If there is any lesson from the current revelations about how men of the Police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) molest, torture, maim and sometimes kill innocent citizens, it is that seeking questionable validation, especially when not on solid grounds, can go horribly wrong. When the first reports about the brutality of SARS hit Twitter, the police authorities felt so indignant that, aside labeling those peddling such stories as “armed robbers”, they asked for proof. As it would happen, they got an avalanche, backed with concrete visual evidence, as several video clips of sundry acts of brutality by men and officers of SARS were uploaded online.
The whole saga reminds me of the story of a wealthy politician who was in a relationship with a lady to whom he was considering marriage. Apparently not prepared to take any chances, he hired an investigative agency to do a background check on the lady. The agency assigned a detective who was not told of either the reason for the discrete investigation or the client’s identity. On completion, the detective sent his report in a sealed envelope which the agency, without opening, simply handed to the politician who was already waiting. The terse report read: “The young lady is a splendid person, except for one unfortunate blemish: She recently started dating a politician of dubious character.”
Although the Inspector General of Police, Mr Ibrahim Idris has stepped in with some reform measures, he cannot pretend to be unaware of the reputation of SARS whose men have always been associated with indiscriminate arrests and detention of citizens as well as the extrajudicial killings. While the law presumes crime suspects to be innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, 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.
I am sure the police authorities are aware of many of these abnormalities that are well documented in Amnesty International reports but let us presume that they may not be by highlighting some. On a regular basis, SARS operatives stop citizens either on street corners or on the highways and subject them to “stop and search” which is usually extended to telephones, laptops and iPads without any court orders as required by the Cybercrimes Act. Like other law enforcement agencies in our country today, these men and officers of SARS operate above the Constitution which has guaranteed the dignity and liberty of citizens, the privacy of their homes and correspondence.
In April 2012, the Centre for Victims of Extra-Judicial Killings and Torture (CVEKT) claimed that between 2008 and 2011–a period of four years–a total of 7,198 extra-judicial killings were carried out in our country by the police. Citing a report by the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria (NOPRIN), the CVEKT averred that the Police had always relied on Order 237 which authorises their officer “to shoot any suspect and detainees trying to escape or avoid arrest” as an alibi for such dastardly act.
Indeed, the way and manner the police abuse the rights of citizens are far too numerous to highlight though it may be important to put the issue in context. This recourse to abuse, according to the late Professor Claude Ake in his book, “Democracy and Development in Africa”, can be understood from the character of the Nigerian state which, perhaps because of its colonial heritage, has “continued to be totalistic in scope” while relying on police and other security agencies “for compliance on coercion rather than authority.” This has in turn led to a situation in which those whose primary responsibility is to maintain law and order in the society see themselves more as bodyguards for those in authority while ordinary citizens are treated as expendables. We have seen far too many examples of that lately.
In trying to rationalize the very partisan act of IGP Idris whose plan to meddle in last month Anambra State gubernatorial election backfired spectacularly, following a clear rebuke by President Muhammadu Buhari, the Force spokesman, Mr Jimoh Moshood gave the number of police officers attached to Governor Willie Obiano as 221. And he gave a breakdown which, in itself, tells a compelling story of Nigeria. Incidentally, when the IGP faced a similar allegation of partisanship in April this year, the same Moshood also offered a breakdown of the personnel attached to the Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike.
Like that of Obiano, there are also 221 police officers attached to Wike but let us take the story directly from the Force spokesman. “The breakdown is as follows: One ADC (SPO); one CSO (SPO); one Unit Commander (Special Protection Unit) SPO; one Escort Commander (SPO); one Camp Commander (Counter Terrorism Unit) SPO; one Admin officer (SPO) to administer the Police Personnel, 54 Inspectors of Police; 136 Police Sergeants and 24 police corporals”. Moshood’s statement concluded with this self-indicting line: “Obviously, the total number of 221 police personnel attached to His Excellency, Mr Nyesom Wike, the Governor of Rivers State, is more than the strength of some Police Area Command formations in some states of Nigeria.”
