SARS: Odours from a decaying system (1)

By Toyin Falola 

Nigeria is home to a thriving contradiction. Here is a country that celebrates its aspirations to greatness — economic success, food security, accountable governance, territorial integrity, internal security, and improved living standards— sabotaging its young and vibrant population. A pseudo-welfarist democracy, Nigeria’s young vibrant “human capital” — the potentially productive portion of its population — has to contend with gross insufficiencies, maladministration, corruption, and intimidation in state-owned and administered facilities. In public infrastructure — stable electricity, good roads, and clean drinking water — and public institutions — schools, hospitals, government agencies, and the security outfits — lies a deep and spreading rot; an insufficiency, inefficiency, and inconsistency that constantly mock any such aspirations to lofty heights. Hence, it is reticent euphemism when it is suggested that the odds are stacked high against the Nigerian youth, especially when we add limited employment opportunities to the possibility of being randomly picked up, harassed, robbed, maimed, or killed by ‘rogue’ agents of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, the unit of the Nigeria Police allegedly set up to check the rampant robbery incidents through discrete operations.

This SARS, which is at the centre of the recent and ongoing agitations for its disbandment, as the first step to further police reforms, is a far cry from what was intended, especially if the words of one of its progenitors, Simeon Danladi Midenda, is anything to go by. In an interview compiled by Alpha Media Team, the retired police commissioner recalls that, at inception (in Lagos), the goal of infiltrating robbery syndicates by utilising discretion and the element of surprise informed SARS’ original modus operandi. Hence, the use of plain cloth operatives, deployed to exploit their anonymity to investigate and arrest robbers — and in effect, the growing cases of robbery incidents. However, today’s embattled SARS is a deviation that has metamorphosed into a monster that waylays unsuspecting young people, illegally breaks into their tech devices, concocts charges, and demands money bailouts with the threat of lock-up, serious bodily harm, and death. And there have been instances, too numerous to outline here, of severe injuries and deaths of young people at the hands of this group that became a law unto itself.

The call for the disbandment of SARS by the predominantly youth/young adult protesters and a section of the elderly (some mothers), which is premised on the numerous cases —some captured on film — of SARS brutality; unlawful searches, detentions, torture, robbery, illegal check and transfer of funds from citizens and murder, is a known recurring phenomenon that started in 2017. The insistence on total disbandment of that unit of the Nigeria Police, which stems from the failure of several reform enactments and ‘bans,’ to bring an end to the menace of SARS, has given credence to the argument that the problem lies deeper in the conduct of the entire Nigeria Police.

The Nigeria Police has one of, if not the worst, track records in public relations of any Nigerian government agency, whether in security or administration. Over the years, it has suffered from prevalent self-imposed abuses — dishonesty, corruption, and Nigerians’ tendency to resort to self-help, which has engendered low public confidence levels in its activities. The history of police illegalities in Nigeria is long, with numerous instances of dark and depraved conduct by their personnel. Widespread amongst these instances of police lawlessness are the extrajudicial killings of the infamous “Apo Six” in 2005 and Yusuf Mohammed, the late leader of the terrorist group, Boko Haram, in 2009, an act which has been credited as one of the immediate causes of the insurgency in the North-East. The results of this police thoughtless killing of the Boko Haram leader live with us today. Millions of families are displaced and thousands have been killed. In the end, the citizens and army had to suffer the consequences of this extrajudicial killing.  Also symbolic of these murderous instances is that only two of the six police personnel who carried out these dastardly acts were made to face the full consequences of their actions, which points to another disturbing aspect of policing in Nigeria, the absence of accountability.

The deep and extensive criminal conduct of the Nigeria Police has also encouraged inquisition into why things are what they are. These have turned out several conclusions. Apart from the assertion that the reputation of the Nigerian has been a victim of ‘a few bad eggs’ —which is mostly the official position of the Nigeria Police —it is also held that the unpleasantness perpetrated by police personnel is an outcome of a mix of corruptive societal factors and institutional failures. The former suggests that, as average members of society, police personnel are also susceptible to the general social moral degradation and vices, while the latter faults poor institutional practices in selection, training and disciplining processes; accommodation provisions, compensation, poor remuneration and incentive packages during service and in retirement all engendered by corruption and the misappropriation of police funds. These together have allegedly combined to unleash the police on the same society they are meant to protect.

The recognition that the depth of the rot in the NPF transcends any particular operational unit — that there are other extortionists and murderous gangs within the Nigeria Police — has led a crop of the Nigerian public to demand a complete overhaul. There is, however, some disparity in demand for a change in police operations. While those who are distanced from the brutality extol SARS’ ‘virtues’ and relevance and have called for its continued existence, the divide amongst those who bear the brunt of its lawlessness and who also perceive the existential dangers, appear to be more about urgency, utilisation, attainability on the one hand, and effectiveness and sustainability on the other than it is a disagreement on the need for a change in policing standards. However, a closer look at those who argue for the continuity of SARS goes beyond the set of unaffected persons. For instance, the Arewa Consultative Forum is credited with trending #ProSARS on Twitter, the same medium where the #EndSARS struggle had commenced. Based in the northern part of Nigeria, others from this region commenced the trend of #EndBanditryInTheNorth. This goes on to show where the major disparity comes from. The North-South divide suffers different problems while of course there are always the beguiled pro-government apologists who act as a foil for any struggle they perceive as anti-government.

The conveners of the #EndSARS movement in their demand for an immediate scrap of the police unit demonstrate the urgency of the situation. Another day with SARS meant the possibility of losing more lives to the recklessness of the rogue outfit. Indeed, there trended some graphics depicting how demonised the rogue unit is. In the image, there exist two routes — right and left. On the right leads to armed robbers’ path while the left leads to encounter with SARS, the driver opts to take the right, resolving to face the robbers than SARS. Alarming! Secondly, the publicity, huge profiles in the entertainment industry involved, following, and commitment the movement commanded was utilised to apply optimal pressure on the establishment. And lastly, the expectation was that pushing for the disbandment of a particular unit is more realistic especially riding on this rare momentum which will not last the period it might take to deliberate on a complete reform, what with the Nigerian government’s penchant for getting into commitments it never plans to keep. As a matter of fact, it is true that the government had announced in 2017, 2018, and 2019 that SARS had been banned, disbanded and other grammars outlawing their existence.

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