By Evelyn Usman
Again, the widespread call for the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, is reverberating across the country.
This is unarguable a fall out of the frustration and disenchantment of Nigerians over the unabated excesses of some members of the dreaded unit, ranging from their merciless killings, dehumanisation of suspects, all in a bid to extract truth from them. Many times they engage in extortion spree.
Not too long, a new trend of harassment was added to the list, as Nigerian youths were routinely arrested for frivolous reasons such as wearing dreadlocks, driving posh cars or having expensive phones. These youths would be arrested on allegation of being internet fraudsters and at the end, forced to part with cash.
However, worthy of mention is the fact that these acts are being perpetrated by some unscrupulous elements within the unit, as a good percentage of the operatives have proven to be good ambassadors of not just the unit but the Nigeria Police as a profession.
SARS, is one of the 14 units under the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, FCIID headed by a Deputy Inspector-General of Police. Its operations included: arrest, investigation and prosecution of suspected armed robbers, murderers, kidnappers, hired assassins and others involved in violent crimes.
The unit was founded in 1992, by a former Commissioner of Police, Simeon Danladi Midenda, to address the surging wave of crime in Lagos State.
That year, one Col. Rindam. an Army officer from Plateau State was killed by some policemen at a check point in Lagos. His death sparked protests as soldiers took to the streets of Lagos in search of any policeman to avenge the death of their officer.
Policemen, therefore, abandoned all checkpoints and flashpoints in Lagos and withdrew to their respective barracks, thereby giving robbers room to have a field day as they operated with impunity. The era also witnessed the reign of terror by the Shina Rambo robbery gang.
To put an end to the reign of terror, SARS was formed with only 15 policemen who operated in two Peugeot station wagons, until the rift was settled after much deliberations between authorities of the Police and Army.
One unique feature of this unit was its mode of operation. Its operatives operated in plain clothes and used vehicles that could not be associated with the security or any government agency.
They were also barred from carrying Walkie Talkie and guns openly in order not to destroy their element of surprise.
The operatives were fully combat-ready at all times and stayed undercover while monitoring radio communication of conventional police operatives.
As soon as the robbery incident was reported anywhere in Lagos, they went out with speed, each team to a predetermined location.
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At their various locations, they patiently waited while the conventional policemen continued to chase the robbers around Lagos.
In their bid to escape, robbers always fell into the operatives’ traps and met their Waterloo. All robbers arrested in combat had no option but to give details of their composition and number of the operations they had carried out to the operatives.
The information was then used to solve previous cases of robberies and also gave them names of other robbers on the loose to go after.
One other distinctive feature about the unit at its initial stage, was that the operatives never stood on the road looking for robbers.
Rather, they met the robbers on their beds and hideouts. Gradually, they were able to dislodge the terror gangs and restored calm in the state.
Since then, the mere mention of SARS sends cold shivers down the spines of criminals who saw the unit not just as an antidote to their atrocious acts, but also capable of sending them to their graves at the snap of the finger.
The unit which only existed in Lagos between 1992 and 2002, was extended to other States Police commands, from where it gradually began to deviate from its original concept.
Today, the element of surprise and facelessness have disappeared, as they are seen in every nook and cranny of every state of the federation, brandishing their weapons.
In December 2016, an online advocacy campaign to end SARS brutality, was championed by Segun Awosanya, a human rights activist.
The signal bell echoed across the country with calls to the concerned authorities to scrap the unit.
Before the campaign, Amnesty International, a Non Governmental Organisation, had threatened to sue the Nigerian Police for human rights abuse following the arrest and detention of three commercial motorcyclists, for over one week, by SARS operatives in Borokini, Port Harcourt, Rivers State.
Amnesty International alleged that the suspects were beaten every night with the butt of the gun and iron belt.
82 cases of torture in three years
In its new report, titled “Time to End Impunity”, Amnesty International documented 82 cases of alleged torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial executions by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.
The report signed by the Director, Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, read: “The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or to bring any SARS officers to justice is shocking and unacceptable.
Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity.
“The systemic use of torture and other ill treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force point to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards”
The findings of the report showed that these violations were carried out under the supervision of high-ranking police officers.
