Police Brutality: Shedding Light on the Prevalence of Illegality within the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Nigeria

© Photo by Prachatai via Flickr

Police brutality, extrajudicial killings and human right abuses perpetrated against the Nigerian civilian population (especially the youth) throughout Nigeria has resulted in a consistently rising death toll which has led to calls for significant reform by Nigerian citizens. The citizens demand that the government take proactive measures to restrain and prevent men within the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) from committing atrocities – measures which are currently lacking.  To fully grasp the extent to which this illegality has been perpetrated, it is imperative to first provide a background into the special unit, including its role, before reviewing its subsequent breaches. 

SARS is the acronym for ‘Special Anti-Robbery Squad’ which is a unit of the Nigerian Police Force established in 1992 in order to battle the rise of violent crimes throughout the nation and to hold perpetrators of these crimes accountable. Although there has been other anti-robbery squads that were in operation prior to the establishment of SARS, SARS was created specifically to detain, investigate, and prosecute those involved in violent crimes, such as, armed robbery and kidnapping.

A few years after its establishment, rumours began to spread about this new “hero” department. Individuals who worked in this department were seen as members of a dangerous sect and as political thugs/hitmen who carried out illegal acts, such as, controversial killings of random individuals, rape, invasion of privacy, amongst others, for the highest bidder – often under the guise of carrying out their duties or even sometimes just for kicks. From 1996 onwards, it became clear that these were not in fact mere rumors, as several instances came to light in which it was clear that these individuals had committed said crimes. Somewhere in Lagos State, in mid-1996, two security guards were arrested under suspicion of assisting in a robbery but were not charged with any crime even though the Nigerian constitution has expressly stated in Section 35 that once suspects are arrested, they ought to be charged and cannot be detained for longer than forty-eight (48) hours.  In January 1997, the bodies of these two guards were deposited by the members of this unit at a morgue with no explanations offered. Since then, there have been back-to-back incidents concerning brutality, extortion and murder by SARS officers perpetrated against citizens of Nigeria with the government referring to such incidents as “persistent complaints and reports” concerning human rights violations. All whilst the Nigerian people were forced to live in fear and trepidation.

Protests seeking further investigations into the activities of members of SARS started in 2017, sparked by the increase in the death toll at the hands of SARS officials. These officials frequently targeted young men with tattoos, dreadlocks, expensive cars or phones, and subjected them to extortion, inhumane treatment and on some occasions, death. Unfortunately, the only action taken was a small “reform” which was essentially renaming and decentralizing the department. However, there remained no avenue for perpetrators to face the consequences of their actions or to be held accountable for crimes they committed. As expected, even after the renaming and decentralization of this unit, the crimes continued in different regions by several other officers and by October 2020, Nigerian youths who had been repeated victims of these crimes, stood up and said that enough was enough! They were tired of the crimes being perpetrated by the very same people who were meant to protect them. Over ten thousand Nigerians signed a petition calling for the unit’s disbandment, citing various abuses against the Nigerian people and submitted it to the National Assembly. Although efforts were made by the National Assembly, the National Human Rights Commission, the Police Chief, and even the Vice President, unfortunately not much changed.    

© Photo by Pius Utomi Ekpei via Getty Images

BREACH OF HUMAN RIGHT LAWS

The 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended) is the supreme law of all laws in Nigeria. The Constitution governs the activities of Nigerian citizens and those residing in Nigeria. Chapter IV, which contains Sections 33-44, details the fundamental rights of individuals in Nigeria whilst section 46(1) provides that in the event of the violation of these rights, the victim may seek redress in a Court of Law. Yet despite this, members of SARS have consistently and continually acted outside the bounds of the law. Sections 34-36 provide for the right to dignity of human person, to personal liberty and to a fair hearing, all of which were blatantly disregarded in the following scenarios.

