Since 1992 when the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was established its modus operandi has been basically kill-and-go. This was during the military era where a military ruler arrogantly told Nigerians during a peaceful protest that they were trained experts in the domination of their environment. When a leader says that to the hearing of people who carry weapons they take that message to heart.
The SARS people may have fought armed robbers viciously but they also fought – and killed – many innocent persons. The reports of their atrocities which include extortion, torture and extra-judicial killings have appeared in the media regularly but it has never been manifestly clear to the public that the offending personnel are often brought to justice. Perhaps, some victims with high visibility or influential connections have had their cases pursued to a logical end.
But the truth is that the Nigeria Police, not just its unit with terror credentials called SARS, is not truly a very civil and friendly police force. Never mind the hollow slogan that “the police is your friend.” My view of why the police generally treats us badly is that the system treats them very badly.
That is what I call transferred aggression. They are poorly paid; many of them are asked by their superiors to buy their uniforms; they work under the rain without raincoats and during the harmattan without sweaters. Sometimes they have to fuel the vehicles that are to take them out for duty or they have to buy writing materials for witness statements. All these cases of maltreatment of these policemen by officialdom have made them hardened, uncivil and corrupt. I have had some nasty personal experiences with some policemen.
Some years ago, I was travelling to Benin by road. Soon after leaving Lagos we encountered a police roadblock where the policemen asked for our car documents. We showed them and as the policeman handed over the documents to my driver and we tried to proceed on our journey he flagged us down again. He asked for the receipt of my transistor radio, a radio I bought many years earlier. I wondered why he would believe that a man who could buy a car could not buy a radio. I just knew he wanted a reason to demand money from me since he found nothing wrong with my car credentials. I wasn’t ready for the blackmail. I appealed to the Sergeant who was head of the team. He asked who I was and I told him. He told the Corporal he didn’t need to ask for the receipt of a radio and the Corporal got angry, very angry. The Sergeant asked us to go.
On another occasion I was returning from work at about 9 p.m. At the Allen-Opebi roundabout in Ikeja a policeman stopped me, searched the car and the booth. He saw my handbag in the booth and asked me to open it. I did. He rummaged through it and found a letter addressed to me by one of the State Governments. He asked, “why are you taking a government document home?” I told him I intended to write the reply to it at home. And I asked him what was wrong with that?
He took that question for arrogance. He shouted at me and told me: “That is how your friend behaved and they wasted his life. I can waste your own life now.” I knew that he was referring to the assassination of my friend Dele Giwa, first Editor in Chief of Newswatch on October 19, 1986. I hurriedly, humbly said, “I am sorry sir, sorry sir.”
He allowed me to go. I made a sign of the cross. If I hadn’t mollified his anger by sir-ring him his anger could have led to cruelty because a uniform provides half a man’s valour and a gun provides the rest. I learnt from that day that it is unwise to argue with a man with a loaded gun. Each time I see them I sir them without bothering about their rank or ranklessness. I have never worn dreadlocks or tattoos or ear rings or sagging trousers in my life but I sympathise with those who wear them because they easily belong to the group profiled by the police as criminals.
If you also carry a laptop computer or a sophisticated smart phone you fit the bill. You are a yahoo boy or yahoo girl. That is a one way ticket to a cell or hell’s gate, whether or not you are what they think you are.
When President Olusegun Obasanjo set up the Police Service Commission (PSC) I was one of eight persons appointed to the Board. I went to the President to find out why he chose to put me in the Commission. He said that since I had been a customer of the Police having been detained by them several times he wanted me to go and join hands in reforming the Police Force. It was obvious that we had a herculean task on our hands because this was a novel organisation that was supposed to make the police a civil and humane organisation by its recruitment and disciplinary powers.
The Police had, hitherto, been used to taking directions from military leaders. Now there was a civilian outfit to which they were supposed to submit themselves. The Police high command tended to see the Police Service Commission (PSC) not as a benign regulator of Police conduct but as an unnecessary roadblock to the unhindered performance of their duties.
Often when they wanted to do some corner-cutting they would drop the name of the President. Up till this day the police have not fully accepted the PSC as its partner in the management of the Nigeria Police.
