SARS and the Nigerian youth: Odors from a decaying system

Nigeria is home to a thriving contradiction. Here is a country that celebrates its aspirations to greatness—economic success, food security, accountable governance, territorial integrity, internal security, and improved living standards—sabotaging its young and vibrant population. A pseudo-welfarist democracy, Nigeria’s young vibrant ‘human capital’—the potentially productive portion of its population—has to contend with gross insufficiencies, maladministration, corruption, and intimidation in state-owned and administered facilities. In public infrastructure—stable electricity, good roads, and clean drinking water—and public institutions—schools, hospitals, government agencies, and the security outfits—lies a deep and spreading rot; an insufficiency, inefficiency, and inconsistency that constantly mocks any such aspirations to lofty heights. Hence it is reticent euphemism when it is suggested that the odds are stacked high against the Nigerian youth, especially when we add limited employment opportunities to the possibility of being randomly picked-up, harassed, robbed, maimed, or killed by ‘rogue’ agents of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the branch of the Nigeria Police (NP) allegedly set up to check the rampant robbery incidents through discrete operations.

This SARS, which is at the centre of the recent and ongoing agitations for its disbandment, as the first step to further police reforms, is a far cry from what was intended, especially if the words of one of its progenitors, Rt. CP. Simeon Danladi Midenda is anything to go by. In an interview compiled by Alpha Media Team, the retired police commissioner recalls that, at inception (in Lagos), the goal of infiltrating robbery syndicates by utilising discretion and the element of surprise informed SARS’ original modus operandi. Hence, the use of plain cloth operatives, deployed to exploit their anonymity to investigate and arrest robbers—and in effect, the growing cases of robbery incidents. However, today’s embattled SARS is a deviation that has metamorphosed into a monster that waylays unsuspecting young people, illegally break into their tech devices, concoct charges, and demands money bailouts with the threat of lock-up, serious bodily harm, and death. And there have been instances, too numerous to outline here, of severe injuries and deaths of young people at the hands of this group that became a law unto itself.

The call for the disbandment of SARS by the predominantly young adult protesters and a section of the elderly (some mothers), which is premised on the numerous cases—some captured on film—of SARS brutality; blatant extortions, unlawful searches, detentions, torture, robbery, illegal check and transfer of funds from citizens and murder, is a known recurring phenomenon that started in 2017. The insistence on total disbandment of that unit of the Nigerian Police, which stems from the failure of several reform enactments and ‘bans,’ to bring an end to the menace of SARS, has given credence to the argument that the problem lies deeper in the conduct of the entire Nigeria Police.

The Nigeria Police has one of, if not the worst track records in public relations of any Nigerian government agency, whether in security or administration. Over the years, it has suffered from prevalent self-imposed abuses—dishonesty, corruption, and Nigerians’ tendency to resort to self-help, which has engendered low public confidence levels in its activities. The history of police illegalities in Nigeria is long, with numerous instances of dark and depraved conduct by its personnel. Widespread amongst these instances of police lawlessness is the extrajudicial killings of the infamous “Apo six” in 2005 and Yusuf  Mohammed, the late leader of the terrorist group Boko Haram in 2009, an act which has been credited as one of the immediate causes of the insurgency in the Northeast. The results of these police thoughtless killings of the Boko Haram leader live with us today. Millions of families are displaced and thousands have been killed. In the end, the citizens and army had to suffer the consequences of these extrajudicial killings.  Also symbolic of these murderous instances is that only two of the six police personnel who carried out these dastardly acts were made to face the full consequences of their actions, which points to another disturbing aspect of policing in Nigeria, the absence of accountability.

