Perhaps the #EndSARSNow protest can only be compared to the #BBOG in terms of effect. A protest against the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force caused by the unit’s arbitrary killings has, at the last count, over 40 million tweets. It started when on Saturday, October 3 a video started trending on social media showing a SARS officer shoot a young Nigerian in front of Wetland Hotel, Ughelli, Delta State. The policeman afterwards took away his victim’s Lexus jeep.
SARS, a special unit in the Nigeria Police, was founded in 1992 by former police commissioner Simeon Danladi Midenda, then a chief superintendent of police. It was meant as a gap filler in response to increased crime in Lagos when policemen were forced into hiding by soldiers for killing Col. Rindam, a Nigerian Army colonel, at a checkpoint. Soldiers were dispatched to the streets in search of any unlucky policeman they could find, a situation that forced cops to withdraw from everywhere, with some resigning and others fleeing for their lives.
It started with only 15 officers operating in the shadows without the knowledge of the public. That time, they were operating incognito in two plain Peugeot saloon cars, dressed in mufti and not brandishing weapons which gave them the element of surprise while tracking robbers and other criminals. Now you see them in tattered jeans like drug addicts brandishing Kalashnikovs.
The police which birthed SARS came into being when clashes between British merchants and local chiefs caused the British consul in Lagos, William McCosky, to request for a small armed force for maintaining peace. A Consular Guard of 30 men was then established in October 1861 and renamed the Hausa Constabulary in 1863 and populated to 1,200. There was the Niger Coast Constabulary in Calabar (for the South) and Royal Niger Company Constabulary (North). By 1930 both southern and northern police were merged and named the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).
Its motto is The Police is Your Friend and its mission is to ‘make Nigeria safer and more secure for economic development and growth; to create a safe and secure environment for everyone living in Nigeria and to build a people’s friendly Police Force that will respect and uphold the fundamental rights of all citizens’. But is the Force friendly? Do its operatives care for our rights?
The Nigeria Police has done its best to be accepted by Nigerians as an altruistic institution. It has formulated a good motto and at a time even changed its name by excising Force, but apparently, it has stuck. Happy to use force, a lot of the times it never pretends to be a friend, even earning for itself the sobriquet ‘Kill and Go’, especially when the Police Mobile Force (PMF) was in vogue.
While many innocent citizens have died in its hands, there is no denying the fact that the Nigeria Police have done wonderfully well in crime-solving that, sometimes, one wonders whether they use magic. Apart from excelling in international missions, they have cracked a lot of seemingly hopeless cases at home.
This is despite the known fact that the police in Nigeria are underpaid, under-trained, under-equipped and under-appreciated. The welfare of the average policeman is appalling as the force’s big guns appropriate such funds for personal use, exhorting their juniors to “wait for your time” to also divert police funds into their personal coffers.
This ingrained, accepted but evil culture has turned policemen into predators on those they are meant to protect. The courteous among them salute you and say, ‘Oga, your boys are here’. A former Inspector-General of Police, Solomon Arase, a gentleman, in banter with editors in 2016, told us that even he is stopped at night while cruising in town and some will say, ‘Oga Yellow, your boys are here,’ not knowing who he was.
This made me recall a story of the late Kam Salem, the inspector-general between 1966 and 1975. He was going round in Lagos in a Volkswagen Beetle – Lagos was Nigeria’s capital then – when he came to a checkpoint and stopped. A constable approached him and asked him for ‘show’. The IG told him to go and tell his sergeant sitting on a log of wood that his name was Kam Salem. The constable did not even know the name. Well, he went and spoke to him and the sergeant jumped up and started running like hell was after him. The constable, not knowing what to do and seeing his ‘Oga’ bolting away, also fled after his boss.
The police apparently only fear their IGs. In 1996 while returning to Potiskum after a six-month course at the International Institute of Journalism in Abuja, I encountered them at Azare town, a one-hour drive from Potiskum, at around 8 pm. Then was a time one could travel anywhere in Nigeria at any time without fear. After the town, towards Potiskum was a police checkpoint with no indication whatsoever. Before I knew it, I was on top of their tyres. I controlled the car, a Volkswagen Beetle also, and stopped.
