Reforming SARS, By Dele Agekameh

SARS men who have been conditioned to extort and harass for many years cannot change overnight because of a negligible change of name and new uniforms.

While President Muhammadu Buhari was away on holiday, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, the vice president, made some decisions that largely satisfied Nigerians. One of these was a presidential directive issued to the inspector general of Police, ordering an overhaul of the “management and activities” of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), across the country. Whether it was due to the vice president’s popularity or for sheer exhaustion from endless clamouring for the dissolution of SARS, majority of Nigerians warmed up to the announcement, even though the notorious squad is, in truth, only getting a face lift.

Ibrahim Idris, the inspector general of Police (IGP), swiftly responded to the directive by commanding his men to institute measures that they were already directed to carry out since last December. Even though the move was rejected back then by Nigerians because it was seen as merely cosmetic, the IGP re-echoed his directive, stating that all SARS operations would now be subsumed under Federal-SARS, commanded by a commissioner of Police working straight from the police headquarters in the Department of Operations.

With the exception of the IGP’s “declarations” that SARS operatives will now undergo psychological evaluation, as well as maintain human rights desks across all formations, every other part of the IGP’s order had already been announced last December, and it has made no difference to SARS’ behaviour. The vice president, like the IGP before, was motivated by a need to display concern for the continued demand for action on the SARS problem. But just like before, many are struggling to see how the IGP’s orders will change the behaviour of the same men who were simply ‘SARS’ not too long ago.

Perhaps, it would be unfair to say that the IGP has not complied with the directive of the vice president who ordered him to overhaul the “management and activities” of SARS. In the IGP’s order, the F-SARS unit is to steer clear of all civil matters, concentrate on prevention and investigation of armed robbery and halt all conduct of stop-and-search activities on Nigerian roads. The problem with this is that he had given these same orders in December and people have been accosted by SARS operatives on the roads since then, without any intelligence backing but solely to extort. Popular musicians Reekado Banks and Dr. Sid are very public examples of people who have suffered harassment and extortion since December.

The argument of the police force has always been that it is inappropriate for the people to call for the scrapping of a police unit that is integral to its fight against crime. The argument of Nigerians, in response, has been that the unit fights less crime than it harasses everyday people going about their daily lives, and if a misunderstanding of its objective is fundamental to its operations then the unit might as well not exist at all. Thus, the debate has become about preserving the core essence of the unit by keeping it alive, as opposed to addressing its ugly reality by scrapping it altogether. Although a few SARS operatives have been exposed and punished in the last few months, the percentage of those disciplined is terribly low in relation to the widespread abuses faced by Nigerians.

It is not clear what the police leadership hopes to achieve by ‘federalising’ the unit. Some may say that the creation of a federal commander at the force headquarters may be an attempt to insulate the IGP and the top hierarchy of the police from responsibility for the excesses of the unit by presenting a scape-goat in person of the F-SARS commander.

It is not clear what the police leadership hopes to achieve by ‘federalising’ the unit. Some may say that the creation of a federal commander at the force headquarters may be an attempt to insulate the IGP and the top hierarchy of the police from responsibility for the excesses of the unit by presenting a scape-goat in person of the F-SARS commander. Also, the use of the unit by the police itself encourages misunderstanding of its objectives. There is an understanding within the police that SARS men are the go-to squad for carrying out unpopular tasks and assignments, due to their lack of proper identification.

Reports had it that SARS men were part of the arresting officers who took Lawal Daura, the immediate past boss of the Department for State Services (DSS), even though he is not an armed robber. PREMIUM TIMES journalist, Samuel Ogundipe, was also reportedly arrested and held by SARS operatives on trumped up allegations of mishandling and ‘stealing’ official secret documents. These are examples of SARS men being used to perform duties that are not within their purview, likely because of a reliance on their ruthlessness and the fear of it.

While it is understandable that the police may have to consolidate men from different units to perform specific duties that require extra manpower or specific skillsets at any time, there is really no reason SARS men should have been involved in arresting one man in Aso Rock Villa or a harmless journalist in the course of his duty. The indiscipline and propensity to stray off the line of duty begins with these little needless assignments from the police leadership that serve as an endorsement of SARS rascality.

The police may not be forthcoming about the truth of its formations being majorly staffed by the men of SARS, after extensive and excessive guard duties with top government officials, public and private establishments and ‘important personalities’ have dwindled the cache of active, functional and somewhat rational men. What may be left is the runt of policemen known as SARS who cannot be dispensed with, else the wider country is left unprotected. This could explain the insistence by the police that SARS cannot be scrapped.

It is becoming clear that the government may not be able to do away with the unit or the men who constitute it, at least not abruptly. The road to a cleaner and more responsible police is likely to be many IGPs and administrations away in the future. While we are on the journey, we may have to take the little we can get as we continue to push for reform every day.

In any case, the one part of this issue that the police hierarchy ought to concentrate on is the actual personnel that make up the notorious unit. Whatever re-organisations and “management overhauls” that may be made to SARS, the key concern to the public is the calibre of men operating in its name and their mentality towards public engagement and safety. SARS men, who have been conditioned to extort and harass for many years, cannot change overnight because of a negligible change of name and new uniforms.

Although the IGP announced psychological evaluation for men of the unit, we as Nigerians know that this measure, if indeed carried out, will be an exercise in futility because the force will not or cannot pay real professionals to carry out the evaluations and if this miraculously happens, up to 80 per cent of the men of the unit may be recommended for dismissal. It is a tempting idea to see the men of SARS dismissed in their numbers but the ripple effects of such an extreme measure may be more dangerous for the public. It is therefore imperative that this measure be incorporated into a more robust recruitment regime to stem the inflow of thugs into the police at the initial stage.

Apart from the fact that many of the men already recruited are a very thin line away from being armed robbers themselves, mass dismissals may leave the police exposed, especially when training of new officers takes time and may be more financially demanding if the police hopes to attract rational people into its formation. What may work, however, is a gradual and systematic phasing out of the toxic elements in SARS and the police by transfer to less sensitive duties, and eventual dismissal, if need be. The decision of the presidency to set up a task force to periodically appraise and inspect the activities of the unit, without notice, may help with more responsible behaviour over time, but only if it is matched by effective sanction of erring personnel.

It is becoming clear that the government may not be able to do away with the unit or the men who constitute it, at least not abruptly. The road to a cleaner and more responsible police is likely to be many IGPs and administrations away in the future. While we are on the journey, we may have to take the little we can get as we continue to push for reform every day.

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