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SARS TO SWAT, no reform at all

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By Chidex Onyemah

It is no news that the dreaded and now despised Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a unit of the Nigerian Police Force, has been abused by majority of the police personnel deployed there, a development that has led to the currently snowballing incidence of protests across the southern states of the country.

While many protesters demand the total eradication of the outfit, some others demand mere reform of the whole police system in the country.

It is really heart-breaking that in this our so-called democracy, the will of the people doesn’t even matter. The reaction of Nyesom Wike, the governor of Rivers state tells it all. The governor summarily placed a ban on the protests in his state, a directive that was ignored by angry protesters. As reported by Orient Daily on Wednesday, hundreds of youths, Tuesday morning, defied that order and staged their protest against police brutality in Port Harcourt under a coalition of civil society organisations. The #EndSARS protest in Rivers state planned to march through Port Harcourt up to Wike’s seat of government, Government House. Democracy never prohibits protests.

I would not want to accept the speculation that SARS is one of the many tools of the north-dominated federal government fashioned purely for the purpose of getting back at the southerners, even in the face of the general security high command structure of the country which may show elements of truth in that speculation.

This is the more so given that there doesn’t appear to have been any incident of the Nigerian police squad, harassing or brutalizing the populace beyond the south, as borne out by the indifference of areas outside the south to the current against police brutality. The national security apparatchik has, rather, been deployed only when thought useful to rescue and protect the Fulani when they commit crimes in the south and thought to be in danger of punishment by victim farmers and villagers.

However, Nigerian youths have been enduring, though not condoning, forgiving and forgetting many excesses by government institutions, including academic, electoral misconducts in the past, but the dehumanising mistreatment seems unforgivable as the number of protesters keeps increasing across and outside the country.

In response to the protests, the federal government, through the inspector general of police, IGP, renamed SARS as Special Weapons and Tactics, SWAT, is the cheapest prank of the century.

If the brutality and abuses perpetrated by most of these police officers could ever be stopped by mere change of name, then there wouldn’t have been any form of police brutality.

It has been a regime of brutality since the late 1992 formation of SARS. In May 2010, Amnesty International disclosed that it would be suing the Nigerian Police over human rights abuses, stating that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Borokiri, Port Harcourt, arrested three motorcycle riders, detained them for over one week and had the poor lads beaten every night with the butt of a gun and iron belt.” On May 20, 2010, a Federal High Court in Enugu state, ordered the then IGP, Ogbonna Okechukwu Onovo, to produce a Special Anti-Robbery Squad officer who had gunned down a 15-year-old boy in high school. According to the SARS officer, the teenager was mistaken for someone else associated to a crime case the police was dealing with.

It would be recalled that, in December 2016, Segun Awosanya took up an online advocacy campaign to end SARS brutality in the country. The public responded well to the hashtag with people all over Nigeria posting their various SARS experiences. The campaign got international media attention and, by August 2018, then acting president of Nigeria, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, ordered immediate “overhaul” of the controversial police unit. The order was following reports of widely reported human rights violation. The acting president ordered the inspector general of police, Ibrahim Kpotun Idris, to reform SARS as well as carry out an independent investigation after “persistent complaints and reports” that concerned human rights violation. After the order, the IGP announced that the unit would be renamed to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, FSARS.

Despite that change in name, there was no evident improvement or change in the mode of operation of the SARS officers. Rather, the level of their brutality and extortion became more heightened and dehumanising. Before the name was changed to FSARS, the SARS officers were notorious for negotiating with cyber criminals and indulging in other forms of extortion. Thereafter, the situation got worse, with the personnel getting as desperate as moving around with a POS machine to oil their extortion tactics. It soon became a crime to move around with an iPhone or a laptop.

They would not ask any questions before concluding that one was a cybercriminal who had no option except to be forced to negotiate the financial terms of one’s freedom and paying this off using their handy POS machine. Isn’t this criminal?

To men of the FSARS, it became a crime for people, especially young folks, to wear cute casuals. Such dressers were ready victims of harassment. When these unscrupulous officers tried stopping anyone and he or she ignored them or was not servile then you are in for serious troubles which might claim your life.

Moreover, is it constitutional for a police officer to kill a suspect who hasn’t been convicted by a court?

Now, let’s not dwell much on the past. The question in the minds of many Nigerian is: what benefit will SWAT be to Nigerians? We are talking of a SWAT with no specified modus operandi stated in the release of the new name and no remedial induction or re-training scheme planned for the men of the unit. Where, then, is the reformation?

For me, the Nigerian police system doesn’t merit the name Special Weapon and Tactics. What constitutes tactics in a police force that so clearly lacks finesse and intelligence? SWAT will only worsen the situation and further increase the level of brutality meted on Nigerian youths.

There is no intelligence at all in the SARS system and every operation and investigation by these officers is all about force, extortion and intimidation. The magazines of their rifles, always doubled, do not indicate that they should be in a civil society; perhaps better suited for the Sambisa Forest, like many protesters have suggested.  

The ruggedness and show of force, often exhibited by these officers, would not be a total waste, if only they could be constituted into a new squad to fight terrorism at the borders of Nigerian or assist the Nigerian military in future interventions and anti-terrorist war in the country. Whichever way they are to be used for will be fine with the intimidated and brutalized Nigerian populace for as long as they won’t operate on the streets of this country.

SWAT will only be useful and a reasonable alternative to SARS if its personnel are properly groomed for the task of decency in policing, a task that calls for far more than mere rebaptism and, so, a waste if time.

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