On 3 October 2020, footage emerged on social media of alleged SARS officers shooting a young Nigerian and driving off in his car. This sparked a nationwide movement which in turn became a global phenomenon. On the same day, in Nigeria, operatives of SARS allegedly shot a young man at Wetland Hotel in Ughelli, injuring him. This incident was filmed and went viral, sparking an outcry on social media against SARS, with users using the #EndSARS hashtag. Acts of excessive force by SARS and its affiliates resulted in over two dozen reported fatalities during October, most of which occurred in Lagos on 20 October when Nigerian armed forces fired live ammunition at demonstrators.

In November 2020, Imoleayo Michael was taken from his home in Abuja at gunpoint in the middle of the night, two weeks after attending a protest calling for an end to SARS. While Imoleayo’s house was illegally searched, officers locked his wife, elderly mother and seven-month-old son in a room and disconnected the power supply to surrounding street lights. He was taken from his family and detained at the State Security Headquarters where he was cuffed, blindfolded and chained to a steel cabinet for 41 days whilst being interrogated (bearing in mind that Section 35 of the constitution states that a person may be detained for no longer then forty-eight (48) hours).  During his detention, he was forced to sleep on the bare floor and suffered pneumonia as a result. His only crime was speaking out for his rights.

By 7 October 2020, nationwide protests led by young Nigerians had started in several cities. Despite the protests being peaceful, the Nigerian Police Force began throwing teargas at, and shooting, unarmed protesters. On 20 October 2020, it was alleged that members of the armed forces fired live rounds on protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos State. These actions resulted in serious injuries and even the death of some protesters. The major demands of the protesters were; accountability from elected leaders and an end to common practices of graft and bribery; immediate release of all arrested protesters; justice for those killed by SARS officials and compensation for their families; the disbanding of the  unit due to continued extrajudicial executions and extortion by SARS (and their  long record of abuses); an independent body to investigate and prosecute police misconduct within 10 days of a claim; independent psychological evaluation of disbanded SARS officers before redeployment; and increased salaries for the Police as adequate compensation for protecting the lives and property of Nigerian citizens. Thus, the protesters were simply seeking an accountable governing body which adheres to the law and upholds the principles of dignity, respect and civil liberties. One would assume this to be the minimum requirements for a police unit, especially one set up to protect the citizens of a nation from violent crimes.

© Photo by Pius Utomi Ekpei via Getty Images

WHAT ACTION HAS BEEN TAKEN?

Although the  government pledged to reform, disband and/or investigate the SARS, this was not a novel solution as there had previously been a Senate investigation in 2017, a subsequent overhaul and another investigation in 2018, all of which failed to result in any positive change. The SARS   unit was said to have been disbanded again on October 11, 2020, with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari calling this decision “the first step in our commitment to extensive police reform.” The government has also commissioned panels of inquiry into police brutality, however, this response did not mollify protesters. Especially since it was said that SARS officers would be redeployed elsewhere in Nigeria’s police system. The people demanded that the officers be fired and that the most brutal be prosecuted, stating that the government’s response was an attempt to paper over a problem, not fix it. While President Buhari is Nigeria’s democratically elected civilian president, he is widely remembered for his tenure as the country’s military ruler in the 1980’s, when he showed a penchant for meting out humiliating discipline. As such, his pronouncements about listening to the demands of the protesters have been perceived as insincere by many Nigerians who worry about his authoritarian tendencies.

While Nigerians are still highly uncomfortable with the newly established Police unit, the Nigerian Police Force through its Public Relations Officer, DCP Frank Mba announced five facts about the newly deployed SWAT unit:

  • No personnel of the defunct SARS will be selected to be part of the tactical team;
  • Operations of the new tactical team will be strictly intelligence-driven;
  • Members of the new tactical team will by no means embark on routine patrols;
  • Members of the new tactical team are barred from indiscriminate and unlawful search of phones, laptops, and other smart devices;
  • Operatives of the new tactical team must be free of any pending disciplinary matters, especially those concerning  misuse of firearms and abuse of human rights.

 The mandate of the new tactical team is as follows:

  • Response to robbery attacks;
  • Response to weapon-related crimes;
  • Rescue operations;
  • Special operations involving high-profile criminals.

