SARS has been ‘disbanded’ but without total systemic reform nothing will change

As young people continue to suffer after empty promises of reform by the authorities following #EndSARS protests, Nigeria is still ill-prepared for the challenges ahead

Toyin Falola
Tuesday 13 October 2020 16:10 BST
Nigerian protester calling for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad
Nigerian protester calling for an end to the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (AFP via Getty Images)

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was created in the 90s to prevent armed robbery and other criminal activities in Nigeria. It didn’t take long for allegations of it becoming crooked began to swirl. 

Nowadays, as demonstrations have shown, many view it as a criminal organisation filled with individuals who need to be arrested. While it’s true that police brutality gave birth to the anti-SARS movement, the recent rallies calling for change – the #EndSARS protests – are not a recent phenomenon.

Any listener of the late Afro-beat icon Fela Anikulapo Kuti's music will appreciate this fact – the culture of high-handedness of Nigerian security agents. Kuti reported many instances of brutality by the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) and its tendency to disregard the provisions of the law as well as to extra-judicial acts.

Recent evidence of police brutality includes the 2005 police murder of six unarmed Abuja residents in the now-infamous "Apo Six" police brutality case. Another more famous incident was the 2009 extra-judicial and summary murder of Mohammed Yusuf, leader of the Boko Haram terrorist group, an act that many considered the immediate cause of the sect's militant activities in the Northeast.

In the past two years, since Nigerians began the #EndSARS agitation, there have been numerous reports of the SARS terrorising people, especially youths. Without a warrant, they have been said to stop and search young people who carry laptop bags or internet devices, only to accuse them of cybercrime. There are also allegations of SARS stopping young people riding in vehicles and demanding to know their sources of income. Young men who wear dreadlocks regularly reported being profiled, already deemed guilty based on their appearance.

There were regular reports of SARS extorting money from their victims and those who cannot pay either end up incarcerated for an extended time, without trial, or be accused of robbery. In the most extreme circumstances, there are allegations of victims being executed, without any repercussions. These acts of impunity are unconscionable.

On the occasions listed above, the official position of the Nigerian police is always that they were the actions of the "bad eggs" within the police force, a few men that give the force a bad reputation. Other independent inquisitions by individual stake-holders have yielded varied reports, as they have to contend with corrupt social factors and institutional failures.

In the former, they lay the blame on personnel susceptibility to social moral degradation and vices. In the latter, it’s poor institutional practices in selection and training, accommodation provision, welfare, compensation, corruption, and more. These uncontrollable factors have allegedly unleashed the police on the very citizens they have sworn to protect.

Protesters can be divided into three kinds: Those who call for the immediate and un-negotiable disbandment of SARS; Those who are demanding a complete overhaul of the police; And those under the aegis of the northern Nigerian youth forum, motivated by ethnic alliances and sentiments, that want the embattled police unit to remain.

The first group believes another day with SARS means more lawlessness. They understand the need to capitalise on current momentum and attention, and insisted on immediate disbandment. They don’t trust the government's commitment to abolish SARS, and they have good reason not to.

In the past three years, the government has promised to reform SARS three times. The second group appreciates the fact that the depth of rot in the NPF transcends any one unit – and believes there other such extortionists and murderous gangs within the police – and is demanding a more comprehensive reform. The third-party, distanced from the brunt of the rogue police unit's activities, only had good things to say about its performance, calling for its continued existence while decrying that its absence would spell untold hardships for Nigerians.

Though #EndSARS protests recently culminated in the disbandment of SARS, as announced by the Inspector General of Police on Sunday, it is just one aspect of a larger systemic failure. There is a culture of glossing over and "managing" situations in dire need of purposeful intervention and commitment, but Nigeria is ill-prepared for the changing times and their peculiar demands. The nation relies on archaic laws, with growing inefficacy and selective accountability culture, and it’s little wonder the police have appointed themselves as judge, jury, and executioner. This hinders the capability of the three arms of government work together to ensure that the country has laws that work for its changing realities; laws that are adhered to by all parties and enforced judiciously.

In some quarters, there is an assertion that the disbanding of the rogue SARS police unit would have dire consequences on the Nigerian masses because, but the protests against the continued existence of SARS are not protest against traditional policing of police patrols, roadblocks, searches, and other routine police activities. The rallies are about the random and illegal stop-and-search activities of SARS, their warped profiling mechanism that criminalises young people based on their looks and possession of so-called expensive devices like laptops, cellphones, and even cars.

Given how frequently they are alleged to extort, brutalise, and even carry out extra-judicial killings based on spurious claims and concocted charges, anyone suggesting that Nigerians would be the worse-off if SARS is abolished is either trying to subvert the narrative or is ignorant of the four previous anti-SARS brutality protests since 2017. Both the government and the Nigerian Police leadership have been given ample opportunities to effect the necessary changes, but all to no avail. Should the Nigerian youth continue to die in the face of the empty promises of reform from the relevant authorities? The fact is people are already dying. Something needs to be done, and it appears that only those doing the dying appreciate the urgency of the matter.

Now that SARS has been "disbanded," and its personnel is to be scattered among other police units, the protests continue in pursuance of the aspirations for a deeper commitment to an end to police brutality and not a mere repackaging and rebranding. As far as consequences go, we will hopefully see less police confrontation with young people on the streets, and fewer instances of unnecessary bloodshed.

Complications in the form of a spike in crime, as anticipated, will only arise if the police decide to view these protests as a personal affront and choose to lie back while miscreants create mayhem. But if #EndSARS is taken as the constructive measure that it is, then the police will continue with its duty of maintaining law and order with little or no blowback. In all, we must keep in mind that there is no worthy future for any nation without an active contribution from its young and enabled population. 

Toyin Falola is a Nigerian historian and Jacob and Sanger Mossiker Chair in the Humanities department of the University of Texas in Austin

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