#EndSARS campaign: Buhari, banning SARS not enough by Nigeria Punch Editorial Board

AFTER another bout of the clamorous campaign against endemic police brutality resurfaced, the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the disbandment of the sadistic outfit. In its place, Adamu said a new policing arrangement would be announced “in due course.”

Before the weeklong protests by youths in some towns and cities forced the regime to eat humble pie, Adamu and the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), had reacted by rolling out new measures to address the scourge. The 10-point SARS reform agenda included banning the unit from routine patrols, checkpoint duties and searching of cell phones, laptops and other devices. Despite this, the protests continued unabated primarily because the public saw the IG’s measures as superficial. Public anger raged on even after the dissolution of the dreaded killer-squad. “We are not going to be fooled by the IG’s announcement. The President should either address Nigerians by announcing through an executive order, that he is disbanding the terrorist unit in the Nigeria Police Force or more protests would happen and it would continue to grow until the President takes responsibility,” one of the leaders of the movement, Raphael Adebayo, insisted. Buhari has finally responded, saying the disbandment is the first step in the reform agenda and promising to bring errant SARS officers to book.

It is truly unfortunate that the Buhari regime allowed SARS’ provocative excesses to reach a zenith. The purpose of law enforcement in a free society is to promote public safety and uphold the rule of law so that individual liberty may flourish. But the endemic features of wanton brutality, corruption and sloth have reached a crescendo on Adamu’s watch. In the hope that the IG would rein in his officers in line with global best police practices, the public had continued to suffer at the cost of life and limb. Yet, the man that Adamu is constitutionally answerable to — the President — looks the other way. Truly, the youth have the right to say enough is enough.

The list of SARS abuses is endless. Early in October, an online video of SARS atrocities in Ughelli, Delta State, went viral, showing how the officers shot a man and drove his vehicle away. In Lagos, Joshua Oghenekevwe, and four others travelling to Delta State were subjected to callous extortion early this month. Oghenekevwe, like countless other youths, coughed up N100,000 to buy his freedom. In Rivers State, young men regularly face arrest, torture and detention; they are forced to pay hefty sums of money to regain their freedom.

Unambiguously, SARS has gone beyond its brief of tackling armed robbery, but has transformed to an army of terror against the very citizens it is paid to protect. Amnesty International has documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial executions by SARS since 2016. AI reported 58 cases of suspects who were tortured while in SARS custody. Victims included Kolade Johnson, 36, who was shot at a viewing centre in Lagos; Hadiyat Sikiru, 18, Linda Igwetu, an NYSC member, Ademola Moshood, a commercial motorcyclist who refused to part with a N200 bribe and Anita Akapson, an Abuja-based woman.

For SARS officers, it is a crime for youths to carry Smartphones, laptops, tech devices or ride cars. On this pretext, they are subjected to gross human rights violations. In February, SARS officers brutally murdered a Remo Stars FC footballer, Tiamiyu Kazeem, on the Sagamu-Abeokuta Expressway. As a result, it is difficult for the public to trust the police and the Buhari regime whenever they declare their intention to reform the force. On at least three occasions, the incumbent IG and his predecessors announced such hollow reforms. In August 2015, the then IG, Solomon Arase, ordered that SARS be split into two units – investigation and operations – following public outcry over the cruelty of its officers. It did not work.

In December 2017, Ibrahim Idris, who succeeded Arase, perfunctorily embarked on another reform. This was instigated by persistent violations by SARS officers, which culminated in the #EndSARS movement. Thus, in August 2018, Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo ordered Idris to “overhaul SARS.” The VP mandated SARS personnel to wear uniforms and nametags. Buhari followed this up with his own directive that same year to reform the squad. In January 2019, just as he assumed office, Adamu ordered the immediate decentralisation of SARS operations. Nothing worked.

Buhari set up an eight-man panel to carry out “a total overhaul of SARS” in 2019. The panel reportedly received 113 petitions and 22 memoranda from the public. At the end, it recommended the dismissal of 37 SARS officers and the prosecution of 24 others. AI says there is no evidence of the implementation of the report. Earlier in 2010, then President, Goodluck Jonathan, had made the same cosmetic moves, earmarking $196 million for police reform.

Weighty culpability lies with Buhari, which is partly why the public thumbs its nose at his vacuous pronouncements. The charade became obvious in January 2018 when Buhari “ordered” the then IG Idris to relocate to Benue State after the dastardly murder of 73 people by Fulani herdsmen/militia on New Year’s Day. Idris disobeyed the presidential order. Three months after, and during his visit to Benue, the President lamented pathetically, “I did not know that IG did not stay in the state.” To Buhari, that was the end. There was no sanction as Idris continued in office. After this, such a President cannot be trusted to stop the entrenched rot in the police.

A 2016 report by the International Police Science Association and the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace rated the Nigeria Police as the worst in the world. Of the 127 countries assessed, the NPF performed worst on all the four parameters with a score of 0.255, ranking below the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda and Pakistan. “There are 219 police officers for every 100,000 Nigerians, well below both the index median of 300, and the sub-Saharan Africa region average of 268,” the report stated. Over half of the officers are illegally deployed to guard VIPs against the rules of engagement and commonsense.

Not surprisingly, SARS’ notoriety has gained global attention. The British government has intervened. Speaking the minds of many Nigerians living abroad, Wilfred Ndidi, a Super Eagles player with Leicester FC in England, said they were scared of coming home because of SARS’ extortionist activities. John Boyega, the British-Nigerian actor of Star Wars, has joined the movement against SARS. Protests have been held in the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa and Canada.

Redeploying the SARS officers to other units is a dangerous idea. These polluted and compromised officers will end up spreading their cancerous behaviour to other units. Therefore, the Nigeria Police problem goes beyond a rhetorical reform or a bland announcement of banning. It is not just the SARS that needs to be reformed or banned, the entire Nigerian policing system needs root and branch reform. The Nigeria Police has never been people’s police. The militarisation of some police departments in recent decades has been on full display. Instead of directing the sophisticated arms and ammunition against real criminals, the poorly trained and poorly motivated officers see their guns as a licence to extort, harass and kill innocent citizens. The way the force is structured, indiscipline reigns supreme. The hyper-centralised nature of policing in Nigeria is at the root of the crisis. There is a warped relationship between the police and the communities they serve because of ethnic, cultural and religious differences. Policing is inherently local. There are more than 18,000 local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies in the US. Fixing policing in Nigeria will, therefore, involve an uncommon political will to localise policing duties.

In the interim, the National Assembly should immediately commence the review of all the relevant laws to make police officers accountable for any violation of fundamental rights. Buhari says that the few bad eggs should not be allowed to tarnish the image and reputation of the force. He is wrong. There are only a “few good eggs” in the Nigeria Police Force as the majority of them have turned out to be rotten eggs. The IG should ensure that discipline is the watchword, punishing those who step out of line severely, including all the SARS officers implicated in all the recent cases. The Deputy IGs, the Assistant IGs and state Commissioners of Police should be made to bear responsibility for any abuse of power by officers in their commands. The IG should have a unit to inspect police detention cells and review its operations regularly. The cells should be open to human rights groups. The social media has played a sterling role in revealing the activities of SARS. There should be a new rule that will expressly empower citizens to document police activities in the public.

Well-meaning reforms are often blocked and rarely succeed. Disbanding the entire police force may not be a bad idea if the system becomes unreformable. Some countries like El Salvador, Ukraine and Georgia and the cities of Bogotá, Colombia, Camden, UK and New Jersey, US, disbanded entire police forces, rehiring only officers who passed stringent tests. The police system in Nigeria must be made accountable.


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