"I would prefer to be attacked by armed robbers than to encounter SARS officers.” –  Abdul Abdulkareem

Abdul Abdulkareem encountered officers of Nigeria’s Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) a month ago in Lagos. He and two friends were on their way home around Idi-Araba, Surulere when officers turned up in a minibus and arrested them. “It was around 10 pm, I stopped at a store opposite my house with two friends to pick up bread for breakfast the next morning,” he told me. “The officers appeared out of nowhere and dragged us into their van without telling us what our offence was,” he added.

The officers took them, along with twelve others, to Area D police station in Mushin and threw them into a cell. “On our way to the police station, the officers kept picking up random people and throwing them into the van. Anyone that asked questions got slapped,” he explained. “They seized our phones and personal belongings and refused to tell us anything. I had to sleep in the cell that night with the others that were picked up. It was a bad experience.” Abdul and his friends were released in the morning after paying the officers ₦20,000. “They laughed about what they had done in the morning like it was a joke. They told us it was normal,” he said.

Abdul's story is no one-off; he is just one of the hundreds of Nigerians to have suffered at the hands of Nigeria's Special Anti Robbery Squad.


Abuse of Power

SARS is a branch of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), the highest investigative department of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF). It was created to combat violent crimes like armed robbery and kidnapping, yet is responsible for widespread torture, extortion and abuse of the very citizens it is meant to protect.

A 2016 Amnesty International report showed how SARS officers frequently detained, tortured, and extorted young Nigerians. The report exposed detention facilities in Abuja, Enugu, and Anambra, where victims were tormented and coerced into confessing to crimes they did not commit.

Abdulahi Zachari is one of those victims. He and his brother were detained by SARS in Abuja and were tortured and forced to admit to being robbers. “They asked us to lie down and were hitting us with rods all over our bodies. They were telling us to admit that we were armed robbers. We kept denying it.” Abdulahi's injuries were so severe that he spent weeks in the hospital after his release. 

The abuse of power displayed by SARS officers does not stop at unlawful arrests and extortion but has evolved into murder. Medical doctors describe how members of the anti-robbery unit shoot their victims and cover their tracks at the hospital. Kingsley Umebinyuo*, a medical practitioner at the University of Abuja teaching hospital, reveals how SARS operatives visit the hospital every week demanding death certificates for their victims.

“Any night I am on call, I sight SARS police officers bringing in dead bodies for death certificates. Sometimes they come in more than once in a night with these bodies,” he tells me. SARS officers often deny involvement in the death, yet know too many details not to have been involved. “They know random details surrounding the deaths and names of the victims,” he says. Kingsley says he is scared to come forward with this information because he does not want to lose his job or be targeted by SARS officers.

As impossible as these stories seem, the data provide compelling support. In 2016, Nigeria's police force was ranked as the worst in the world. And the 2017 National Bureau of Statistics corruption survey found that police officers in Nigeria are the most likely of all civil servants to collect and solicit bribes.


Social media outrage

Recently, Nigerian social media has been swamped by tales of indiscriminate arrests, extortion and murder by SARS officers. Using the hashtag #ENDSARS, Nigerians have called for the government and police force to take appropriate steps to investigate and address the wanton brutality. 

A similar campaign gained traction in November 2017 when #ENDSARS trended on Instagram and Twitter for weeks, with many Nigerians coming forward with their stories during that period. Six months after the initial outrage, little has changed as even more dreadful stories continue to surface.

People have reported being accosted by SARS officers for innocuous things – displaying body piercings, wearing tightly-fitted clothes, carrying a laptop, or even using a backpack. Ayoola Otori*, one of the young Nigerians vocal about the #ENDSARS campaign on social media, narrated his SARS experience in December 2015. “I was returning to my village for New Year's, around 10 am after visiting a friend in Awka. In front of Community Secondary school Umueri, SARS officers stopped and searched me,” he recalled. “I think they stopped me because I fit the stereotype of a ‘yahoo boy’. They asked for the receipt to my laptop; I didn’t get a chance to explain myself when they threw a slap my way,” he said.

“I was scared. I was assisted by a well-known businessman who was driving by and recognised me. He begged them on my behalf, and they let me go,” he explains. “I remember their names, Ibrahim Ademu and Eko Epe; they were route ten officers”.


Police response

The Nigerian Police Force initially rebuffed all accusations against SARS officials, describing the problem as ‘non-existent’. However, in a turnaround in December 2017, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) reorganised the unit and ordered an investigation into the allegations. He also reportedly banned SARS operatives from conducting stop-and-search operations on the road, especially those targeted at young Nigerians.

Still, complaints continued to flood in. 

Recent events have followed a similar pattern. On June 10th, the IGP again banned SARS officers from stopping and searching people on the road, a move many considered immaterial considering the first directive was ignored.

In between mixed reactions from the Police Force, there have been occasional reports of SARS officers being dismissed and arrested for abusing innocent citizens. While this is commendable, a lot more needs to be done to curtail the excesses of the unit.

Meanwhile, the Lagos State Police Public Relations Officer (PRO), Chike Oti, believes that the allegations against SARS operatives are exaggerated. “People keep saying they are abused by SARS but never report it. There is a complaint response unit, why can’t they make use of it?” he asked. “To the best of my knowledge, SARS officers are doing very well,” he told me.

Likewise, the assistant IGP, Yomi Shogunle, has made multiple statements on social media suggesting that he does not believe the stories people have shared about SARS officers. 

By many indications, the police force is in denial about the scale of the problem. And where there’s denial, holistic steps cannot be taken to end the menace.


What does the law say?

Nigeria’s Constitution lays out how security officials are to treat Nigerians held in their custody; 

“Every individual is entitled to respect for the dignity of his person, and accordingly, no person shall be subjected to torture or to inhuman or degrading treatment.” – Section 34 (1) of the constitution.

This is not enough; the law clarifies what SARS officer should do, but it does not lay out the consequences of their failure to comply. “At the moment the law provides no repercussions when citizens are tortured. It only insists that SARS operatives treat citizens well, it goes silent on what happens when they don’t,” Abdulaziz Bakare, a legal practitioner, tells me.

Abdulaziz suggests that the government ought to pass the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA), which properly criminalises the behaviour of SARS officials and spells out punishment. However, the ACJA must be adopted by all the state legislatures before it can take full effect in each of Nigeria’s states. At the moment, only a few states have adopted it.

The #ENDSARS campaign focuses on the brutality of Nigeria’s police force, but it does give a broader picture of the flaws in Nigeria’s criminal justice and policing system. Many Nigerians do not feel safe with the police. “I don’t feel safe when the police are around me. Every time I see a SARS officer I immediately expect to be harassed,” says Babatunde Amzat, yet another victim of SARS harassment. 

* - Name changed to protect his identity

Follow this Journalist on Twitter @AishaSalaudeen


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