After listening to the Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu’s speech last Sunday the 11th of October, 2020 announcing the disbandment of the Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS), I had no doubt in my mind that the motive for the action was less than his desire to entrench an accountable crime-fighting unit for the Nigerian police. I will explain.
Apart from the fact that the IGP’s speech is completely devoid of empathy for victims of SARS brutality and failed to take responsibility for human rights violations committed by this abusive outfit, it was an attempt to make political gain out of the still unfolding event. Take a look at the opening part of the FPRO statement which read like a PR stunt: ”In the finest spirit of democratic, citizen-centred and community policing, the Inspector-General of Police, IGP M.A Adamu, NPM, mni has today, 11th October, 2020, dissolved the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) across the 36 State Police Commands and the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) where they hitherto existed” the statement said.
Predictably, the speech was met with skepticism by some activists who averred that the speech appeared more like a poor attempt to paint the police chief’s action as a patriotic, well thought-out strategy to address a pressing national issue, rather than an act of a reluctant public officer who was simply obeying superior orders. For the FPRO Frank Mba who gleefully announced just a few days earlier that SARS cannot be scrapped because of its potency in combating criminality and deadly criminal gangs in the country and a police chief who a few days earlier refused to come down from his 7th floor office at Edet House to address aggrieved protesting youths in Abuja to posit that their subsequent action was taken “in the finest spirit of democratic and community policing” is simply laughable.
Still, on the IGP’s proclamation, perhaps the most impracticable part was the announcement that SARS personnel will be redeployed to other police units. My concern with this part is directly related to my previous experience and knowledge of issues that played out when former SARS officers were redeployed to other police units. First, it is extremely difficult to transfer a senior SARS officer from his base no matter the strength of the petition against him, because of the entrenched interest surrounding the position. A former IGP, Solomon Arase admitted that during his tenue as IGP, he attempted to transfer all the Officers in SARS Lagos to other units but came under intense pressure from powerful individuals including politicians and traditional rulers. Curiously, the officers they want him to retain turned out to be the most abusive one’s going by the number and nature of complaints he had received. The same scenario played out in the case of James Nwafor, the notorious former head of SARS Awkuzu in Anambra state, often regarded as the most abusive SARS formation in the country. Nwafor has been repeatedly accused of torture and extra judicial executions by human rights groups in Nigeria. After several unsuccessful attempts to transfer him owing to pressures from the Anambra state government officials and business moguls in Anambra state, Solomon Arase in the last few weeks of his tenue finally succeeded in transferring the seemingly untouchable James Nwafor to Bauchi state. He fought his way back to Awkuzu SARS, just few weeks after the retirement of that IGP.
On the practicability of transferring former SARS officers to other formations, the story of Okpontu will suffice here. Between 2004 and 2006, Okpontu was the most visible and notorious officers in the anti-robbery squad of Enugu state command. “Okpontu” – as the name suggest means ‘the Nailer’ in Igbo language - after he reportedly drilled through the palm of a detainee with a nail in 2006. This officer was so notorious that he caught the attention of most national and international human rights organizations who initiated discussions on how to address his excesses and bring justice to his victims. Several petitions to the police authorities to that effect failed to yield any positive result.
In June 2005 the UN special Rapporteur on Extra judicial killings (EJK), Professor Philips Aston, while on a visit to Nigeria vowed to take up his issue with the Nigerian government after listening to dozens of testimonies about Okpontu’s brutality. In late 2007, shortly after the UN special Rapporteur on EJK released his report on Nigeria, Okpontu was deployed from the Anti-robbery unit to the security team of the Enugu state governor, Sullivan Chime. You may think that this was the end of the matter, right? Wrong! Less than six months later, precisely on 2 October 2007, the security team of the Enugu state governor under the leadership of Okpontu, ran into protesting students of Kogi State University, Ayangba while returning to Enugu from Abuja and opened fire on them killing 4 students and injuring scores. The incident was never investigated and Okpontu and his team were never punished.
Another practical example is currently playing out in Anambra state. The current terror in Anambra and Enugu state is not SARS but the anti-cult unit of the Nigeria Police Force. Interestingly, most of the officers in this unit including their leaders were former SARS officers. In Enugu state, the name DSP Chidobe Ekeleme, the head of anti-cult unit of the state command invokes more terror in the mind of youths than any SARS officer. SARS may have been disbanded but the anti-cult and the anti- kidnapping units, where former SARS officers currently run the show, is still alive and kicking.
So when the IGP said the police will deploy SARS officers including those with blood on their hands to other police formations, I knew that we have a problem at hand. The chances of traffic officers (probably transferred from SARS) shooting motorists for failing to stop at a traffic light is a future possibility if we fail to address this issue now.
We must insist on accountability for abuses committed by SARS officers, not only to ensure justice for victims but to send a strong message to other officers that no matter how long it takes, every act of human rights violation will not go unpunished.
Meanwhile let the protests continue. We must demand for accountability for acts of human rights abuses by SARS officers. We are close to achieving this, but not yet there.
#EndsarsNow #EndPoliceBrutality #EndPoliceImpunity
Isaac Prince is a police reforms expert based in Abuja.