How ‘Reformed’ Will This New SARS Be?
It was a huge relief for majority of Nigerians a couple of weeks ago when Acting President Prof. Yemi Osinbajo announced the reformation of the dreaded and unarguably the most corrupt unit of the Nigeria Police Force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS and Federal Anti-Robbery Squad, FSARS.
The unit that was formed to combat violent armed robbery and kidnapping crimes had over the years turned around to prey on innocent Nigerians even in the midst of some famed successes it recorded.
SARS/FSARS became the Gestapo unit of the Nigeria police with separate laws. In fact, the operatives operated like they were the armed robbers they were empowered to rein in. They robbed, maimed and killed innocent Nigerians with a frightening rate that left many helpless and hopeless until the federal government said it was enough!
I will have to give you instances: If you are a budding musical or dance or Disc Jockey artiste who decided to keep an Afro hair style and perhaps one tiny tattoo to go with it, in line with the trade, if you had not been a victim of SARS/FSARS harassment/intimidation and extortion before now, then your luck came from heaven. Young men were afraid to stand in groups in Lagos during the SARS reign of terror. If you thought other parts of the country were immune, then you are mistaken. I was almost stripped naked on the highway, a village or two after Sapele in Delta State when I drove home to see my mum last April.
That checkpoint on the busy Warri-Sapele-Benin road is (was?) their extortion point in the Delta Central District of the State. My laptop, phones were invaded with guns pointed at me like a wanted criminal. While amused, because I was the only occupant of the car, I was also very afraid for my life because these guys looked like armed robbers. Dirty, scruffy and smelly with bloodshot sleep deprived eyes, two of them wearing bathroom slippers, it was hard to tell if they were indeed policemen or bandits dressed in T-Shirts, trainers, jean pants spotting that dirty jacket with the inscription; FSARS. Any roadside tailor can make that jacket anyway.
I was frisked to the point it became a sexual abuse and I felt really irritated with the male hands running all over my body. I found my voice and asked what the operative was searching for on my person and all over the car and if they got a signal from Lagos that I should be patted down this way? None of them said anything but the guns were still pointed at me. When I answered the familiar question of ‘Where do you work”, I was let go but not without producing an ID. That was when one of them muttered under his breath in broken English: “Na awa job we dey do, so if you like go write am for paper.” I replied, “The way una dey do dis una job get K-leg sha”. I drove off.
There is this story about SARS Division, Okuzu in Anambra State. It is a familiar story of how suspects are tortured to the point of death like in Hitler’s Nazi camps and some whose folks could not raise the ‘ransom’ were shot dead because they are ‘armed robbers’ that is after confessions were taken under severe duress. Most of these confessions were false, crimes admitted to just to stop the torture! But these SARS men are past caring, they have signed a covenant with the devil and human lives no longer mattered.
If SARS operatives just accost people on the streets in their ‘Stop and Search’ operations, search them and don’t find anything incriminating on them and let them go, you won’t be reading this piece now. In Lagos, before now, they raid the shops of Garri sellers, bundle the seller and buyers into their dirty and rickety ‘danfo’ bus, take them to their extortion point and demand bail money to free everybody. SARS’ bail money is not the usual 2, 000 or 5, 000 naira of regular policemen. One had openly told me at Itire police Division when I went to take a friend out on bail after he was arrested on his way from work around 7pm because he ran (typical of every Lagos resident that runs when everybody is running without knowing the reason why) when he saw people running at Lawanson Bus Stop in Surulere area of Lagos. SARS were raiding people for no reason and nobody wants to wait because ‘weda you commit or nor commit, you must pay bail money last last’. So he was apprehended: “You dey give me 2k? You think say I be ordinary police?”
The FSARS operatives demanded 50, 000 naira and later came down to 20, 000. For what offence I asked? The only things they saw in my friend’s trouser pocket were washed out ‘Baba Ijebu’ lottery tickets. I never knew he played that famous lottery anyway, but that is not the point here. When I saw they meant the 20, 000 naira ‘bail money, I had to put a call through to a veteran Crime journalist who had access to the SARS boss in Lagos and after several calls later, my friend was released to the anger of them all because I did not part with any money again. But how many Nigerians knew or knows someone who knows an ‘Oga’ of police?
There was a day SARS operatives stormed a popular hotel around Moshalasi Bus on Ijesha Road in Itire area of Surulere. They came in three long commercial buses, rounded up men and women watching a late English Premier League match and took them to Ikeja according to report of locals. There was panic in the neighborhood, parents whose children were taken were asked to bring 50, 000 each as ‘bail money’. It was later pegged at 30, 000 naira but those that could afford 20, 000 that night were released. We are talking about over 50 people here including hotel staff! Some people spent up to two weeks in SARS detention while family and friends looked for the money.
