On reforming SARS
As part of their efforts towards dealing with the social menace of armed robberies in the country, the Nigeria Police authorities appropriately created the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) some two odd decades ago. Charged with the singular responsibility of tackling vicious armed robbers and fully equipped for such activity, SARS became the dread of armed robbers. Sadly, the same SARS has become a nightmare to some Nigerians who have had any encounter with the group. Currently there is an outcry against its unorthodox and unconstitutional methods in terrorizing the citizenry, often over non-robbery related incidents. There is also an outcry against the level of corruption that permeates the unit. SARS has become a lawless group, operating its own set of laws and principles, in contradiction with the Constitution. The ongoing attempt to reform it for better performance is therefore justified.
Nations across the world often create special units to tackle security issues. The men and women of the unit are specially trained, equipped and motivated to risk their lives for the sake of collective survival. While some of such teams become permanent, others fizzle out when the security challenge is ultimately contained. SARS therefore is not alien or strange as a formal response to a special security challenge. What has generated intense concern and worry is its extremely brutal and illegal ways of conducting operations.
Men of SARS across the country often do not wear the usual police uniform. Sometimes they look like the armed robbers they are supposed to tackle. People are startled or shocked when they run into some arms-bearing young men along the road, dressed casually, looking very menacing. Sometimes they wear black Tee-shirts with SARS emblazoned on them. This is the very first confusion that commuters face. The first thought that comes to the mind of commuters is whether these men are armed robbers. They operate at odd hours and anywhere in the country. They are found within cities and along the highway. They burst into homes without notice. Courtesy to commuters is not one of their virtues. They seem to operate with a mindset that criminalizes all citizens. Their methods are not efficient. They bully people into subjugation and sometimes into parting with money.
The men of SARS are also known to target young men who appear affluent. For them, all young men and women who drive good cars are dubious. Citizens have to convince them on the road that the car was bought with genuine funds. The alternative is to part with cash. The men are sometimes used by those who are influential enough, or can pay, to settle personal scores. This happens when they get reports from complainants. Without any investigation, the accused is often roughly taken in for questioning. A man travels from Benin to lodge a complaint with SARS in Abuja. Suddenly men of SARS show up at the work place or residence of the accused for arrest. For men of the SARS, a complainant is always right because they usually collect inducements from the complainant.
In Lagos some policemen have been reported to have actually escorted their victims to banks to pull out bribe money. How degenerated has the Nigeria Police become!
Another inhuman and criminal practice associated with the men of SARS is arresting innocent people and branding them armed robbers. There have been cases of innocent citizens who challenged the SARS men for unethical behaviour and ended up being accused of robbery. Citizens who still live life-altering scars have moving stories to tell. Some of the SARS men have even deposited illegal items inside a vehicle which they have pulled over in order to implicate the owner. They then deliberately search rigorously and find ‘incriminating evidence’ against the victim. No one wants to be a victim of extra-judicial killing. For the average citizen, the fear of going to SARS’ office is the beginning of wisdom.
In sum, the men of SARS have thoroughly abused both their ascribed and invested power and authority. In an apparent response to a public outcry, the Inspector General of Police has called for a reorganisation of the unit. This, once again, is welcome. In a democracy, highly placed officials should always listen to the genuine cries of the people.
But the real point is that if Nigeria had put its house in order with regards to the police, the situation would not have degenerated into its current chaotic and disgraceful state.
The average policeman is not well treated by the establishment. Society has no respect or regard for the men. They are poorly paid and badly equipped. There are only about three hundred thousand (300,000) policemen in the system to police one hundred and eighty million citizens. Of this figure, a high percentage is assigned guard duties to the men and women who occupy the seat of power across the country. The men of the Nigeria Police, particularly the junior officers, lack self-esteem. They are derided because they are willfully so or have been compelled to be corrupt and inefficient. Their uniforms are a study in poverty and neglect. Scandalously, these officers are sometimes asked to pay for their uniforms and boots. The colour of the uniform – black- is not weather or people-friendly. Often, they act violently in self-defence. It is perhaps true that those in power do not really want an efficient police system.
The Nigeria Police therefore needs a thorough reform. The first point to be made is that the current unitary command and control structure cannot guarantee effective policing. The constituent parts of the Federation should be allowed to have a say over and control the police in their locality. It also needs to be said that the men need training and re-training. Their training programmes should be routine and modern. Modern policing is highly sophisticated because criminals have started adopting ‘smart’ methods of carrying out their activities. So much has been said about Close Circuit Television (CCTV) to be mounted in major cities and towns across Nigeria. Not even the Command in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) Abuja has achieved this.
The barracks where policemen are accommodated across the country are in a great state of disrepair. They look like dumps meant for the rejects of society. Often the men accuse their officers of pocketing monies meant for their development.
The Police High Command should never ask police officers to pay for their uniforms. This is the height of corruption and inefficiency. It destroys the very basis of commitment to safety. Government should be able to provide uniforms for all policemen. Also, the officers should be fully equipped with modern gadgets. The ones who are sent out to combat armed robbers should be properly and adequately equipped. Armed robbers often have access to sophisticated weapons. As a result they out-gun the Police. SARS says that over five hundred of their men have lost their lives in 2017. This is an unacceptable rate of casualty. Nigerians cannot expect the men to give their best if lives can be lost so easily while defending the fatherland.
The morale of officers is also dampened by the way the State treats officers who fall in the course of duty. Their families are left to suffer. There is no reliable insurance facility for the men. The ugly truth is that Nigeria currently has the kind of Police it deserves because of the way the men and women are treated.
SARS should be reconstituted. The men should be properly trained and equipped mentally and materially. Intelligence gathering should be emphasized and practised. Corruption and the ingrained-culture of bribe taking for which the Nigeria Police is notorious should be stamped out. Reward methods and welfare services should be entrenched in the conditions of service. The Inspector-General of Police must realise that he has a huge task in his hands in the interest of all Nigerians.
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