The last one week has been very dramatic and indeed, significant in Nigeria. While some Nigerians sometime last week suddenly woke up to pockets of protests across the country, many other Nigerians and non-Nigerians alike around the world who are active users of the social media had been familiar with the hashtag #ENDSARSprotests, which started as a social media campaign on Twitter in the last few weeks. The campaign turned out rapidly, to be an unprecedented social movement in Nigeria. It has the support and endorsements of several notable social media influencers, including music stars like Davido, Wizkid, Laycon (BBN Winner) and several others, movie stars, socialites, politicians, Lawyers, sportsmen, soccer stars, journalists, civil society organisations, and many other concerned individuals and organisations. Amazingly, several non-Nigerians, including but not limited to Antonio Rudiger of Chelsea FC, Raheem Sterling of Manchester City, Marcus Rashford of Manchester United and many others, used their social media platform to join and promote the #ENDSARS campaign.
Dreaded SARS Unit and its Atrocities
The purport of the campaign was primarily to condemn the activities and high handedness of officers of the Nigerian Police unit called Special Ant-Robbery Squad, popularly known as SARS. Nearly every Nigerian, mostly the youths, have at least one unpleasant story to tell about SARS. This dreaded unit called SARS, which was originally set up to combat the raging armed robbery cases at that time, has caused far more agony and wreaked more havoc on many innocent Nigerians, than the armed robbers they were meant to tackle. The youths who were mostly at the receiving end of the atrocities of SARS officers apparently were pushed against the wall, and had to fight back. That SARS is synonymous with brutality and oppression, is indisputable. That SARS has extra-judicially killed innocent Nigerians far more than any other security outfit in Nigeria, is indisputable. It may not be out of place to conclude, albeit arguably, that SARS ranks next to Boko Haram and killer herdsmen, on the list of the highest killers of innocent Nigerians.
The atrocities being committed by SARS officers had always been a front-burner issues that successive Inspector Generals of Police have been confronted with. The outcry against the activities of SARS personnel in 2018, led to the Presidential directive issued by the then Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN to the then IGP, to overhaul and reform SARS. Consequently, the then IGP Ibrahim Idris, announced the rebranding of SARS as FSARS in August 2018. Interestingly, while announcing the purported rebranding which is renaming simpliciter, the then IGP, similar to what the current IGP said while announcing the disbandment of SARS, stated that the SARS personnel will immediately undergo medical and psychological evaluation. The IGP while announcing the so-called reform, also ordered that FSARS should forthwith desist from carrying out stop and search of citizens and mounting of road blocks anywhere in the country. It is needless recapitulating the instances when FSARS personnel have brazenly disobeyed the lawful order of Mr. President and the IGP, by unleashing terror on helpless Nigerians. This is an unassailable testimony to the fact that, the agitation against the barbaric activities of SARS did not start recently.
The SARS officers in the guise of hunting for armed robbers, became terror on the streets of Lagos, Port Harcourt and most other cities in Nigeria. They no longer waited for distress calls, but focused more on stop and search modus. Their modus operandi became profiling of young men and women on the streets. They stopped any vehicle, whether private or commercial, conveying young men and or women, for a search without warrant. They, in most cases, insisted on searching the phone of these youths. Anyone carrying laptop would also have his or her laptop scrutinised, by the daredevil SARS/Police officers. The accounts by so many high profile personalities in the country about their unpleasant experiences with SARS, further confirm the oppressive tendencies of the notorious SARS officers. The SARS outfit had become more or less an official agency of government, with a deliberate mission to oppress the citizens and wreak havoc on vulnerable families.
While addressing protesters in Lagos on Friday 9th of October, 2020, the Deputy Governor of Lagos State, Mr. Obafemi Hamzat narrated his ordeal in the hands of SARS officers about four years ago. Even his Royal Majesty, the Arole Odua, Oba Adeyeye Ogunwusi, Ooni of Ife, stated that his daughter was harassed and detained by men of SARS who insisted on searching her and the vehicle conveying her to the airport. As far back as 2011, I had to demand (not advice) that my client (now of blessed memory) should withdraw a complaint of fraud he had personally lodged at the Police Headquarters in Ikeja, when I witnessed what I considered to be a very crude and barbaric brutalisation of the suspect, and advised him to petition the EFCC instead.
