The Police Special Anti Robbery Squad, popularly called SARS has come under heavy criticism for a couple of days now. What started as a few complaints from one or two people has quickly morphed into a social media campaign that is expected to culminate in a street protest. Nigerians are calling for the section of the Nigeria Police Force to be scrapped. Numbers don’t lie, and the hundreds of thousands of people employing the power of the virtual community to register their dissatisfaction with the operating unit of the police force are enough proof that we just might have another “Occupy Nigeria” looming if the government of the day does not take appropriate steps to ensure the issue is adequately addressed.
The narratives are pretty much the same – A young man is harassed by SARS officers because he is spotted driving a relatively flashy car. He is picked up because he is wearing a polo top and a pair of jeans, and if you add tattoos, plaited or dreadlocked hair, an Android or iPhone, and a laptop to the mix then it would take divine intervention for him to be let off the stranglehold of the men of SARS. Again, the younger the gentleman, the higher the probability that he’ll be deemed a “Yahoo boy” or robber.
Usually, entreaties and proofs of innocence from the individual are ignored and they are subjected to untold torture and brutality.
Accounts from different parts of the country have a common denominator of excesses in form of extortion, bullying, victimisation, robbery, kidnap and downright dehumanisation by men of SARS; these allegations are not all spurious. Complainants have gone as far as providing video and audio evidence documenting their encounter.
But like the typical government official or politician, the Nigerian Police Force was hasty to dismiss the allegations against its men and quick to absolve them of any wrongdoing even though there hasn’t been any move to investigate the allegations. They have been defending them with empty, generalistic pronouncements like “SARS is doing fantastically well”.
It’s the same way the men in uniform who are the principal law enforcement agents in the country were quick to shoot down the report published by the World Internal Security Police Index and conducted by the International Police Association and the Institute for Economics and Peace which ranked them as the worst out of 127 countries in terms of handling internal security challenges barely a month ago.
While it must have been a bitter pill to swallow, the damning report should have spurred the Inspector General of Police and other officers at the highest echelon of the force to think up strategies on how to improve the performance of their men through a thorough re-orientation, and dismissal of recalcitrant officers where necessary. From all indications, the present reforms the police claim they have been undergoing since the present IG took office last year cannot, for all intents and purposes be adjudged to be translating to efficient service delivery at the moment.
The #EndSARS campaign is a fall-out of everything wrong with the Nigerian Police Force. The irony that the force which has never been known to display any sort of the friendliness to the average Nigerian has “Police is your friend” as its motto is mind-boggling, the stuff of wonders. On paper, bail is free, but only a newborn baby would be unaware that this is far from the reality of what obtains when one attempts to bail anyone out of the police custody.
Recently, the Lagos Police Command Public Relations Officer came on a live TV programme to clear the air and reiterate that no officer of the force is permitted to view the contents of a citizen’s phone. Yet, police officers do this with impunity every day. When complaints are made to the relevant quarters, nothing concrete is done to stem the tide. Daily, police officers fleece motorists, tricyclists and bike riders of their hard earned money, and they do this blatantly. In spite of this common knowledge among the populace, some “Oga at the top” who’s cut off from reality in his Abuja Ivory Tower will swear his men are innocent of these unprofessional conducts.
Young people in Nigeria are already frustrated by a system that forces them to work ten times harder than their contemporaries around the world if they are to make something of their lives, yet puts them under immense pressure to succeed. And now, they are afraid to pursue their daily bread. A daily bread that requires them to use something as basic and as ubiquitous as a laptop.
Legal employees and entrepreneurs whose jobs demand that they carry digital devices around are scared to go about their daily activities because one unruly officer who is “licensed to kill” can decide to label them “Yahoo Boys” and arrest them on some fabricated allegation. If their mode of dressing does not cut the image of the SARS’ officers idea of how a responsible man should dress, then their woes multiply.
I have no doubt that SARS has done some good too. But one of the banes of not keeping proper records is that when the time arises for figures to be shown to back up assertions, it would be impossible to do so. The IG has said officers of SARS have done some great work in curbing violent crimes and incidences of cattle rustling and robbery, while this might be true, there are no stats or empirical evidence to prove this. A record of how well or poorly SARS has done will also help to determine if that section of the police force should be reformed or scrapped altogether.
Right now, the verdict is that SARS will be reorganized and monitored closely to ensure it operates within the confines of the law.
However, like what obtains in many other cases when a response is given to a protest or campaign, I am hoping that the repositioning of SARS is not just paying lip service to settle the dust raised, rather it serves as a turning point for an improved and service-oriented police force.