ColumnsTaiwo Farotimi

Dealing With the SARS Migraine, By Taiwo Farotimi

As the campaign against the special anti-robbery squad, SARS was going on across the country a few months back, one Lucky Joseph was brutalised by SARS operatives in Rivers State. Joseph, a mechanic, was stripped naked by three SARS officials and beaten blue and black before he was rescued by two elderly men who negotiated a bribe of N30,000 to save the victim’s life. The incident happened two months after media reports indicated that Bidemi Adeleye, another victim of SARS in Lagos, set out to contest the sour taste of the SARS roulette.

The guys at the Lagos SARS, like other places, pretended as if the outcry against bad practices had nothing to do with them. What makes these cases even more condemnable is that they occurred just as there was public outcry about the excesses of the unit created to deal with robbery in the country.  The contention is that instead of chasing armed robbers, those in the unit are brutalising innocent civilians at slightest provocation.

Let me state from the outset that if you ask me whether SARS should be scrapped or retained, I will vote for its retention. That is not because I do not see substance in the argument of those who are campaigning for its dissolution. Rather, I am for it because it was created for a purpose and I know that to a great extent, that purpose has been largely achieved in most communities in the country. Though it could be argued that its creation, in the first instance, is an indictment of the mother organisation, to wit the Nigeria Police Force.

Within the Nigeria Police system, the unit is the dreaded arm of the force that cracks crime, particularly in areas where colleagues in other departments regard as reserved for angels to tread. So, what often happens is that very rugged men in the force are the ones posted to SARS by their superiors; and to be a celebrated member of the unit is like having the reputation to play the game of death on a daily basis.

Heads of SARS units have been known in some states to burst crime rings believed to have been feared by senior officers. It is, therefore, not unexpected that some members of the SARS unit regard their colleagues in the administration section or other units, except the mobile unit, as the “women” of the force. When the SARS unit of a police command is good at executing its mandate, crime rate goes down there and there is peace for people of the jurisdiction. But the strong men of SARS also have a reputation for displaying their uncommon strength to the civil populace, conscious of the fact that even the head of the police command in areas of their operation are often very careful about cautioning them. So, it would not be an over statement to regard SARS men as being above the law. It is common knowledge that even some hardened criminals hardly ever want to be handed over to the unit, knowing that they are not likely to be treated with kid’s gloves.

Those in authority cannot feign ignorance of this fact. Reason is that some of them do engage SARS to recover debt for friends or settle scores with opponents or people who cross their path or even in some bizarre situations to break the ring in a love triangle! There was an incident in one of the formations in the Lagos command where a policeman raided the home of his rival and killed him, while the girlfriend was with the unfortunate young man.

However, there are times you wonder if certain cases given to SARS to handle would not have been better reported to the regular police unit. A civil case, perhaps of a disagreement over contract issue, handled by SARS becomes a mandate overhang. It is in cases like this that SARS issue becomes a problem for the police. There is also the case of complete indifference to human rights that often makes the human rights desks at the stations a laughing stock. Yet, this dreaded unit didn’t just evolve; it was a response to a problem encountered in the process of policing. I read the account of former Inspector General Mike Okiro, and I assume that the idea behind the creation of the unit is noble.

But if SARS was created for a purpose and official reports say it is doing so very well, why was there a sudden agreement that the enforcement unit should be dispensed with? Or have those in authority concluded that people tweeting and campaigning against SARS are armed robbers or their paid agents? Even if that were to be the case, it means that SARS failed ab initio, because for people they are supposed to have silenced to become such a terror as to raise an army of campaigners shows that they have been derelict in executing that mandate. Or so one is tempted to ask: “What suddenly made Nigerians who are supposed to be beneficiaries of SARS’ daring efforts become astute campaigners for the death of their benefactor?”

That is the question the authorities should be asking. When the torture or death in detention of a relatively unknown citizen-for such are the ready victims (often for some civil offence that could have been settled without much ado)-prompted a national debate on whether or not to keep the special squad, then, the authorities should know that something is intrinsically wrong with that unit of the Nigeria Police Force.

The right attitude is to not indulge in denial. Though Ibrahim Idris, the Inspector General of Police said he would institute an investigation into the activities of the unit, the counter protest to burnish the image of the unit later gave the impression that the IG merely gave out the statement for political correctness. And that is a testimony to the fact that the problem is not with SARS per se, but with the system that produced this dragon. For instance, one may ask who organised the pro-SARS protesters that got audience at police formations? Does it not suggest that the unit is guilty of the allegations against it and so wants to cover up? Why was it necessary to organise a counter-protest in the first instance? The sad prognosis is that the abuse of human rights by the men of SARS is not about to ebb soon. That is a dangerous signal.

  • EDITOR’S NOTE: Though SARS has since transformed to F-SARS, the issues raised here are still germane.

 

 

 

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