While the announcement of the IGP Mohammed Adamu few days ago, precisely on 11th of October, the disbandment of SARS or FSARS as the case may be, is a desirable development, his hasty announcement of a replacement to SARS i.e. Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team, gives serious cause for worry and concern. In the light of history of past failed rebranding efforts, it would have been more appropriate for the IGP to be more strategic in planning, and come up with a replacement to SARS. However, I must advice my fellow citizens and the very analytical, vocal and peaceful youths that, there are certain germane issues that must agitate our minds going forward.
As the provoked #ENDSARS protests are still ongoing across the country, I must urge the protesters to review their tactics. We must now focus on the need to have our Police Force reformed. We must move from hashtags #ENDSARS, #ENDSARSNOW, #SARSMUSTEND, #SARSMUSTGO etc to #POLICEMUSTBEREFORMED. We should immediately transmute from #ENDSARS to #REFORMPOLICE, as failure to reform the Police has more consequences on us than SARS’ existence.
Police Brutality Against Lawyers
We must note that, Police brutality against citizens is not carried out by SARS personnel only. Police officers who are not in the SARS unit, are also involved in brutalisation of Nigerian citizens on a daily basis. Surprisingly and indeed, weirdly, even Lawyers who are supposed to protect and defend citizens whose rights are being violated, have now become targeted victims of Police brutality in recent times. In the last one month alone, I am aware of at least three Lawyers that were brutally assaulted by Nigerian police officers. In fact, one of such brutalisation was reportedly carried out by a senior officer who is a Divisional Police Officer (DPO) in charge of Eastern Ngwa Police Station, Umuobiakwa in Abia State. Aside from brutalising and destroying the Lawyer’s phone, the said DPO ordered the Lawyer to be thrown inside cell, and the colleague ended up spending over 24hours in Police detention. The DPO still had the audacity to direct his men, to file a trumped up charge against the Lawyer.
The Cons of Maintaining the Status Quo
In another development, just about two weeks ago, some Police officers attached to the Lagos State Task Force brutalised a Lawyer while driving along Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway, and even impounded his car. The instances of Police brutalisation of citizens and Lawyers are too numerous; hence, the need for a movement towards a total reformation of the Police, which hopefully, will engender a reorientation of the officers of the Nigeria Police Force. Maintaining the status quo which simply means failure to reform the Police, will amongst several others, mean:
That the so called SWAT will end up acting like or even more dangerous than SARS, in other words, brutalisation and oppression of citizens will continue;
That bribery and corruption will persist in our Police stations, formations and at check points;
That Police officers will continue to earn little salaries and allowances;
That most personnel, especially the rank and file, will continue live in abject poverty;
That Police officers, especially the junior officers, will continue to live in slum-like Police barracks;
That the Police will continue to lack adequate infrastructure, gadgets/facilities, and equipment to carry out investigative, surveillance and operational activities;
That the Police will continue to rely on complainants to mobilise them to carry out investigation activities, otherwise, there will be shabby or probably no investigation of reported crimes;
That promotion of officers, including the rank and file, will be based on connection, network or relationships, rather than merit; and That Police officers will continue to be untrained or badly trained.
The above are just a few of the anomalies currently associated with the management of the Nigeria Police that will persist, if reforms are not instituted immediately. The attempts to kill the monster (i.e. the misconduct by Police officers) in the Police, have over the years, failed. It is apparent that killing the monster may be a mission impossible; it is therefore, pertinent to urgently put an end to the charade, by focusing on a more realistic approach, which will rather than attempt the ‘killing’, will constructively engage in ‘taming’ of the monster. Without necessarily expressing despair, I strongly doubt if the monster in the Nigeria Police can ever be killed. Conversely, I have a strong conviction that with the right leadership and commitment, we can tame the monster that is presently on the loose, through a credible, well thought out and fully implemented reform process. We should therefore, embark on the demand for Police Reform with similar, if not greater vigour that we deployed in the #ENDSARS project.
I am proud of all Nigerian Youths who are out on the streets, protesting peacefully against police brutality. Posterity shall be kind to you.
Finally, I cannot but use this moment to appeal to the Nigerian youths to avoid and abhor crimes, to be hardworking and hopeful, and to remain patriotic citizens. A people get the Government they deserve. It is for us as a people, to demand for good governance at all levels. Peaceful protest or civil disobedience is a fundamental right of every citizen. It is the People’s Weapon against bad leadership and mis-governance, and it must be deployed even against Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team, if need be. All Police officers involved in needless attacks on peaceful protesters and those responsible for the deaths of some of the protesters, must be immediately brought to book. The slain protesters must not die in vain.
Time to reform the Nigeria Police is Now!
Ade Adegbite, Legal Practitioner, Past National Welfare Secretary, Nigerian Bar Association