagos, one Mrs. Asiata slumped last January while trying to prevent SARS officers from arresting her son. The officers shot indiscriminately in the process. The list of SARS’ atrocities – all in the name of fighting crime – is endless.
In December 2016, SARS brutality forced some Nigerians to form an online campaign with the hashtag #EndSARS to protest against the brutality by the unit. When the protests started gaining momentum, Idris promised to act. He issued new rules barring SARS officers from conducting stop-and-search operations or delving into land and civil matters; he asked them to operate in police uniform. Of course, the IG’s orders were flagrantly disobeyed. After a brief hiatus of relief, SARS officers renewed their cruelty.
With Nigerians, especially the youths, at the receiving end of SARS illegalities, Amnesty International and other international monitors released damning reports on it. A September 2016 report, which the Nigeria Police Force denied, blamed SARS for habitual illegalities, including torture and killing of suspects.
What informed the action? While SARS abdicated its primary responsibilities, violent crime, which it was created to combat, festered. Kidnapping and killings became pronounced in the North, with the Kaduna-Abuja Expressway nearly a no-go area. Banditry has assumed dire dimensions in Zamfara State, where thousands have been massacred. Armed robbery and kidnapping are ever-present nightmare for southerners. SARS officers allowed this cancer to fester as they went after young Nigerians for wearing tattoos, dreadlocks or, for men, wearing earrings. When the youths carry smartphones, it is an opportunity for SARS officers to bully them into parting with their hard-earned money.
In fairness, the IG has given instructions for a raft of changes since Osinbajo’s order that SARS be overhauled. From now, SARS officers must wear proper uniform with nametags; they cannot conduct stop-and-search anymore and would undergo psychiatric and psychological tests. All victims have also been given the chance to report abuses by SARS officers. This elicits optimism.
However, the issue at stake goes beyond overhauling only SARS. SARS is a unit in the NPF, whose architecture is rotten. A joint report in 2016 by the International Police Science Association and the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace rated the NPF as the worst police force in the world. The NPF ranked poorly in the four categories used. Poignantly, it scored lower than DR Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Pakistan. Singapore, Finland and Denmark have the best forces out of 127 countries assessed, with Botswana, Rwanda and Algeria top in Africa. It is near impossible for a decent, subordinate unit to emerge from this notorious force.
The way out is a holistic restructuring of the entire NPF gamut. Recruitment, promotion and welfare have to be reviewed to prevent criminal elements from gaining a foothold in the system. Officer competence should determine elevation to higher responsibilities, not quota system.
Even with its low staff strength, the police can still do a better job. To show that the Buhari administration is not just paying lip service to reform, all the officers attached illegally to VIPs should be withdrawn immediately and redeployed to communities lacking security presence.
Government should equip the police with modern technology and build capacity by reviving the CCTV project. In the United Kingdom, the CCTV is an integral component of the security set-up. Body-worn cameras that will record police interactions with the public should be a standard form of police uniform.
To tame lawlessness, officers who violate the rights of the public should be punished in accordance with the law. IGs should be appointed on merit. Above all, the police power should be devolved. This newspaper has repeatedly argued that it is an aberration for a federal state to have a single police force. Without this element, Nigeria’s police system will continue to remain in security backwater.