BY EKENE ODIGWE
It is a common sight to see the police stop and search individuals on transit in a broad daylight and then go on to forcefully extort money from the passengers and even collect their phones before inquiring for identification, woe to you if there’s none. In some cases when there’s some sort of identity it won’t even prevent them to threaten thunder and brims stones, then hassle you to unlock phone apps, that is not all, they will scroll through all messages, pictures, videos and Facebook chats.
Someone would argue that they are doing their job to keep the citizens safe, safe you said, oh please. Let’s understand that there is something called personal effect, personal property that means it is an extension of who we are. What we and the secrets we keep. Yes, we keep secrets. Who doesn’t? How about some office secrets or some trade secrets perhaps some family qualms and all.
Mr. Onyeme Henry recounts how he was grabbed by SARS some time ago along Igwuruta – Etche road in Rivers state, they checked his vehicle papers and everything was in order. They collected his phone and spent close to 15 minutes going through the contents, later returned it before demanding for 5 thousand naira so they could let him go. Imagine such insolence.
This is a squad operating outside the law and inflicting daily brutality on Nigerians who are often legally powerless to defend themselves against criminal accusations let alone from the torture meted out by SARS.
Stories of how individuals were unlawfully beaten, thrown into jail or arrested are being retold in all corners, people no longer feel safe walking the street, gathering for a luncheon or some after dinner hang out because SARS will molest you with impunity.
Let’s not forget that political opposition, company competition could bribe some of these agents to plant bugs, microchips, or even steal documents for them, not to mention the abuse of power, like it is a must, one has to unlock a phone and when one doesn’t, it translates to hoarding information. Oh yes, some Information threatening national security like we all are in collusion with some money bags to sell Nigeria.
The big question is how many money bags or politicians have you seen being stopped on the road not to mention going through their phones unless the person is an opposition or his mere existence is threatening the powers that be. Otherwise, these are the people with the right connection to privatize or even sell Nigeria to the highest bidder.
Some civil society organizations and individuals have started a campaign calling the federal government to look into this matter but it seems as always what these concerned citizens are transmitting wouldn’t connect with the transmission room.
It is still vivid in my mind of an incident, a friend was kidnapped and we reached out to the police hotline apparently whoever that was on duty that night wasn’t in the mood to help or redirect our request to anyone who could. His scornfully giggle portrays that of a man who couldn’t care less, later he said “go pay the ransom and let us be”, then the line went dead, we tried connecting afterwards but he wouldn’t take the call. It was the most frightening I have been for anyone or about anything.
Consequently, If an organization established with the sole responsibility of keeping Nigerians safe is not living up to expectation, then of what use is this agency?
According to the 2016 budget the police got 7.2 billion Naira, so it couldn’t have been an issue of underfunding in as much as the Inspector General of Police is shouting poor budget allocation.
Just recently at Onitsha some security agents under the guise of SARS raided a street, first they started harassing and pickpocketing elderly women and every one passing by, collecting their valuables, as if that was not enough they jumped into a woman’s shop and picked up her wares on display from provisions to drinks and water and when her brother stood up to them together with his elder sister, they were beaten to a pulp, loaded into their vehicle along with some onlookers. No one dared challenge these guys, it seemed almost like we are breeding homegrown terrorists. When all these could happen in a broad daylight would you imagine, what evil that goes on in the dark?
Nevertheless, some school of thoughts are proposing for state police but of what use, when the federal government is not even ready to listen to the cries and complains of the masses. Meanwhile, let’s not forget how most UBER drivers now bring innocent passengers to the SARS spot. How do you tell someone who wears a shirt and short that she is indecently dressed since when did dress become an offence? Like yes, it is against the law so we are charging you for dressing indecently. There was a time a lady even paraded proof of payment/ transfer she made to a SARS operative, not even a statement acknowledging or denying the payment came from the force headquarters or the presidency.