Due to what the Nigerian people have seen and experienced, they are of the opinion that the establishment of this new unit does not mark any significant progress. Rather, they believe that the government is taking its citizens for granted and that the police force is playing on the intelligence of the people. Thus, the view of the people remains heavily influenced by a past record of being untruthful and unreliable in the face of critical issues.

The inquiry panel set up by the government submitted a report upon conclusion of their investigations. The report, which was subsequently leaked, stated that the Nigerian armed forces had shot and killed numerous anti-police brutality protesters in October 2020. Furthermore, it noted that there were 48 casualties as a result of the army opening fire on demonstrators. The panel also found that after the army retreated, police officers continued with the violence and then tried to clean up the scene by taking bodies away on trucks and removing bullets. The Nigerian Army has consistently denied shooting live rounds at protesters on the Lekki toll gate on 20 October 2020. 

Though no further steps were taken following the submission of the Panel report into the specific incidents it addressed, an announcement was made by the then Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu on 13 October 2020. Aduma and the police authorities had decided to establish a new unit called the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) to replace the defunct SARS. Following the establishment of SWAT, 1,850 police officers were sent on training and later deployed to various police formations.  As previously mentioned, it was stated that operatives of the now defunct SARS would not be allowed to join the newly created SWAT unit, a statement which the Nigerian people believe to be false particularly in light of the government’s lack of political will to address the unlawful imprisonment, extortion, and extrajudicial killings already proved by the Panel.

The Nigerian government has failed to bring perpetrators to justice despite promises of police reform and thus, this has emboldened  other units of the Police force to continue to act with impunity. Additionally, the absence of response to public outcry over police brutality and excessive force against protesters has unfortunately widened the growing distrust between Nigeria’s young population and the government. The government has disbanded the SARS multiple times within the last five years — first in 2014, then in 2015, and again in 2017. Its latest announcement on 11 October 2020, that the police unit had been again disbanded has been met with scepticism.

Nevertheless, on 22 October 2020, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari confirmed, in a publicly-aired address, that SARS had been dismantled and he even accused some members of SARS of committing “acts of excessive force” when the unit was operational. As a result, plans were put in place to prosecute some former SARS members for extortion, rape, and murder. Though, it remains to be seen whether the new panels of inquiry set up by the government will result in police reform, and whether this will help the government regain the trust of its young citizens. At this stage it remains uncertain, as since the announcement, authorities in the country have continued to intimidate and harass protest organizers. Overall, there has been little activity since the end of October.

Conclusion

Nigeria, the most populous black nation, is home to the second largest film industry on the globe whilst also being the fashion, technological and creative hub in Africa. The Nigerian people are  blessed with vibrancy, a friendly energy, grit and determination. It is highly unfortunate, however, that over the years these people have been consistently abused, assaulted and taken for granted by the government. All the Nigerian people have asked for is personal and job security, sustainable development, utilities (light and water etc.) and a reliable education system, i.e., the basic amenities that all people deserve. All the people want is a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.   

So far, no one has been held accountable for the numerous crimes perpetrated by members of the now disbanded SARS unit, not to mention that there have been reports of continued abuse by members of the Nigerian Police Force. However, it remains unclear as to whether these abuses are also being perpetrated by members of the new tactical team. Some protesters who were arrested during the protests have been in custody since then, despite petitions to have them released. Given the current state of affairs, there are multiple ongoing efforts by several national and international organisations to remedy the situation on the ground. Though ultimately, the Nigerian people are left asking key questions, such as, what happens to us? Where do we go from here? Are we to move on as though nothing happened and simply forget? What happens to the justice owed to families that have lost their loved ones over the years and to the citizens as a whole?


Princess Odey, is a lawyer, writer and podcaster from Nigeria. Princess is a graduate of the Nigerian Law School. She is passionate about making impact, empowerment, social justice, community engagement, volunteering and social development. She has served as a Project Support Staff at ACE Charity, Litigation Department Attaché at the National Industrial Court of Abuja and as an intern at the Festus Keyamo Chambers in Abuja.


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