Human rights abuses by the Nigerian police, especially its special anti-robbery squad (SARS) have reached alarming levels. Last year, Nigerians on social media created a storm with a harshtag #endSARS calling for the total scrapping of the unit that is particularly noted for its brutality, sexual harassment, extortion, theft and outright robbery. Also an online petition, with tens of thousands of signatories, was submitted to the National Assembly seeking the scrapping of the unit.
More than six months after that incidence and despite the cosmetic changes introduced by the Inspector General of Police into the working of the unit, the cases of police or more particularly SARS brutality has continued unabated. Young Nigerians complain on social media daily of the harassment, arbitrary arrest, kidnap, forced extortion and torture by SARS. In a 2016 report on the activities of SARS titled “Nigeria: ‘You have signed your death warrant’ : Torture and other ill treatment in the special anti-robbery squad” the global human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, said it received reports from lawyers, human rights defenders and journalists, and collected testimonies stating that some police officers in SARS regularly demand bribes, steal and extort money from criminal suspects and their families. The global human rights watchdog also stated that SARS detainees are held in a variety of locations, including a grim detention centre in Abuja known as the ‘Abattoir’, where detainees are kept in overcrowded cells and in inhuman conditions. According to Damian Ugwu, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher, “SARS officers are getting rich through their brutality. In Nigeria, it seems that torture is a lucrative business.” The report also detailed testimonies from former SARS detainees who said they were subjected to horrific torture methods, including hanging, starvation, beatings, shootings and mock executions at the hands of corrupt officers from the dreaded SARS.
To be sure, torture is prohibited under Nigerian and international law. Also, in December 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari signed into law the Anti-torture Act. Still yet, SARS and the police continue to unleash torture and other degrading treatment on Nigerians.
As the campaign on social media reached a crescendo, the IG of police has again offered a tokenism – banning SARS from conducting stop and search operations on roads except when necessary. The IG also promised to restructure and reposition the unit for effective service delivery while also warning members of the group against acting as body-guards, delving into land matters and debt collection that were considered civil.
But this is a well-travelled route. Anytime credible complaints are brought against the police, the police high command order investigations and actions but at the end nothing is done and business continues as usual. For instance, since 1999, there has not been a police boss that has not hypocritically ordered the dismantling of the notorious police road-blocks in Nigeria. But till date, those road blocks still exists in all nooks and crannies of the country and serve as the medium for the extortion of, and killing of Nigerians and road users who refused to settle the policemen. What happens is that the policemen withdraw from the roadblocks for some weeks and return when national focus and attention shifts to other pressing issues.
It is clear that the police has lost the trust of the people it is paid to protect. To get back that trust, a wholesale reform of the police is needed and not just the SARS.
But in a situation where the president has empowered the IG of police to disrespect the National Assembly and even harass its members, including the Senate President, and charges to court anyone who dare accuse the IG of any impropriety instead of investigating the allegations, we doubt whether the government will have the courage to do it.