Within a minute about three or four policemen under the command of a sergeant were on me. ‘You want to kill us?’ they all chorused. I was alone and I had to think fast or else these ‘friends’ could undo me. No, then they did not kill arbitrarily or wantonly like now that some can kill and take away any valuables and or with the car. Or just drop an exhibit in the car and give your corpse any appellation they desired.
I brought out my identity card and told them I was coming from Abuja and straight from a meeting with the IG (a white lie) and that the IG had come up with a programme, ‘Help The Police’ and had assigned me to cover the North East. That our job was to compile problems of the police and take back to him. Then, the sucker punch. I said, ‘I can see that you lack reflectors, not even a lamp indicating checkpoint; I will report that the police in Azare lack these things for his intervention’. But they shouted, ‘NO, please don’t’. I insisted, saying it was to enhance their job but they strongly resisted. I said ok and went into my car.
I knew the carburettor over float once I stopped, and unless the car was pushed, it would not start. I tried to kick-start the car but to no avail, so I told them I would leave it there, take a commercial vehicle to Potiskum and return the next day with a mechanic. But they insisted I must leave their presence – and with the car – so they had to push hard for some minutes to make sure I left the scene and not have a reason to return.
But is it quite true they fear their IG? We are witnesses to times the IGP cautioned SARS, promised they will be reformed, yet they remained what they were. The IGP has many times asked the police to dismantle checkpoints, stop arresting or harassing certain categories of road users but woe betide you if you call their attention to the IG’s statements when they accost you.
But the rot in the police force is beyond SARS. It is foundational, historical, institutional, traditional as well as cultural that only education (training is part of education) can improve them and save our country from their atrocities. In the first place, the primary reason the colonialists established the police was to protect British economic and political interests and the police achieved that through brutal subjugation of indigenous communities by the use of violence, repression, and excessive use of force.
Nigerian leaders who took over from the colonialists have continued to use the police in a similar vein. This is why all ministers, legislators, businessmen, their wives, children, girlfriends, businesses, residences, etc, all have adequate police protection while our communities and streets do not have enough.
Yet the colonialists complained about their excesses when the governor of Lagos Colony acknowledged in 1897 that the Hausa Force “no doubt behaved very badly in the hinterland by looting, stealing and generally taking advantage of their positions”. Six years earlier, the consul general of the Oil Rivers Protectorate, currently Eastern Nigeria, expressed shock at the “numerous acts of lawlessness and pillage” by the southern police, who were commonly referred to as the “forty thieves” in police uniform.
The Nigeria Police Mobile Force, mainly an anti-riot squad notorious for its brutality was seen as a short-cut to worldly gains that policemen could do anything to be part. SARS has surpassed the PMF in brutality and easier access to wealth and, again, the average policeman would do anything to be part of it.
So, what is in a name? The electricity provider, NEPA, after all, was rechristened PHCN and now Disco, Genco and Traco, but has anything changed in that sector? Any contraption by whatever name may not be the solution. People may come to wish for a return to SARS because what is to come may turn out to be a worse monster. We need to go back to the basics, and what is basic is the right education (reorientation). Even the trainers, too, need it. You need to see how our policemen are recruited and trained to know why it is what it is.
Though it is a Nigerian phenomenon for anyone in a uniform of whatever shade to be a tyrant, the policeman must be educated to know that the personal safety and wellbeing of every Nigerian is his primary duty, not the opposite as has been the case in many cases. His loyalty is first and foremost to the Nigerian constitution, not to any individual. He must be humane, law-abiding, conscientious and people-friendly. But their bosses (of course there are excellent ones) must be fair to the institution and subordinates by jettisoning the mantra, ‘Wait for your time”.
Again, it is not just about salary. A poor mind will still lust for more no matter how much his take-home pay is. Coupled with education, the policeman’s welfare must also be looked into. He should not be allowed to put his life on the line for us while the state treats him with disdain.