One Sunday morning in May 2020, Christian Okeke strode to a spot at Urban Girls Secondary School, Ekwulobia, in the southeastern Nigerian state of Anambra.
He had parked his car there the night before.
Yet all he could see now was an empty patch of grass. The car was gone.
What had happened to the 30-year-old mechanic’s car?
Well, a neighbour had an answer. At about 10 p.m. the night before, Christian’s neighbour claimed he saw an officer of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) hotwiring the car.
The next day, Christian went to the SARS office. Upon getting there, he saw his car. He asked to know why the SARS officers had taken his car.
They said they had found a bag containing Indian hemp in the car, and that they suspected the car was being used for armed robbery operations.
They then asked Christian to pay before they could let him drive the car home.
“I was shocked by the accusation of armed robbery,” Christian says.
In Ekwulobia, SARS officers are dubbed “criminals” because of how often they arrest young, innocent people.
The officers openly ask their victims to pay their way out or risk being killed.
SARS officers are said to come around at least once every two weeks to make many arrests.
“When I told the officers that I did not have any money, they said they would have to ‘do their job’. That was when they pushed me into a cell. They tried to intimidate me and said I was stubborn,” Christian says.
“They asked me to make a statement. I told them I did not have anything to write because I did not know the crime I had committed. After some time, they asked me how much I had on me and I told them I had 1,000 naira. They said I was not serious.”
Before the SARS officers shoved Chrisitian into the cell and collected his phone, he managed to call his brother, whom he asked to inform his friend, a police officer named Dennis, that he was on the verge of being locked up.
Dennis, whose car Christian usually repaired, called and persuaded the SARS officers to release Christian. But this was after the officers had collected the nearly 12,000 naira Christian had on him.
The menace of SARS officers is an old tale, dating back to the early 2000s. The police unit, which was created to combat armed robbery and kidnapping, became synonymous with extrajudicial killings, kidnapping, extortion and torture.
“I remember the officers, after they had brought me out of the cell, asked me to buy them drinks. I wondered why they would ask me to buy them drinks even after they took my money for a crime I did not commit,” Christian says.
“I will never forget my SARS story. I still can’t explain how they managed to take the car to the station because I remember it was locked. Those gun-weirdling operatives are nothing but retired criminals.”
Christian continues: “Some of them kill with reckless abandon. They victimize innocent citizens, and if you refuse to give them what they ask for, they make you suffer. It is an institution that deserved to be dissolved a long time ago.”