SARS: The Outfit that Threatens Us All


With Mariam Mohammed;

Twenty-three years after the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was birthed as a response to combat robbery in Nigeria, it seems the formation of the outfit has come full circle and it is about time to find why it has metamorphosed into an octopus that threatens us all.

For too long, we have been regaled with tales that bother on the gory and ghoulish of the operations of SARS. It is common for us to get angry, recoil at the horror of the brutality that is recounted and then become lethargic; do nothing. In short, we are rich in platitudes, but terribly dumpy on what we ought to do as a country in addressing the Medusa that stares us intently and has caused many a family pain, anguish and destroyed lives.

This past week, Citizen Kolade Johnson, 36, has woken the angst in us by his senseless murder by a SARS team in the Onipetesi, Mangoro bus stop area of Lagos state. Various reports have it that Citizen Johnson was killed at a viewing centre where he had gone to watch a sports he loves –football- by a stray bullet fired by one of three police officers who have been arrested.

Those in detention waiting orderly room trial before their eventual arraignment in court are Inspector Ogunyemi Olalekan, Sergeant Godwin Orji and Corporal Ojiawuna Samuel. This seems to have become a ritual – kill, arrest, public anxiety, fatigued until the next preventable death.

One can only imagine the pain of Citizen Johnson’s death. There is reason why he should become the metaphor that brings about the radical overhauling of an outfit that was established as a special ops to deal with heinous crimes like armed robbery, kidnapping and their likes. Kolade was a not just a human that loved sports, but he was a wife’s husband, a son’s father, a father and mother’s only son. Olalekan et al killed not just his dreams, but that of three generations. Now a wife has to come to terms with the fact that her support and bread winner is gone. A son that will grow up to wonder how his life would have turned out were his father alive. It is simply one death too many by those paid and empowered to protect us.

A little over seven months ago, precisely on August 14, 2018, then acting president, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, ordered the then Inspector General of Police IGP, Mr. Ibrahim Idris, to shut down the unit “with immediate effect”.

A statement by the Office of the Vice President noted: “Following persistent complaints and reports on the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) that border on allegations of human rights violations, His Excellency, Professor Yemi Osinbajo SAN, Acting-President, Federal Republic of Nigeria, has directed the Inspector General of Police to, with immediate effect, overhaul the management and activities of SARS and ensure that any unit that will emerge from the process, will be intelligence-driven and restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping, and apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences, and nothing more.

“The Acting President has also directed the IGP to ensure that all operatives in the emerging unit conduct their operations in strict adherence to the rule of law and with due regard to International Humanitarian Law and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of suspects. The operatives should also bear proper identification any time they are on duty.

“In the meantime, the Acting President has directed the National Human Rights Commission to set up a Committee that will conduct nation-wide investigation of the alleged unlawful activities of SARS in order to afford members of the general public the opportunity to present their grievances with a view to ensuring redress.”

Following the directive, the police high command as it had a press statement waiting for such a directive, released a press statement signed by its then grammatically doddering spokesman, Jimoh Moshood.

The statement outlined broad reforms which were designed to make the outfit more accountable, respect human rights, exemplify decency and respect for life as well as restore the badly bruised image of the police and the SARS in particular.

According to what was unfolded, the police unit will be addressed as Federal SARS (FSARS) and “will be intelligence driven and restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery, kidnapping and the apprehension of offenders linked to the stated offences only.”

The issue of SARS has never been about its nomenclature, rather their larger-than-life belief that they are law unto themselves without accountability and cannot be sanctioned. What the police hierarchy simply did was to sell us a lie that the cassock makes the priest. If it were so, Citizen Johnson will not be dead. Citizen Yinka Badmus that was arrested sometime last year over his “hairstyle” will not have been arrested and charged to court on some other charges that were far from why he was arrested and slammed in the abattoir-like cells of the squad.

For all I know, the talk of a new Standard Operational Guidelines and Procedures, and code of conduct for all FSARS personnel, which the police headquarters promised so as “to ensure that the operations of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad is in strict adherence to the rule of law and with due regards to international human rights law and constitutionally guaranteed rights of suspects will be enforced in totality by the Commissioner of Police, FSARS. Other measures to be implemented by the Force in observance of full compliance with the presidential directives are as follows,” is yet to come to fruition. It was more or less a matter of flatter to deceive.

Ditto for the promise to set up human rights desk officers for FSARS in every state. To their credit, there is one headed by AC Abayomi Shogunle at the force headquarters, which cannot handle all the issues of abuses and outright brutality by SARS operatives. Even Shogunle plays the Ostrich and chooses those he should have on the official Twitter handle of his unit. If it were to the contrary, he won’t block Ruggedman, however, ‘insolent’ he thinks the artist is.

Most fundamentally, the promise of the force headquarters for medical/psychological evaluation of all FSARS personnel is long overdue. For people who believe that suspects do not have rights and young people with dreadlocks, expensive phones, saggy pants and risqué culture are outright criminals not to be psychologically evaluated is a great disservice to this country.

Before some people think this putting the outfit on the cross, far from it. While there are a few positives about the squad, its underbelly is far from glittering. Rather than personnel of the special outfit be chasing Yahoo-Yahoo boys, real or imagined, all over the place and fleecing them, there is a greater challenge for them along the Abuja-Kaduna Expressway as the Abuja-Minna Highway. On Monday, the enormous challenge of kidnappers and robbers on those roads was laid bare as dozens of vehicles were stopped, robbed and commuters kidnapped by the sons of perdition.

Nigerians want SARS on those roads and other nightmare spots that make Nigerians dread the thought of travelling. The police can ill-afford to constantly be at the receiving end of the peoples’ anger. One will imagine that with the traction of the #ENDSARS movement, the police will have implemented the reforms it mooted and offer itself some sort of redemption.

Like in all things human, it is not too late for the force to seek penance and find some dignity. It can start with ensuring that those responsible for the senseless killing of Citizen Johnson are brought to trial, speedily too.  

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