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The outcry over SARS.

Sequel to the recent strident calls across the land, especially on the social media, for the dissolution of the Special Anti-robbery Squads (SARS), the Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris, has responded by ordering an investigation into the activities of the outfit. The IGP has also promised the reorganisation of SARS, which is quite in order. But it is urged that the proposed reform be extended to the entire police force. Actually, SARS is not the only sore finger in the hand of the force. But because it handles issues that often border on life and death, its misdeeds tend to have irreparable consequences, hence the usually outcry against it.

The SARS is a detachment of the Nigeria Police Force created some years back to rein in the activities of violent criminals when it became apparent that regular policing was becoming incapable of keeping pace with the increasing wave of armed robbery, killings and other violent crimes. And in all honesty, at inception and shortly thereafter, SARS made appreciable difference. But as is customary with intervention outfits that are given the latitude to operate without a thorough procedure of accountability or regular and painstaking monitoring, it drifted. It became a lord of the manor, going beyond its mandate and acting clearly outside the precinct of the law for less than altruistic motives.

The preponderance of testimonies by prominent and ordinary Nigerians about SARS' brutality is chilling and saddening. And far from being mere allegations, the outfit is involved in acts of enormous wickedness, including killing people at will. But since it appeared to be getting away with practically anything, it developed a sense of impunity which encouraged further deadly misconduct. The internet is suffused with videos of chilling atrocities by SARS. The human rights outfit, Amnesty International, has a series of reports on the violence the outfit visited on some suspects. Unfortunately, SARS' case is not just that of high-handedness by lawless security agents. Most of the complaints against SARS concern the illegalities that it perpetrated for filthy lucre. For instance, many of the outfit's operatives are alleged to be on the payrolls of some criminals such as perpetrators of cyber crimes and so on. The implication is that once the criminals fulfill their pecuniary obligations to SARS officials, they can continue to have a field day. And those who do not comply with the terms of the criminal and morally reprehensible pact are allegedly treated harshly.

The outfit is also reputed for making arbitrary arrests and rather than releasing those it has no evidence of wrongdoing against, it demands from them hefty sums in scores of thousands of naira to buy their freedom. There are even allegations that the outfit swaps suspects for money. And all too often, the unlucky 'suspects' seldom make it to the court of law where the truth may come to light before being 'wasted.' SARS has shed too much blood outside the law and it cannot be allowed to continue to operate with the present orientation.

Therefore, given the litany of acts of lawlessness by SARS, the grave allegation raised by Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State that it will be used to rig election in 2019 should not be ignored. Rather than dismissing his allegation as the usual penchant for politicians to cry wolf where there is none, it will be helpful to probe why the governor holds such a view. Notwithstanding Wike's status as a prominent member of the leading opposition party, the antecedents of SARS make his allegation worthy of investigation. The critical issue of Nigerians' distrust for the police is still there and the authorities need to do much more than mere mouthing of slogans to bring the police to the level where they are perceived as friends of the people. For instance, there is the need for more painstaking supervision and monitoring of the activities of the operatives. The multiplicity of horrid acts of injustice by SARS stemmed from inadequate or no supervision. It is hoped that the IGP-ordered investigation will unravel instances of culpable negligence by layers of supervising authorities and punish such as severely as possible to serve as a deterrent.

Most of what came to light recently through the social media about the gross misconduct of SARS has been going for years. The enormity of what had happened in the days before the advent of the social media when SARS did not need to look over its shoulders when it engaged in acts of extreme cruelty can only be imagined. Nigeria is a democracy and it cannot afford to condone acts of illegality. Nonetheless, we are on the same page with the IGP on the idea that serious reform, rather than the outright disbandment of SARS, is what is needed. Yes, SARS might seem to have outlived its usefulness because it has engaged in acts of illegality and largely failed to deliver on its mandate, but the raison d'etre of its birth subsists till date. What is needed, therefore, is a new SARS with a new orientation, one that is peopled with honest, courageous and diligent officers who are willing to operate within the ambit of the law. This should be the target of the IGP's proposed reorganisation.
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Publication:Nigerian Tribune (Oyo State, Nigeria)
Date:Dec 12, 2017
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