The deep and extensive criminal conduct of the Nigeria Police has also encouraged inquisition into why things are what they are. These have turned out several conclusions. Apart from the assertion that the reputation of the Nigerian police has been a victim of “a few bad eggs”—which is mostly the official position of the Nigerian Police—it is also held that the unpleasantness perpetrated by police personnel is an outcome of a mix of corruptive societal factors and institutional failures. The former suggests that, as average members of the society, police personnel are also susceptible to the general social moral degradation and vices, while the latter faults poor institutional practices in selection, training and disciplining processes; accommodation provisions, compensation, poor remuneration and incentive packages during service and in retirement all engendered by corruption and the misappropriation of police funds. These together have allegedly combined to unleash the police on the same society it is meant to protect.

The recognition that the depth of the rot in the Nigeria Police transcends any particular operational unit—that there are other extortionists and murderous gangs within the Nigeria Police—has led a crop of the Nigerian public to demand a complete overhaul. There is, however, some disparity in demand for a change in police operations. While those who are distanced from the brutality extol SARS’ ‘virtues’ and relevance and have called for its continued existence, the divide amongst those who bear the brunt of its lawlessness and who also perceive the existential dangers, appear to be more about urgency, utilisation, attainability on the one hand, and effectiveness and sustainability on the other than it is a disagreement on the need for a change in policing standards. However, a closer look at those who argue for the continuity of SARS goes beyond the set of unaffected persons. For instance, the Arewa forum is credited with trending #ProSARS on Twitter, the same medium where the #EndSARS struggle had commenced. Based in the northern part of Nigeria, others from this region commenced the trend of #EndBanditryInTheNorth. This goes on to show where the major disparity comes from. The North-South divide suffers different problems while of course there are always the beguiled pro-government apologists who act as a foil for any struggle they perceive as anti-government.

The conveners of the ‘END SARS’ movement in their demand for immediate scrap of the police SARS unit demonstrate the urgency of the situation. Another day with SARS meant the possibility of losing more lives to the recklessness of the rogue outfit. Indeed, there trended some graphics depicting how demonized the rogue unit is. In the image, there exist two routes—right and left. On the right leads to armed robbers’ path while the left leads to an encounter with SARS, the driver opted to take the right, resolving to face the robbers than SARS. Alarming! Secondly, the publicity, huge profiles in the entertainment industry involved, following, and commitment the movement commanded was utilised to apply optimal pressure on the establishment. And lastly, the expectation was that pushing for the disbandment of a particular unit is more realistic especially riding on this rare momentum which will not last the period it might take to deliberate on a complete reform, what with the Nigerian government’s penchant for getting into commitments it never plans to keep. As a matter of fact, it is true that the government has announced in 2017, 2018, and 2019 that SARS has been banned, disbanded and spewed out other grammars outlawing their existence. Meanwhile, there are others who do not believe ‘END SARS’ is enough to end this menace. In the same manner they trend ‘END SARS’, they also trend on the other hand, the ‘ENDPOLICEBRUTALAITY’ and ‘POLICE REFORM’. These agitators recognise that to ensure significant and sustainable police conduct changes, the entire Nigeria Police need to be reformed, hence their call for continued agitation even after the announcement by the police Inspector General. The logic behind this is not farfetched as, even in the absence of SARS, since February 1970 when Kunle Adepeju was gunned down during a students’ protest at the campus of the University of Ibadan, police officers using live ammunitions have murdered peaceful protesters across the country in Ogbomoso, Delta, and most recently in Surulere.

Unfortunately, the ‘ENDSARS’ protests, which culminated in that disbandment announcement by the Inspector General of Police, is just one outcome of a larger systemic failure. With a culture of glossing over and ‘managing’ situations that otherwise demand urgent redress, Nigeria is ill-prepared for the changing times and their peculiar demands. Even now, it totters on into an unknown future, a wounded giant leaking cohesion and unity from its many unattended and unhealed wounds. As the times change, laws also need to be updated and adapted to suit current realities. The Nigerian State has relied on archaic laws and systems that have outlived their usefulness in theirpresent forms and instead have become impediments to its growth processes. That the police assume the prerogative to detain, try, condemn and administer capital punishment points not only to inadequacies in the Nigerian judicial (justice) system but also to the executive and legislative arms of government, which have failed in their constitutional roles and capacity to equip and support the former in functioning and wielding all its powers more efficiently. If the judicial arm had been able to prosecute offenders in the Force and brought to justice, there would be no frequent occurrence of police brutality and SARS killings let alone an ‘END SARS’ movement.

