By: Adémólá Òrúnbon
The spate of violent and unlawful killings by officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) Unit of Nigeria Police, especially in the South West region of the country has not only queried the efficiency required by the police in discharging their responsibilities but has also greatly undermined human security. Consequently, the lawless situation in the state has engendered acrimonious relationships among citizens which has further heightened the security dilemma in all ramifications. It is keenly observed that most of the killings are rampant in Lagos, Osun, Oyo and Ogun States in the region which have recently generated a lot of social media and physical protests by the populace but despite this, the menace still persists.
Lives of several young and adult Nigerians; students, football players, private and commercial drivers and other innocent ones have been cut short in the name of searching for the “Yahoo boys” and bribe-takings. The study examines the instances, trends of violent and unlawful killings of civilians in the country by the officers of Special Anti-Robbery Squad of Nigeria Police; and the factors triggering the brutality; and also interrogates the threats posed by the criminal acts to the peace and security in Southwest Nigeria and National security.
Indeed, it seems hard to imagine that it is possible to watch the #endSARS protest that have unfolded over the past few days and not think that substantial reform of Nigerian policing is desperately needed. Of course, this is not a new development. But one hopes that greater public and political consensus can emerge out of the present situation on the need for change. The incessant killing, shooting, assault, illegal arrest, extortion and brutality incident that set current events in motion were itself illuminating. The event and protest stripped away the common uncertainties and doubts that surround particular cases of alleged police abuses. There were no decisions that had to be made in a blink of an eye.
There were no conflicting witness statements or complicating context. There were no mitigating dangers faced by SARS officers. There was just a deliberate and drawn out excessive use of force that cost a man his life. It is somewhat heartening; therefore, that the vast majority of the Nigerian public reacted with alarm to what happened to Nigeria citizens. It is an encouraging sign that police unions and police chiefs and conservative commentators were unusually vocal in denouncing the police conduct that these protests across the country showed.
The subsequent public protests could have built on that momentum, and they still can. But there is certainly a risk that the initial consensus that something had gone wrong in the SARS deliberate killings and that it exposed the need for further action could be lost in the civil unrest that has followed. Riots and uncontrolled looting understandably drive a public and political desire to do what is necessary to restore order. Those who would wish to empower the strong arm of the state can win favor when the alternative is rampant lawlessness. Protests have raised public consciousness. The opportunistic criminal activity that has followed those protests threatens to do something else.
But if the physical protest evidences of the past few days has shown that there are those who would like to hijack this moment for their own anarchic ends, it has also shown that the problems in Nigeria’s police departments are not limited to the Federal special Anti-Robbery Squad (F-SARS) who assaulted Nigerians at any times. Over the course of the past few days there have been far too many examples of officers violently assaulting the very citizens that they are sworn to protect, deliberating attacking members of the media, recklessly lashing out in ways that escalate rather than de-escalate tensions, and unnecessarily initiating conflicts.
Having lost control of many urban spaces, law enforcement is now in a difficult position in trying to restore a sense of order. There have also been moving examples of heroic protesters attempting to reclaim the streets from those who hope to instigate chaos. The increasingly bold factions on the political extremes who have spent the past few years encouraging street violence are genuine problems that need to be addressed. But the faults that can be found elsewhere cannot be used to conceal the need for better training, more careful management, and more accountability in police departments across the country. There are, to be sure, some bad apples, but rooting out a few bad apples will not be sufficient.
The Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute a single officer from the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), despite anti-torture legislation passed in 2017 and evidence that its members continue to use torture and other ill-treatment to execute, punish and extract information from suspects. At least close to 100 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020 were recorded, and the victims of the police unit, set up to fight violent crimes, are predominantly male between the ages of 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups. Nigerians are outraged by the impunity with which SARS perpetrates horrific human rights violations.
Some findings show that these horrific violations were carried out under the supervision of high-ranking police officers. Pervasive torture and other ill-treatment torture and ill treatment remain routine practice during SARS’ daily operations and at its detention centres. “One of the officers used an exhaust pipe to hit me on my teeth, breaking my teeth. a 23-year-old, Miracle, who was arrested and detained on the 23, March 2017, by SARS officers in Neni, Anambra State, Southeast Nigeria, was accused of theft a laptop. He was tortured and given hardly any food during the 40 days he was in detention before he was charged and brought before a court.” He lamented that their leader directed them to go and hang him. “They took me to the back of the hall and tied me with ropes. Then they started using all manner of items to beat me, including machetes, sticks, inflicting me with all kinds of injuries. One of the officers used an exhaust pipe to hit me on my teeth, breaking my teeth. I was left on that hanger for more than three hours.” Imagine, man’s inhumanity to man, especially innocent people of the country.
In February, 2020, 24-year-old Tiyamiyu Kazeem, a Remo Star footballer was pushed out of a police car by members of SARS attached to Zonal Intervention Squad (ZIS), Obada-Oko, Abeokuta, Ogun state and crushed to death by a car following closely behind. The Police Inspector attached to the Squad was said to have received information about deceased that he was always putting on military apparel knowing fully well that he was not a military personnel, doesn’t that means that he life should be terminated by any police officer?, despite the fact that he had showed his identity to be a footballer with Remo star club. This then triggered some crisis that led to the death of some innocent souls at Sagamu during the protest that lasted for two to three days.
My recent visit to SARS office Imagbon, Abeokuta, Ogun State, at the instance of my friend who was arrested and wrongly accused of buying a stolen phone by the officer in charge in which he claimed a life was lost showed that some Police officers hardly carried out comprehensive investigation before they summon or arrest arrest people involved. Instead of arresting the culprit, innocent person was harassed, molested, brutalized and arrested. Finally, it was realized that that officer lied in order to extort money from the accused person. No life was lost , the accuser and the accused met but the criminal who stole the phone has not been apprehended up till today.
The study in its findings indicates that the violent/unlawful killing occurs as a result of unprofessionalism, lack of funds/resources, uncontrolled anger/emotions, corruption, use of illicit drugs, drinking alcohol while on duty among others on the part of officers of SARS and as well as absence of Police reforms in Nigeria. The study, however, concluded that the Nigerian government should brace up in ensuring adequate security of lives and property of her citizenry, the need for urgent Nigeria Police reforms in the country, adoption of merit in recruitment process into Forces, fighting corruption to the core among others in checkmating the menace.
The twenty first century Police should be humane, psychologically sound, upright, financially secured, emotionally stable, mentally alert, investigative driven, social-minded and God-fearing in his/her disposition towards fellow citizens. Nigerians want a police that will stand like police with dignity; talk like police with maximum respect; look like police in elegance and posture; investigate, interrogate and police with utmost respect and sincerity. Nigerian police must be adequately funded and empowered to tackle crime and criminals. Invariably, SARS (the subject matter) must be reformed and overhauled to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Òrúnbon, a journalists and public affairs analyst, write in from Federal Housing Estate, Olomore, Abeokuta, Ogun State.