Is it not shameful that the police would admit that, in a nation that is under-policed and where crime rate is rather high, they have allocated 221 just to protect one man? When you now multiply that number by 36 for the governors before you add those allocated to other political office holders at both the federal and the states, you get a picture of the number of policemen that are doing guard duties with politicians. And we have not added those serving bankers, businessmen of all hues and the idle rich who have no means of livelihood. Yet, many of these police officers, as observed in 2014 by the then Inspector General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Abubakar, are “turned into house boys and house girls” by these important personalities.
However, notwithstanding the foregoing, I believe those clamouring for the scrapping of the SARS unit miss the point and may not be fair to the Police because I still believe majority of our officers and men are good professionals whose image are being smeared by a few bad eggs. Many of them are also victims of the Nigerian malaise. Besides, while it is convenient to record acts of misdemeanor, there are also many people who have stories to tell of acts of bravery, decency and professionalism on the part of our policemen who bear risks on behalf of all of us. For those who may not remember any, let me quickly remind them of one.
On 22nd February this year, there was a bank robbery in Owerri, capital of the state of ‘Happiness’, which claimed the life of a police man whose family was abandoned until the footage of the Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) camera which captured the incident went viral. In the video clip, Sergeant Chukwudi Iboko was seen engaging the robbers in a gun duel, killing one of them before he was himself shot. He died the next day from the wounds. It is noteworthy that if the case had not been brought to the public, his family would have had to carry their cross alone like many of their colleagues, including two other Sergeants who sustained injury from the same operation.
I am sure there are many Idokos within the police, including even within SARS; men and women who risk all in the line of duty, even when they know the authorities of the institutions they serve and the society at large do not appreciate them. Therefore, we should also ask ourselves whether we have not unwittingly created a situation in which our policemen, having themselves been brutalized by the state and society, are now lacking in compassion when dealing with fellow citizens.
Let me share another example of the criminal neglect of the police that many Nigerians may also have forgotten: The scene on 7th October 2011 when the then Police Affairs Minister, Mr Caleb Olubolade, visited Ijeh Police Barracks in Obalende, Lagos. The footage must still be available in the archives of some of our television stations. On that day, a police officer’s wife, simply identified as Agnes, spoke for her colleagues in a tone of agony. “We have been suffering in silence. These barracks are like a refugee camp. We have no toilet facilities, no pipe-borne water and no electricity, and we are now being threatened by flood and reptiles. We live a little above animals. We are like sub-human beings here. This is a place of death; the mosquitoes here don’t surrender to insecticides”, she said as her colleagues wailed openly.
I remember those words because they formed the basis of a three-part editorial titled “The Police and the rest of Us” done by THISDAY in 2012 where we wondered why Nigerians “expect the spouses of these hapless, and obviously helpless, women to enforce laws, arrest law breakers, deal with emergencies, fight terror gangs and generally prevent crimes. We are deceiving ourselves!” Besides, as we also noted, “when those who protect and defend us, whatever their shortcomings, are left to their own devices, and treated in a manner that devalues their self-esteem, we, the people, lose the right to point fingers at their failings.”
Unfortunately, the police authorities neither care about the welfare of their rank and file nor the image of the institution they head. In April 2014, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as part of its statutory mandates, conducted an assessment of 369 police stations across 21 states of the country. According to the commission’s report, only 10 police stations (from a list of 369!) performed creditably under five areas of key indicators namely: community orientation, physical conditions, equal treatment of members of the public, transparency and accountability and detention conditions.
What the foregoing reveals quite clearly is that for the police to regain public trust, they must begin to deal with the issue of their own dignity and being accountable to the people on whose behalf they bear arms. While police brutality is a universal phenomenon, as we saw with the ‘Black Lives Matter’ riots in the United States which led to the revenge killings of some policemen, the authorities in Nigeria should be careful in the manner they handle the protest against SARS so that the people are not pushed to carry the campaign beyond Twitter posts to a street war.
All said, there can be no better time for the much talked about reform of the police than now!