Nigerians are being robbed by the Nigerian Police force through the SARS and the government is sitting idle, watching, someday in a twinkle of an eye Nigerians will revolt, taking no more of an idle government that doesn’t understand a singular thing about safety. For someone that has been in the force, security tactics and rules of engagement seemed to be far from his skills.
Is SARS even allowed to break into people’s homes when they are not around? How are Nigerians supposed to differentiate between these SARS and the robbers when these so-called agents wearing no uniform or showing any sort of identification and shooting sporadically in a residential area are really officers of the law? Driving a vehicle boldly written SARS on it is not enough to prove they are who they claim they are. Anyone could get that done.
Until there are checks and balances, killing and maiming citizens as they go about their business will continue to happen; it also means that public safety is not in the presidency’s bucket list.
In Nigeria, the Police Force has been typically viewed as inefficient and corrupt, from available statistics; the Nigerian Police alone had killed 7,108 persons in four years as at December 2012. Of the victims, 2,500 were detained suspects.
On my way to Port Harcourt a few days ago our driver was accosted by a mobile policeman who was demanding that the transit driver “drop” something otherwise he wouldn’t allow us to leave but on sighting my Identity card after I spoke out he said “oya dey go, soon this Journalist go publish my name”, he quickly covered his name and number. What a shame!
According to Amnesty International Nigeria, Apart from the torture and rampant bribery, some family members stated that SARS stole their cars or withdrew all the money from their bank accounts. When people don’t pay up they are detained and these detainees are held in a variety of locations including a grim detention centre in Abuja known as the “Abattoir” where 130 persons were kept as at 2016.
How do you begin to challenge red-eyed men who are high on substance and cheap drinks (Alchohol) with a loaded gun to a fight?
While in Lagos I had to visit Palmgroove station to see a friend who was picked up by the policemen in MUFTI but on getting to the station he wasn’t there. After I called again, the officers told me where to meet them and on getting there, I asked what his crime was and the men said he had condoms and lubes in his wallet, you heard me right? So my question was, since when has condoms and lubes become illegal in Nigeria for people to have consensual sex, carry condoms to protect themselves? Ok, why was he not taken to the police station? And their reply was they were doing him a favour that the station will be worse. Alas after I flashed my Identity card the story changed, they said “we are trying to protect you ooo, na this kain people dey kidnap people” seriously what connects condoms in a wallet to kidnap? It can only happen in Nigeria.
This is the same issue we had when codeine use was on the rise, all campaigns and advocacy were water off the ducks back until BBC Africa premiered “sweet sweet codeine” then the federal government realized it was bad and announced the ban without alternative or help for the addicts. For how long will this government fail the people? The stories are endless and disheartening, so what should we do?
What can we do?
The need for this government to be proactive around security issues cannot be over-emphasized. It needs to start listening to public opinion when the governed says we don’t want this agency or this agency has outlived its usefulness then get up and do something. In a democracy setting, the rule of law protects the rights of citizens, maintains order and limits the power of government.
In this case, SARS operative and the Police should be protecting Nigerians not robbing them. Let us also remember that Institutions are part of what makes a country democratic, the earlier the government begins the reformation of police force and ending SARS operations; the easier it will be to regain the confidence of the citizenry. The law that established these security agencies need to be revisited and see how these new developments could be included.
In a developed and some developing countries the police, SARS inclusive are meant to wear a body camera. This is something the government needs to consider. Headcount and clocking in for duty and off duty should be introduced. Their superiors should stop asking for returns, Nigerians are not their clients. Legislators should push for more stringent laws and set an example of defaulters. All SARS operatives should be in their uniform and conform to the guiding rules that established it.
The fact is if we don’t stand up against SARS’ brutality and abuse of human rights in Nigeria, soon it will be an ill wind that is stronger than hurricane and windstorms combined and it could carry you or your family too, that’s why #ENDSARS #REFROMPOLICE campaign is one step in ensuring that we build a virile safe Nigerian society.
Ekene Odigwe is an OAP @coalcity929fm, fellow @YALINetwork, and SDGs advocate