Reforming the Police and the Danger of a Cosmetic SARS Overhaul

The Nigeria Police Force (NPF) is by Law, under the Police Act, saddled with the responsibility of maintaining law and order as well as protecting lives and property, among other duties. Judging however by the litany of complaints about the conduct of police officers in the last two years for instance, there is probable reason to doubt that the Police as is presently constituted has the required capacity or commitment to carry out such lofty duties as protecting members of the public.

The sins of the NPF are legion. Over time, officers of the Force have gone from demanding that petty sums be sneaked into folded palms to brazenly stopping vehicles for no other purpose but extorting the occupants of such vehicles. A unit of the Force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) has gained even more notoriety for wanton abuse of power, kidnapping, extortion, assault and other infractions including alleged rape and murder. In all this time however, the NPF has remained ineffectual in the prevention and investigation of crime.

While Nigerian citizens are generally not assured of effective police response when under attack, it is almost certain that they will be parting with varying sums of money when they endeavour to report the incident. We therefore have a Force that charges a certain amount to ‘open a file’, another sum to ‘mobilise to scene’, some other amount for ‘arrest’, and yet another sum to ‘investigate’. In essence, running to the police after suffering a theft merely opens the Nigerian citizen to another round of organised theft. If he manages to stick with the process out of an immense desire for justice, he is sure to pay even yet another sum at the unlikely conclusion of his matter for the police to also ‘close the file’.

There is a clear need for sanity in the operations of the police force as is presently constituted. It was thus a ray of hope when the news emerged that Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in the course of his brief stint as Acting President in August had officially reacted to the deluge of social media complaints about the nefarious activities of SARS. It was a golden opportunity to set things straight with that problematic unit of the Force whose activities have attained nearly terrorist proportions and while the presidential directive was to the extent permitted under the Police Act, the subsequent action of the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mr Ibrahim Idris, left much to be desired.

In supposed obedience to Osinbajo’s instruction to overhaul SARS, the IGP renamed the unit Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (F-SARS) and announced proposed changes in the operational model of the unit. What is however intriguing is that the IGP was making the supposed change in SARS nomenclature for the second time. He had initially announced a change of the name SARS to FSARS in December 2017 and similarly warned operatives of the unit to stay off civil matters. The December 2017 ‘overhaul’ also included the relocation of the control of SARS/FSARS from the Force Criminal Intelligence and Investigations Department (FCIID) to the Department of Operations at the Force Headquarters to be overseen by a Commissioner of Police. Other supposedly new measures like appointment of human rights officers and training of police officers in collaboration with civil society had also been introduced at various points in time before now. The question that therefore needs be asked is: why have all these measures failed?

The glaring truth is that the shenanigans identifiable with SARS are reflective of the general inefficiency pervasive in the Force in its entirety. All the measures highlighted above therefore amount to cosmetic adjustments that cannot stand the test of time. They can only be implemented in a convincing manner when there is a genuine overhaul, which must necessarily begin with symbolic actions like sacking the IGP and all 36 state commissioners of police to underscore the gravity of their inadequacies.

As Osinbajo noted in his statement, SARS has variously violated human right laws and one of the most emphatic ways to remedy such failure to uphold Nigeria’s commitment to international human rights treaties is by identifying the principal actors responsible for such human right violations and holding them accountable. Until SARS commanders are arrested across the country and prosecuted for violating people’s rights to liberty, human dignity and possession, the cycle of oppression that has gone on under their watch, will subsist. The further danger is that a culture of impunity will be encouraged and the violations of human rights to follow will be worse than previously experienced before the supposed SARS overhaul.

Other measures to reform the police need to include auditing the Force and re-training of all senior officers to be deployed to lead various commands. Such training must drive home the importance of upholding human rights and earning the respect of citizens without harassing them. The senior officers also need to account for funds allocated to their commands while improving human rights records should be included as one of the conditions for higher allocations.

As we go forward, we need to begin to explore the use of body and dashboard cameras. While the Force has not particularly been known to keep a reputation for maintaining cars and equipment allocated or donated, some sanction can be applied to ensure a turnaround in this regard.

In all, the government needs to see police reform as more than an occasional reaction to popular uprising but a necessary measure for improved standards of living which is integral to good governance. An agency of state saddled with the responsibility of maintaining peace and order as well as protecting lives and property cannot be allowed to routinely provoke, harass and assault citizens. A cosmetic overhaul cannot suffice as official response to allegations of murder, kidnapping, rape and other vices. People need to be brought to book deeper monitoring measures introduced. The results will not be achieved in a week but there is hope that consistent effort will prevent members of the Force from returning to practices that necessitated the reforms in the first place.

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Lawyer. Writer. Observer
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