The most pathetic story of SARS’ harassment was that of a teenage boy whose mum sent to get something for her around 9pm in Adetola Area of Aguda. The young boy was tall, dark with Afro hair. SARS stopped their ‘Danfo’ by his side and ordered him in. Bail money was set at 30, 000 and the poor mother; a widow had to go borrowing to free his innocent son from people who swore to protect him.
There is yet another incident on Mogaji Street, Ijesha. A professional bouncer everybody calls ‘Biggy’ because of his massive size, was inside a hair salon trying to get a shave as he had club duties later in the evening. He got a rude shock when SARS operatives stormed the salon and took just him. His size probably attracted him to them as one who could afford bail money. ‘Biggy’ coughed out an undisclosed sum of money some few hours later.
Nigerians have heard of stories of how SARS operatives take innocent people to ATM to withdraw hard earned monies before they are let off for no offence. There was this incident of a businessman that attracted nationwide outrage. He was stopped on the road, harassed, intimidated and after his mobile phones were checked, the policemen took him to the bank to witdraw money to ‘bail’ himself. It was from the bank he sent an SOS out via social media which made Police authorities to track him down to the bank branch and the criminal operatives fled but not without taking his car number plates with them!
Almost every Nigerian has a not too palatable tale to tell about the activities of SARS/FSARS. I was coming from Ikoyi one Wednesday night when I got a distress call from friends I knew in Ijesha area. They were hanging out at a popular spot of a woman called ‘Madam Maintain’, after work. FSARS swooped on them, took three male and one female. I was just descending Alaka Bridge; so at great personal risk, I was on phone with them until they were finally taken to one obscure police posts close to Cele Bus Stop.
When I got there, I was told without shame to go and get N50, 000 each for the four persons! I laughed so hard. What crime did they commit? One boasted that if I failed to pay, they will take them to a Magistrate court in the morning and the Magistrate would remand them in Kirikiri Maximum prison. That is very true. Magistrates don’t bother to find out what led to the arrest, as long as SARS operatives took them to the court, the case will be adjourned and ‘suspects’ remanded in prison custody. This could be in another month! Taking someone out on bail from prison in Nigeria is a topic for another day. It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for one to get bail from prison for a crime he did not commit, I mean the struggling Nigerian.
At the end, I paid 3, 000 NAIRA because my friends were already agitated and apprehensive of spending the night in a dingy police cell. One was ready to use his ATM card to go get them money because he thought I was no longer coming.
As I speak, people are afraid to go to ‘Madam Maintain’ and other spots like that in Lagos to hang out. Madam Maintain does not sell hard drug, she sells drinks, foods and fried fish and meat. She is a widow with FIVE children. Her joint is partially deserted till date because no one wants to risk being arrested and made to cough out thousands of naira for a relaxation that won’t cost him 2, 000 that night. That was one heavy blow SARS dealt the hospitality industry in Lagos. The hotel where they took over 50 people in Ijesha is still struggling to come back alive after that raid as only the strong breed takes the risk of patronizing it.
But why am I not excited about this announced reform of SARS/FSARS? Is the police authority going to bring aliens to man the ‘REFORMED’ SARS? Are they not the same policemen who are used to extorting innocent Nigerians to make ends meet?
Let us take a look at the ‘New Rules Of Engagement’ announced some couple of days by the Police authorities:
1. No FSARS personnel are allowed to interface in any civil
2. They are not allowed to interfere in cyber crime (yahoo
3. No FSARS personnel are allowed to conduct a stop and search exercise unless there is a distress call from victims or members of the public.
4. They are not allowed to be involved in commercial matters (debt recovery, landlord vs. Tennant issues).
5. They are not also allowed to interfere in any social /
relationship cases (marital matters, boyfriend / girlfriend
6. THEY ARE STRICTLY FOR ARMED ROBBERY AND KIDNAPPING CASES!
Very good rules of engagement, on paper. But the police authorities can go a step further to publish names and mobile numbers of superior officers to reach any time of the day and night, especially in the night, because these guys carry out their nefarious activities mostly at night.
As things stand, a helpless Nigerian has no option than to watch and pray that the ‘new’ SARS turns out to be better than the old one.
-Akpovi-Esade is a journalist, Media Lobbyist and social commentator