As you are aware both the Commission and the Police are in court over who can recruit policemen even though the Constitution puts this squarely on the plate of the PSC. In the Third Schedule Part 1 of Federal Executive bodies established by Section 153 of the 1999 Constitution. Section 30 says that the Commission shall have power to (a) appoint persons to offices other than the office of the Inspector General of Police in the Nigeria Police Force and (b) dismiss and exercise disciplinary control over persons holding any office referred to in sub-paragraph (a) of this paragraph.
The ding dong battle between the PSC and the Police has affected the management of the police as a civil, civilised, cultured and humane organisation.
In the last two years there were attempts to reform the SARS based on several reports of rape, kidnapping and killings levelled by the public against the operatives. On August 14, 2018, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo had ordered the overhaul of SARS. But the then Inspector General of Police, Mr. Ibrahim Idris merely embarked on a change of name. He said the unit would be called Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS) and that a new head would be appointed with the establishment of a human rights desk to handle the reports. He thought that it is the hood that makes the monk. Not much else happened after that.
On January 21, last year, the current Inspector General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu ordered the decentralisation of SARS. He said that the Deputy Inspector General, Force Criminal Investigations Department and the Commissioners of Police in the states would be held accountable for actions of SARS. That never solved any of the problems complained about. Has anyone been punished for unethical and unprofessional conduct since then? I don’t know but SARS remained a brutal outfit. Now SARS is in the eye of the tornado. Its dirty linen is being laundered in Nigeria and the rest of the world as young Nigerians mount a well-organised protest that has never be seen in Nigeria for a long time.
The Federal Government has announced the scrapping of SARS but the youths are still marching in protest. They say they want visible signs of implementing reforms in the police and the polity.
Meanwhile, the IGP hastily set up another group called SWAT to replace SARS, some kind of new wine in an old wine bottle. This does not sit well with the demonstrators. They have creatively given it various nicknames. While the police calls it Special weapons and Tactical Team (SWAT), the protesters consider it to be Smooth Wallet Auto Transfers (SWAT) or Same Wickedness Arranged Tactically (SWAT) or SARS With Another Title (SWAT). That hastily and ill-thought out new name makes the outfit suspicious and dead on arrival. It is therefore unlikely to earn public confidence until visible reforms of the Police appear on the horizon.
The current demonstration is the most efficiently organised and orderly protest I have seen in my entire life. The demonstrators are supported by celebrities in Nigeria and abroad including football stars, singers, actors, models, doctors, lawyers and technologists. They have shown tenacity, durability, commitment and unparalleled organisational ability.
In the last one week they said they had raised N60 million, money that they account for transparently.
They provide medical attention for those wounded; they provide food and drinks for the protesters; they give them rain coats and umbrellas so that the heavy rain does not discourage them from pursuing their goal; they repair cars that are damaged during the demonstration; they hire bouncers and fierce looking dogs to protect them from hired hooligans that may attempt to disrupt their protest; they clean up the streets after the day’s demonstration; they provide mobile toilets for protesters and they frisk everyone to ensure that no one brings weapons to damage the peacefulness of their programme. They ensure that there is no looting of shops, no damage of public property or any rascally behaviour that can throw their campaign into jeopardy and give the authorities cause to use violence against them.
I hope the Nigerian Army’s Operation Crocodile Smile is not targeted at those peaceful protesters. Protesters have been on the streets in Hong Kong for the past 16 months without the use of violence to break the protest. Their high level of efficiency, the orderliness and the lack of violence must be a lesson to future protesters. This peaceful style of demonstration is like a breeze from a new direction. That is why it is scoring a direct hit with peace-loving people who are offering them food, drinks and other forms of support. For almost two weeks now our days have passed in a nervous blur with the fear of violence hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles.
We hope that the various governments and PSC will do their duty speedily to assure the protesters that their words on police reform are no empty words as had been happening in the past.
But make no mistake about it, the anti-SARS campaign is only the small picture. The big picture is that Nigeria is bleeding not just from SARS-inflicted wounds but from wounds inflicted on the polity by the political elite. There is huge unemployment, poverty, election rigging, a poor governance culture, the mismanagement of our diversity and the lack of inclusivity. These have generated feelings of exclusion, marginalisation which have led to separatist clamours in several parts of Nigeria. That is the big picture which the politicians must address before we run out of time.