Continuing, Ojigho, said, “No circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification of torture. In many cases the victims are the poor and vulnerable, easy targets for law enforcement officers whose responsibility it is to protect them.
Impunity sends the message to torturers that they will get away with it. Impunity denies victims and their relatives the right to have the truth established, the right to see justice served and the right to reparations.
“The Nigerian authorities must go beyond lip service to ensure there is real reform within the Nigeria Police Force with an emphasis on SARS.
“These reforms must translate into holding police officers suspected of torture to account, ending torture, unlawful detention, extortion, extrajudicial execution and other human rights violations that SARS officers have been known for across Nigeria”, he stated.
As first move to addressing the agitations of members of the public against operatives of the SARS , the then Inspector-General of Police, Solomon Arase, in 2015, split the SARS into two units with a view to checking human rights abuses.
One of the units was in charge of operational activities, while the other was to investigate cases. The idea was to isolate the operational men from human rights abuses and other allegations.
Also disturbed by the calls for the unit to be scrapped on the grounds of violation of human rights, the Federal Government ordered its total overhaul on August 14, 2018, consequent upon which the then Inspector-General of Police, Idris Ibrahim, announced a change in its name from SARS to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, FSARS.
Rather than proffer the needed solution, the change witnessed a brazen disregard for constituted authorities as most SARS operatives carried on without reporting to Commissioners of Police in their states of operation.
This was because with the change by Idris, their operation was monitored from Abuja and not by Commissioners of Police in their commands of deployment.
And since they did not take orders from the state commands where they were based, the Commissioners’ hold on them was limited.
CP Lagos move
In October 2017, former Commissioner of Police, Lagos State Police Command, CP Imohinmi Edgal, inaugurated an 11-man committee to look into activities and unprofessional conducts of operatives of the SARS and those of the Anti-Kidnapping and Anti-Cultism units, in line with then IGP’s directives that all police investigating units should be restructured to discharge their duties in line with international best practices and standards of policing.
The committee which was headed by a retired Commissioner of Police, was saddled with the responsibility to look into the present and past activities of the squads and recommend ways to make the units more efficient and professional.
By December 2017, the committee submitted its report, with Edgal promising to immediately implement its short term aspect , with a view to ensuring that operatives of the concerned squads discharged their duties professionally and in tune with international best practices.
But whether subsequent heads of the command are still keeping tab on the short term recommendations, or whether the long term aspect which ought to be vetted by the Police high Command has been looked into, is unknown.
IGP Adamu’s moves
When it became apparent that the initial change did not get the desired result, the present IGP, Mohammed Adamu, in 2019, ordered the immediate decentralization of the FSARS.
Consequently, it was removed from the Force headquarters, Abuja, (as FSARS) back to its original state (SARS) where operatives would be directly under the supervision of Commissioners of Police of their states of deployment.
In addition, IGP Adamu charged the DIG Force Criminal Investigations Department, FCID and Commissioners of Police across the state commands to take charge of the unit, threatening to hold them responsible for any unprofessional conduct by the operatives.
Again on October 5, 2020, IGP Adamu, banned SARS operatives and other tactical squads of the Force, which included the Special Tactical Squad, STS, Intelligence Response Team, IRT, Anti-Cultism Squad, as well as other tactical squads operating at the federal, zonal and command levels from carrying out routine patrols.
This followed recent report of alleged killing of a 22-year-old resident of Ughelli in Ughelli North local government area, Joshua Ambrose, by operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS at Ughelli, Delta State. However, Ambrose was later reported to be alive.
The incident caused an uproar which led to the near lynching of the SARS operative who was discovered to have been off duty.
The IGP also banned the operatives from carrying out routine patrol and other conventional low-risk duties, including stop and search duties, checkpoints, mounting of roadblocks, traffic checks, with immediate effect.
The statement which was signed by the Force Public Relations Officer, DCP Frank Mba, said: “In addition, no personnel of the Force is authorized to embark on patrols or tactical assignments in mufti. They must always appear in their police uniforms or approved tactical gear.
