“Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche
There is this crude joke by some Nigerians that should they find themselves being sentenced to hell, they would argue that God should not cause double jeopardy since their lifetime in Nigeria was spent in hell. While this joke may seem out of place, it highlights what some (maybe many) Nigerians think about living in a country where illegality is legal.
The past week saw an increased clamour across social media sites for one of the Nigeria Police Force’s sick heads to be cut off. While the NPF is a hydra headed monster, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad has evolved into the most villainous in a club of devils— devils so fearsome that even Lucifer may consider taking the backseat in their presence. While SARS was formed to handle armed robbery incidents, its men have upgraded to become the primary law enforcers in Nigeria, covering all crimes from armed robbery and cultism to new markets such as having tattoos, males wearing earrings, internet fraud, looking too fresh, keeping beards, males keeping “afro” (long hair), having a car or a smartphone, and even the vilest crime of not suffering enough.
The problem with SARS operatives is that like Friedrich feared, they have become what they were designed to fight. There have been allegations of SARS operatives being involved in robberies and kidnappings. In fact, the present Rivers State governor alleged that SARS operatives in that state are responsible for some kidnappings. This may suggest that some SARS operatives fight unlicensed kidnappers and armed robbers to gain monopoly over such lucrative endeavours. Similarly, while they have constituted themselves into a morality police by brutalising anyone with tattoos or any male who dares wear earrings or studs, there are several SARS operatives who themselves have tattoos and wear earrings or studs. Talk about licensed hypocrisy.
Unlike conventional police officers whose corrupt actions are undertaken in official uniforms, the SARS operatives do not seem to obey any rules on uniforms. For many, “uniform” means any type of clothing or at best, a pair of jeans, a black shirt and any kind of shoe whether with covered toes or not, while many teams move around with cars lacking licence plates, making it effectively impossible to report them to already deaf authorities. Their dressing code (or lack of one) means that when assaulted, Nigerians can never be truly sure if they are being assaulted by licensed criminals (aka SARS) or unlicensed ones (aka thieves and kidnappers). However, no half-smart police officer should use this as an excuse to argue that crimes being alleged against SARS operatives are by unlicensed criminals. I was in the vicinity when an aunt was kidnapped last year. When the kidnappers first showed up, we thought they were SARS operatives. It was only when they left we realised our aunt had just been moved by unlicensed kidnappers, so someone dialled a number to request help from SARS.
Is SARS unnecessary? Not really. For all their flaws, they still manage to fend off armed criminals. However, for many operatives, the intention is not altruistic, but to legally take down the competition. It is also worrisome that they seem to operate without any oversight. How can one person be prosecutor, judge and executioner? While many Nigerians have been shot by other police officers without cause, SARS operatives may hold the record for the most extrajudicial killings, and some even boast with “I go kill you and nothing go happen”. Around where I used to stay in Port Harcourt, a SARS operative caught a thief cum cultist, marched him at gunpoint to the Port Harcourt Cemetery and asked him to dig a grave for himself. It took a crowd gathering and begging before the weeping misguided crook was forgiven. While I do not condone theft nor cultism, why should one person have the power to catch a crook and decide that his punishment is to be shot and buried?
Imagine a unit whose operatives would stop you for looking too fresh, take your phone, go through your chats and other apps on your phone, and then demand money from you. To show their superiority, while ordinary police officers extort around ₦100 at roadblocks, SARS operatives negotiate extortions that head into tens and hundred of thousands. As customer-friendly merchants, they have made payment easy by allowing multiple payment channels. They could either drive you to an ATM to withdraw your saving grace, or accept a bank transfer, while for the more innovative units, they move around with POS machines, so no customer can evade payment. If unable or refusing to pay, your body may never be found, or your body may be paraded as that of a robber shot during a “lengthy gun battle”, or if lucky, you may just be forgotten in jail. Just use the #EndSARS tag across Twitter to see tales of encounters with SARS; real tales that were neither fabricated as alleged by someone I usually respect, nor figments of dreams requiring psychological attention as insensitively asserted by one proud police chieftain.
To all those having frightening dreams- “shot/beaten by police”. Pray to God not to allow it happen + avoid areas where police are responding to incidents in real life.
If such dreams persist, GO SEE A PSYCHIATRIST.
We only deal with real life police complaints @PoliceNG_PCRRU.
— Abayomi Shogunle (@YomiShogunle) November 30, 2017
While SARS may turn out to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, it is important to note that the SARS malaise is just one part of a really sick police institution. The Inspector General of Police hurriedly ordered the reorganisation of SARS units across the country. However, knowing that this same IGP, just like some predecessors, earlier ordered the dismantling of illegal roadblocks and those roadblocks remain as testifiers of police illegality, it is doubtful that the IGP’s announcement would go beyond the pages of newspapers. There seems to be a lack of will to reform the police force. Maybe this is because top police brass allegedly receive royalties from street-level extortions.
Reforming SARS or even scrapping it would require reforming the entire police force. This is because even if SARS were scrapped, its operatives would likely be assigned to other police units where the operational behaviour of SARS would become a permanent feature of those police units. We already have enough brutality in other units and can do without increasing the fire. The entire police force and in fact, virtually all Nigerian institutions need reformation because SARS is just a symptom of a sick Nigerian state. SARS represents a country where it is very legal to be illegal.
Image Credit: justnaira.com