SARS and The Youth Revolt
Events of the past one week across the country have revealed the true character of the Nigerian police: It is an institution that still sees its role as basically to put down any form of dissent or resistance, including to glaring injustice. Even at the cost of human lives. Only a few days of protests and we are already counting bodybags. Trending videos feature supposed officers of the law kicking and punching women on the streets. In contrast, there have been daily protests in Hong Kong for the past 16 months over a contentious bill that has been withdrawn. Not a single one of their nationals has been killed by the police.
The dissolution of the Federal Special Anti-Robery Squad (F-SARS) by the Inspector General of the Police, Mohammed Adamu, is commendable. But, as has become evident, the decision may not be enough to change a culture built on abuse of power by those tasked with protecting citizens. This is therefore a momentous period in the history of our country and we should not waste the opportunity to reform the police as an institution and the entire administration of justice in Nigeria.
Let’s be clear. There is hardly any police authority in the world that does not have special formations to deal with specific crimes. So, there was no problem with the establishment of SARS. But such units are considered special because of their expertise, experience and exposure; not how brutally their personnel treat citizens. As Danladi Midenda (the retired Commissioner of Police who pioneered SARS alongside retired AIG Taiwo Lakanu in 1992) has said, the unit started with operatives who were professional in conduct and diligent in their assignment. But somewhere along the line, they lost their way. They started to dabble into all sorts of issues, including forcefully prying into bank account details on the mobile phones of road users for the purpose of extortion and breaking into people’s homes to conduct raids on pots of soup (Reuben Abati is my witness!).
I must commend the tenacity of our young men and women who have been very clear about the objective of their protests. They want to live as free citizens in their country without being molested or criminalised by agents of state. They have organized themselves in a brilliant and professional manner. They have also drawn support from Nigerians in the Diaspora. They are mobilizing funds for the injured, legal representation for those arrested and are generally watching out for one another. I even notice that they move around with mobile toilets. Having internationalized the struggle, they have also made it a news item on major television networks.
From German footballer (and Arsenal player) like Mesut Ozil who tweeted “End oppression and SARS brutality in Nigeria” to Canadian rapper, Drake and several other international celebrities, Nigeria is now trending globally but not for the right reason. In his message, American singer, Trey Songz hit at the crux of the matter: “Police brutality here in America often is an abuse of power-driven by race. To be brutalized, extorted, and murdered by your own people is unimaginable. Prayers up and I’m researching ways I can help. #EndSARS.”
The statement by rave-making musician, Burna Boy, is also noteworthy because it speaks to the challenge at hand. Operatives of SARS and other police units are adept at profiling their targets. Where Burna Boy got it wrong is to assume it is about age groups. It is not, even if young people have been at the receiving end of their brutality. Opportunism drives their criminality. SARS operatives involved in these sordid practices were always careful in the selection of victims and we can see evidence from the fatalities recorded from their atrocities over the years. Despite their obsession with ‘Yahoo Boys’, they would gladly serve as escorts for ‘Hushpuppi’ because they know such characters will ‘drop’ even before they ask.
A former Minister stripped four female staff almost naked for allegedly stealing his money, recorded them, posted the video online and then handed them over to the police to complete the remaining part of the jungle justice. The poor ladies spent four days in detention before they were saved by a social media campaign. It is now three weeks since that former minister rebuffed a police invitation despite being ‘declared wanted’. He is moving about with police details who, according to a statement by the Delta State Director of Public Prosecution, were also involved in the molestation of the women. SARS operatives never disturb such people.
In the October 2009 edition of ‘Africa Renewal’, a quarterly publication of the United Nations, there was an extensive report on policing on the continent titled, ‘Security for the Highest Bidder’. Not surprisingly, Nigeria featured prominently. Relying on research conducted by two Professors at the University of Wales (Rita Abrahamsen and Michael Williams), the report specially focused on our oil sector, where companies pay to retain the services of official policemen. “Such officers are paid and controlled by the companies. The researchers found that Shell employs 1,200 such officers, ExxonMobil over 700 and Chevron approximately 250. In addition, oil companies routinely rely on the heavily armed state paramilitary police (MOPOL) to secure their operations. Shell also uses over 600 armed police and MOPOL officers. Virtually all levels of public force, including the military, have been integrated into the day-to-day security arrangements of the oil industry to a degree where it is often difficult to determine where public policing ends and private security begins,” the researchers noted.
Ordinarily we can excuse this anomaly on grounds that the oil sector is critical to our country’s economic survival. But this arrangement, according to the two researchers, leaves no room for accountability because the money paid by oil companies for these police officers, “do not go into the public coffers but instead to individual high-ranking officers.” The report stated further that “acquiring the ‘initial permission from the inspector general to utilize MOPOL officers’ costs the equivalent of $800. Then the equivalent of $335 goes to each unit and station commander. Another $13 is allocated for each MOPOL officer per 12-hour shift, paid to the unit commander, plus a $2 supplement for food.”
When you institutionalise this sort of opaque arrangement for police personnel whose primary function is to maintain law and order in the society, then you have left the door open for bad behaviour at practically all levels. What goes for the oil companies applies to the banks and big businesses. So invariably, what we have is a transactional structure of maintaining law and order that is founded on a culture of ‘returns’. The result was what we saw on the streets with SARS operatives who were behaving like mercenaries and licensed thugs.
