By Shittu Yunus Shittu
History now has it that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad came into existence when one Israel Rindam, a gallant Nigerian Army Colonel, was killed by police officers at a checkpoint in Lagos in 1992.
Nigerian soldiers flooded the streets of Lagos in search of any police officer, leading to the withdrawal of Nigerian police from checkpoints, security areas and other points of interest for criminals.
The then increase in crime as a result of the police absence birthed the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, with just 15 officers working in the dark without the army’s knowledge when tracking police radio chatter and normal policing duties didn’t resume until after two weeks of dialogue between the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Police.
It is of important to note that the SARS unit was instrumental to the arrest of most of the notorious criminals in many parts of the country.
As record may have it, as at 2017, SARS has been able to arrest more than three thousand suspected kidnappers across the country. In fact, the successes recorded in reducing the high rate of crime and criminality, especially kidnapping and other deadly vices in most parts of the country, is largely the handiwork of SARS operatives.
Though unfortunately, in late 2017, Nigerian human rights defenders and activists launched massive campaign tagged #EndSARS which was aimed at addressing widespread human rights violations including extrajudicial executions, torture, and other ill-treatment, rape and extortion by officers of the SARS.
In the same vein, reports by Amnesty International reveals that detainees in SARS custody have been subjected to a variety of torture including hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.
In reaction to the widespread public outcry which gained international attention, Federal Government repeatedly reformed SARS.
On 14 August 2018, Vice-President Osinbajo had ordered an immediate reform of SARS, after a widespread public outcry against their conduct.
The Vice President also directed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to set up a judicial panel to investigate SARS alleged unlawful activities.
Prior to the recent ban on SARS operations after another public outcry over SARS illegalities, the Nigeria Police Force had, in December 2017, June 2018, January 2019 and in February this year, made related announcements of a ban of SARS and an immediate restructuring of the outfit so that rogue SARS officers would be prevented from violating citizen’s rights, extorting, torturing and extra-judicially executing innocent citizens.
It is evident that restructuring SARS is not enough, unless the government also takes concrete steps to protect vulnerable Nigerians from police abuses. Needless to say, there is a critical need for the positive impacts of the professional, effective SARS operations in improving national security.
As a matter of fact, some SARS operatives have been parts of several tactical and successful operations across the country. Some of these operations by good security agents, including some SARS operatives, were duly acknowledged and celebrated at the maiden Security and Emergency Management Awards (SAEMA 2019), an event which I initiated through Emergency Digest, a leading emergency and crisis news platform in sub-Sahara Africa.
I, therefore, would not recommend a total ban of the police unit. I only urge the Federal Government and the Nigeria Police Force to adopt a different approach in ensuring accountability for violations.
There is a need for an effective oversight mechanism to regulate the conduct of police officers with a view to bringing an end to human rights violations by SARS in the country. Overhauling SARS is long overdue.
The far-reaching, immediate effect of the overhaul will translate into ending torture, unlawful detention, extortion, extrajudicial executions and other serious human rights violations that the officers had been accused of committing for years across the country.
Shittu Yunus Shittu is the Manager of Emergency Digest and the convener of the annual Security and Emergency Management Awards (SAEMA).