“The IGP’s directives come against the backdrop of findings by the leadership of the Force that a few personnel of the tactical squads hide under this guise to perpetrate all forms of illegality, contrary to the Standard Operating Procedure, SOP, code of conduct and rules of engagement establishing the squads.
“Specifically, the IGP has warned the tactical squads against the invasion of the privacy of citizens, particularly through indiscriminate and unauthorized search of mobile phones, laptops and other smart devices.
They are to concentrate and respond only to cases of armed robbery, kidnapping and other violent crimes when the need arises.
The IGP notes that the FSARS and other police tactical squads remain a critical component of the force in confronting prevailing and emerging violent crimes in the country”.
On his part, the Commissioner of Police in charge of SARS, CP Imohinmi Edgal, disclosed that issuance of arms and ammunition would be limited to only SARS operatives on a distress call only, in compliance with the IGP’s directive.
He also barred them from publicly brandishing arms in the toga of Police SARS.
Change the name SARS – RULAAC
In spite of these moves, there have been protests for and against scrapping the unit.
While those calling for its outright disbandment hinge their reasons on human right abuses, those against its scrap say it would escalate violent crime.
One of those who spoke with Crime Guard is the Rule of Law and Accountability Advocacy Centre , RULAAC. In a statement signed by its Executive Director, Mr Okechukwu Nwagunma, he suggested that the name SARS should be replaced with something else.
He said: ”My view is that ending SARS on itself begs the question. If you end SARS, what replaces it? The same rogue elements within SARS remain in the NPF.
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“There certainly are elements within the NPF that are unfit and lack the basic qualification to have been recruited in the first place, and must be weeded out. Police Service Commission must awaken to its responsibilities.
“I, however, believe that the name ‘SARS’ has become a symbol and metaphor for impunity for crime and abuse. To that extent, I support doing away with the horrific name. That name evokes horror, public nuisance and resentment.
“What is called for ultimately is intensified efforts to fundamentally transform the Nigeria Police Force. The new Police Act provides an opportunity to push the struggle forward. Can we engage the various stakeholders who have various roles under the law to ensure they play their roles?
“In the immediate, can we (civil society, PSC, NHRC) work together to develop new Standard Operating Procedures- drawing from the Police Act, ACJA and the Anti Torture Act- that will guide police the conduct and performance and on the basis of which we can to hold the Police accountable? But for the name -’SARS’, it needs to be done away with. It is a discredit to the NPF and the country.
The two arms of the National Assembly, NASS: Senate and the House of Representatives, also moved against the SARS, Wednesday, over involvement of its operatives in extra-judicial killing of innocent Nigerians and violation of people’s rights.
While the Senate said it had commenced a probe into the activities of operatives of the special police unit, the House of Representatives did not only reprimand operatives of the unit but also said it would partner the Nigerian bar Association, NBA, civil society organisations, CSOs, and other well-meaning individuals to amend the 1999 Constitution to impose strong penalties against police brutality and extra-judicial killings.
Meanwhile, Crime Guard observed that some of the public attacks on civilians are carried out by operatives of other tactical units who wear black jackets like the SARS.
Most times, conventional policemen would wear their black vests and take to the streets arresting Nigerian youths , who would conclude they were SARS operatives.
At other times, criminals, some who were later discovered to be dismissed policemen, wear these black vests to extort civilians, only for the victims to tag them SARS operatives.
For proper identification of SARS personnel, a new jacket where the name SARS is boldly spelt behind in additional to names and of personnel sewn on it, was produced.
To address this trend in Lagos, the state Commissioner of Police, CP Hakeem Odumosu, rolled out phone numbers of the Command’s Public Complaint Bureau, where people could lodge complaints against police harassment, brutality and extortion.
The numbers are: 09057597931, 09010512350 (OC PCB), 09010512348 and 09090003792.
As much as the call for the reform of SARS is welcome, there is no denying the fact that the unit has not paid its dues over the years, with countless of breakthroughs to show for the onslaught against violent crimes, across the country.
It has also brought the reign of terror of once dreaded criminal gangs to an end, and has threaded terrains where most Nigerians and criminals alike never thought they could, thereby bringing warlords on their fours.