Now that an inquisition has begun into the activities of SARS, we must accept that the media is also complicit in this matter, requiring reorientation across board. “While the law presumes crime suspects to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law”, I wrote in December 2017, “men and officers of SARS take such persons to be guilty until they are able to prove innocence in their (SARS) own ‘court’ where suspects are detained and tortured to make ‘confessional statements’ after which they are paraded before the media. With reporters participating in the ‘cross-examination’ of these suspects, usually from the poor of our society, they are easily lured into incriminating themselves and for many, that is a one-way ticket to the grave.”
The statement by President Muhammadu Buhari that disbanding SARS was just a first step in efforts to reform the police is reassuring. More reassuring is the fact that a multi-stakeholder forum comprised of representatives of civil society organisations, activists from the entertainment industry and the ENDSARS movement as well as development partners has already begun meeting. But the president is in a Catch-22 situation and there are no easy options in the days, and possibly weeks, ahead. I recommend yesterday’s column in Daily Trust by retired federal permanent secretary, Dr Hakeem Baba-Ahmed titled, ‘SARS: From policing to governance’. There is so much to learn from it by presidential handlers.
As we seek solution to this perplexing challenge, what we must ensure is that reform of the police include the issue of their welfare. When those to whom the state has given guns to protect us are practically left to their own devices and treated in a manner that devalues their self-esteem and that of their immediate families—as can be glimpsed from the deplorable condition of police barracks—we cannot complain when some behave like animals. Even from their appearance, it is evident that many of the rank and file have been brutalized by the state and society. It is therefore no surprise that they lack compassion when dealing with fellow citizens.
I have spoken to many retired senior police officers in the past few days and they seem unhappy about what they see as an attempt to rubbish the institution. We must do everything to avoid that. When personnel of the Nigeria Police go for United Nations operations anywhere in the world, not only do they excel, they are rated highly on professionalism and integrity. There are several men and women within our police who are honest in their dealings, patriotic citizens and professional in discharging their duties. That is why we must isolate the bad eggs within and not tar everybody with the same brush. I have been made to understand that provisions of The Police Regulations actually hold individual police personnel accountable for their actions. So, even in terms of discipline, there are internal mechanisms to deal with the problem in the dissolved SARS unit.
It is unfortunate that the federal government was slow to act on the SARS crisis and is therefore complicit in the escalation. And while actions already taken might be commendable, protesters are unyielding because promises had been made in the past and a trust deficit exists. There is therefore an urgent need to rebuild that trust with more proactive and robust engagement with our young citizens. There is also a need for a clear plan for reforming the police, with specific activities and timelines. It should include complete reorientation and an effective consequence management accountability mechanism to rein in the culture of impunity that led to the current crisis. Fortunately, there are several reports on the reform of the police based on presidential panels that were established in the past. What has been lacking is the political will to implement any. President Buhari should seize the moment.
Meanwhile, since the federal government is conceding some ground, it may be necessary for our young people to design a new and sustained strategy for the next stage of their campaign. I monitor what many of their leaders are saying on Twitter (the only social media platform I operate) so I am well aware that it is not popular to tell them to take this dialogue from the streets. But I will say it nonetheless (let them drag this old man!). Continuing on the streets may have its utility, but it is also prone to hijack by people with other interests. Should that happen, it will detract from the hard and long work that they have done in the past one week and may divide their rank. Besides, if they continue the protests, the federal government could lose patience and begin to apply heavy-handed measures that may include drafting in the military as we saw on Tuesday in Abuja. We must do everything to avoid further bloodshed. Some interests may also recruit thugs to disrupt the protests and instigate violence. In Abuja, there are entrepreneurs who provide such services. To worsen the situation, I have seen video clips of shadowy youth groups who disparage the protests as part of a broader agenda by a section of the country against the government. When that sort of dangerous and patently dubious narrative is allowed to gain ground, especially under the current toxic political environment, our young people could easily be divided along ethno-religious lines. Once that happens, they will be defeated.
A unique feature of the protests which we must come back to interrogate is the leadership role being played by our women. I was driving past the police headquarters last Saturday in Abuja when I ran into protesters led by Aisha Yesufu. I had to park my vehicle and within the few minutes I spent with them, my concise observation was that there were almost as many women as men in the crowd. In other cities across the country, women are also playing leading roles. On social media, their voices are loud as well and they seem to be in charge of the logistics.
On the whole, now that our young people have proved that they are not simply interested in what Erica and KiddWaya are doing under the bedsheets in Ebuka’s BBNaija House but also politically conscious, I hope they will continue to use that power to demand accountability in all spheres and at all levels of leadership in our country. If they manage that power and the voice they have found, it may just signpost the dawn of a new Nigeria.
Still on NAKED ABUSE!
“This seminal work by Olusegun Adeniyi, ‘NAKED ABUSE: Sex for Grades in African Universities’ is a tour d’ horizon of cases of sexual predators in 29 African countries, including Nigeria that has had a fair share of the plague. This book has put a sense of urgency for the adoption of Sexual Harassment Policy at all levels of Education to ensure safe learning environment” —Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, OON, Professor of Law, University of Nigeria, Nsukka and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Trafficking. Interested readers can now get their copy of the book on Amazon: https://amzn.to/3jEfMhF
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