Fury beyond #EndofSARS

By Robert Idowu

It was a highly controversial unit of the Nigerian Police that got defunct in circumstances not too different from those in which it sprouted: the squad came into being in a crisis and was dismantled in a crisis.

By the time Police Inspector-General Mohammed Adamu felt sufficiently compelled to hack down the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) on 11th October, there was already palpable yearning in the Force for exorcism of its memory from the entire system. This was because no police personnel or facility having the flimsiest connection with the opprobrious SARS was safe from the rage of protesters. The squad’s offices which the Inspector-General ordered taken over by regular police became sitting ducks for public attacks, such that there were reports of new occupants falling collateral victim of public fury intended for SARS. You could guess the fate of any ex-personnel of the controversial squad who dared flaunt that identity. Actually, it became hazardous just to be a personnel of the police establishment that until lately harboured the squad.

Reports late last week showed the circumstances of SARS origin in 1984 were likewise turbulent. Former Police Commissioner Fulani Kwajafa recalled to the BBC Hausa Service that an upsurge in criminal activities in the early 80s under former Inspector-General Etim Inyang – interestingly, when the current President, Muhammadu Buhari, was military head of state – necessitated the creation of SARS, which was able to flush out the criminals and restore peace. Kwajafa said by design, operatives of SARS were not meant to be involved with members of the public; he further said it was saddening to him that the squad, before it was scrapped, had veered into crimes it was founded to combat. Meanwhile, it is a noteworthy coincidence of history that President Buhari is oversighting the disbandment of SARS, just the way he oversighted its birthing.

Operatives of this squad had over the years been notorious for human rights abuses including brutalization and extra-judicial killing of purported suspects, such that activists had since 2016 plied a sustained campaign that the squad be scrapped. The Police, however, always argued for its strategic importance in the battle against violent crimes – even when it had become glaring that the fancy of many of the squad’s operatives was no longer in fighting violent crimes but had shifted to extortion of innocent public members and other criminal abuses. In doing this, they conducted routine street patrols and intercepted unarmed citizens, mostly youths, who they claimed to suspect of cybercrimes and whose mobile phones and other smart devices they indiscriminately searched. Oftentimes, alleged suspects ended up killed or grievously harmed by these so-called security operatives whose fingers were itchy on gun triggers. But until now, public clamour that SARS be disbanded met a rebuff from police leadership, which in the past serially applied curbs on the squad’s operations and tweaked its structure, repeatedly without enduring remedial effect.

Even the present IGP Adamu balked at disbanding SARS and, on 4th October, reeled out fresh restrictions that turned out not too different from those applied over the past four years. Only this time, the context had changed: opposition to SARS had gained such massive momentum that could not be assuaged by mere directive that the squad’s operatives stay off patrols and concentrate on responding to cases of armed robbery, kidnapping and other violent crimes. Youthful protesters took to the streets in many cities across this country to demand that SARS be scrapped, and the protests got traction from celebrities who pitched in on ground and in the social media space, making the subject trend globally and attract support far beyond Nigeria’s shores.

Reality dawned on government that matters were getting out of hand and President Buhari made known he had ordered the Police Inspector-General to address the concerns of Nigerians. But by the time Adamu came up to announce the disbandment of the controversial squad, the #EndSARS protests had taken on a larger objective namely wholesale reform of the police. Protesters besieged everywhere – major highways and city landmarks, government establishments and legislative complexes at both state and national levels, not the least police offices and facilities. When Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike and Federal Capital Territory Minister Mohammed Bello banned protests in their jurisdictions because SARS had been scrapped, protesters doubled down and took the battle to their doorsteps. They occupied city spaces in non-violent processions, not just in daytime but also in overnight candlelight vigils. But amidst all these, the beauty of the Nigerian spirit in coordinated civil action also shone bright. In certain areas, as protesters thronged the streets, there was a rearguard of sanitation volunteers who picked up debris that may have been dropped so to prevent environmental abuse; and whenever adherents of one faith needed to observe their religious routines, adherents of the other faith provided safety shield.

In a bid to contain the situation, police personnel confronted the protesters, resulting in deaths and  injury of protesters and in some cases of police personnel. Some protesters were arrested. But the clampdown only inflamed rather than cow protesters. Non-protesters were caught in the crossfire, like Labour and Employment Minister of State Festus Keyamo’s driver, Yohanna Shankuk, who was knocked down by a motorist fleeing the chaos at Berger Junction in Abuja, and an unidentified victim reportedly killed by a stray bullet in Surulere, Lagos. Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo at the close of last week tweeted an apology that government delayed in tackling police brutality and pledged comprehensive reform of the security establishment. But reports cited protesters in many areas saying their objective had gone beyond police reform to good governance issues and accountability by Nigerian leadership.

A lesson to pick from the anti-SARS protests is the age-long axiom that it takes only a tip to start a snowball. The unruly squad was the immediate trigger of this rage, but it would be self-delusory to assume the anger was all about SARS. There was more, otherwise the disbandment of the squad and repeated assurances by government that comprehensive police reforms were underway should pacify protesters. Whereas it was the police establishment that had harboured the excesses of unruly SARS, when the people revolted, the intensity of protests not only took this country by storm but also threatened the entire institution of government, such that government has to resort to frantically throwing up manoeuvres and promises aimed at deflating protesters’ anger.

When people are disenchanted, it takes minor irritation – sometimes totally extraneous – to ignite a blowout. Remember the Arab Spring! Police brutality has been a deplorable experience in this country, no doubt, but there seems to be a deeper vexation in the citizenry that the irritation of misbehavior by SARS operatives merely sparked off. And so, with the current protests already being touted by youths to demand accountable leadership; they should also be a stimulus for those in government to wholly rethink statecraft, rather than merely seek to pacify anger over the police. In a statement accompanying a tweet last week by respected clergyman Pastor Enoch Adeboye supporting peaceful anti-SARS protests, the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG) admonished government to look beyond the challenges with police brutality. “The church reiterates its call on the government to take urgent steps to tackle the rising case of unemployment, decay in the nation’s education system and the general harsh economic situation in the country,” the statement by Assistant General Overseer in charge of Administration and Personnel, Pastor Johnson Odesola, said. I find much to recommend for government attention in this admonition.

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