There are tangible reasons to conclude that the days of reckoning are here. The increasing frequency in occasions of near protest is gradually giving way to actual protest actions. The abandoned Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) protest action, the ongoing strike action by the Academic Staff Union of Universities (ASUU), and the END SARS protests are all odors emanating from a decaying and collapsing system. It is the outward expression of the unsuitability and failure of existing administrative structures, a lack of meaningful policies, and the absence of political will and commitment to addressing matters that require urgent attention. If the trend continues where efforts are not made to assess government agencies and recommend reforms to update and re-equip them to meet the changing times and demands, such odors will persist until it suffocates us all.

How can we possibly remedy the situation? First and foremost, the state must recognize the importance of the youth in achieving its goals. It is no hidden wisdom that a country which expects socioeconomic yields, in the form of highly innovative products and services (known drivers of rapid development), will have to invest heavily—its resources and will—in creating an enabling environment for its human capital to function at optimum (to thrive). Secondly, all government arms must be attentive to the people’s challenges while taking proactive steps to enact new laws, refurbishing outdated ones, and making policies that would equip the masses to better their prospects and build Nigeria in the process. An example of this outdated law is the Nigerian Public Order Act (2) that outlaws protest except with permit by the governor of the state or from the IGP in his stead. Not only was this law madein 1906 colonial days and reinforced during the military regime (of Ibrahim Babangida) in 1990, it has been quashed by the judicial ruling of Justice Chinyere in response to Femi Falana’s strong argument in the ANPP & Ors. V. IGP (2006) CHR 181. In this ruling, it was affirmed that the provision of the public order act violates sections 39 and 40 of the Nigerian constitution and Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights to peaceful assembly. Not only did the Nigeria Police lose at the High Court, but by unanimous decision of the Appeal Court, it lost again. However, till today, this outdated Act is often used as an excuse by the Nigeria Police to unleash terror on peaceful protesters, thereby violating their human rights as enshrined in the constitution of Nigeria. Thirdly, accountability must be paramount in all government activities, in all its arms and agencies, critical amongst which are law enforcement officials, who must also be seen to abide by the rules and face penalties for abuses. In the absence of the supremacy of the rule of law, anarchy is the destination. With these in place, in whatever capacities or units, public officials serve, we can be reassured of professionalism and the other trappings of a working system. Also, and in pursuance to the second recommendation, protest is a right of the people backed by the constitution. The same constitution established the Nigeria Police and commanded them to protect lives and properties of citizens, not vandalize it or take it willfully. The use of live ammunitions should be completely outlawed during peaceful protests. Better ways of ensuring peace is maintained should be devised. As always, this protest has shown extrajudicial killings of protesters irk them more. And if care is not taken, they will turn unruly, retaliate and anarchy will reign supreme.

On the menace of SARS, the government needs to identify with the masses and meet their five demands, simple and concise. Also, the government should not redistribute them into the Nigeria Police. A Mercedes does not become a Lamborghini just by changing colors. They should all be fairly tried. The guilty ones should be brought to book, the innocent ones (I pray you find) should be kept in the Force and not returned to the streets jobless. In addition, members of the NPF caught guilty of taken innocent lives should be brought to face the full whims of the law. Until these are done, it will be very difficult for citizens to trust in the government and believe their resolve to end this menace. The citizens no longer trust the government; it is time, therefore, to win back their trust, if not for anything, for peace and stability. This is the least any government, responsible or irresponsible, should strive to achieve.

  • Falola, a University Teaching Professor and Humanities Chair at the University of Texas, Austin sent this piece.

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