During its formation, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was known to operate covertly; they were not allowed to be in police uniform, publicly carry guns or have walkie-talkies. They were given unmarked vehicles with no license plates sometimes or private plate numbers during duty to enable them to fight the crime the squad was established for effectively. With time however, the squad somehow became synonymous with gross violations of human rights highlighted by torture, extra-judicial killings, and other forms of illtreatment. ISIOMA MADIKE, in this report, tells the stories of some of those brutalised, which fueled the camping for its ban in recent time.
Seun, a furniture maker had an encounter with the operatives of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a few years back. He was a little over 30 years of age at the time. He was arrested and detained by SARS officers at Adigboloja Police Station in Ojodu, Ogun State, in what initially looked like a mistaken identity.
Seun said: “We were arrested between 7pm and 8pm on the fateful day while standing beside the main gate of our building. I was with the landlord’s son at the time and when I enquired to know our offence, they threatened to shoot me and started beating us. At that time we didn’t know they were police officers because they were in mufti. “They dragged and kicked us like common criminals.
Not even the intervention of the landlord could appease them, though at that point, they formally introduced themselves as police officers from the SARS unit. We were locked up in their cell for a week, tortured and hardly given any food.
The one week in that cell can only be described as hell. “Later, we were charged to a magistrate court in Ogun State with possession of Indian hemp. We pleaded innocent and told the court that it could have been a case of mistaken identity since we had never had any dealings with Indian hemp either as smokers or sellers. It took the special grace of God for us to get off their hook. It was one horrible experience I’d not forget in a hurry.”
Seun’s case is not an isolated one. Another young man, who identified himself simply as Deji with a twitter handle, @Dejixing2, has also narrated what he called his nasty experience in the hands of SARS officers.
He was picked up on October 4, at Egbeda, on the outskirts of Lagos, and driven to Dugbe SARS Station in Ibadan, the Oyo State capital. He described the encounter as a “day I’d never forget.” It all started one Monday morning, according to him, when five SARS officials stormed his office with one Olumide, whom he knew as a brother.
“They started questioning me if I knew Olumide and I answered yes. They were not in uniform at the time. One of them asked me when last did I see Olumide, and I told them like three weeks ago. I asked them what the whole interrogation was about. Another said he wanted to buy a phone, 1 phone 8 plus, I told him I don’t sell phones. Mind you I’m a mobile software engineer.
“He said I sold a phone (teckno cx) to Olumide three weeks ago. I said yes, I needed some money for my house rent, as at three weeks ago I had to sell my personal phone to Olumide so I could sort out my house rent issue. They then proceeded to ask where I got the phone from.
I told them I bought it at the GSM Village, Olugbede Market. “I opened my drawer and brought out the receipt of the phone as proof of ownership. One of them asked me to take them to the place I bought it.
I said no problem; I took them, six of them, five SARS officers and Olumide, to where I bought the phone. I pointed to Usman, the person that sold the phone to me. He didn’t deny selling the phone.
My mind was at rest hoping that I’m out of whatever trouble it is. But I was wrong. “The next thing they said was that the phone was a stolen one and that they had been tracking it for about four months. I was already shivering.
Then I thought since I bought the phone and showed my receipt and where I bought it that I don’t have any problem. One innocent customer came to Usman’s shop at that moment to buy something and he didn’t know they were SARS.
He was chased out and the guy was annoyed for the embarrassment. “The next thing the SARS officers started beating him. Their team leader brought out his pistol and asked that the customer be chained. At that point, the whole market gathered but no one could ask what was going on.
We were handcuffed too, me, Olumide, and Usman. They took Usman’s phones that he was selling, about 52 phones, both new and UK used. “The shop was being shared by two people, the other occupant was a woman; she was pregnant. So, they wanted to empty her show glass too and she was claiming that those were not Usman’s phones. Their team leader gave the pregnant woman a stinging slap.
Then the Igbo traders intervened and explained that her wares were different from those of Usman’s. “After that we proceeded on our journey, even though I didn’t know where they were taking us to.
I was terrified seeing the brutality they had been displaying. They kept driving, discussing and laughing. The driver was playing Pasuma’s music. Eventually they asked us to come down.
Then I silently asked Olumide if he knew where we were. He said Ibadan. And I said, ahh, I don die, nobody knew where I was, not my mum, not any of my family members. They marched us to their OC office and the man started asking us questions one by one; our names, states and how the phone got to our hands.
“Olumide said he knew me very well and that he bought the phone from me. I also told them I bought the same phone from Usman with a receipt. The OC asked me where I got the receipt. I told them it’s from Usman.
That he issued it when I bought it. The OC said they should go and lock us up. “That cell has a small passage, everywhere was full, no space. We were about 60 to 70 people. Even the passage was full; there was just one big OX fan at the entrance of the passage before entering the cell gate.
The cell has marshal, governor and OC torture in it. We sha chop slaps and they searched us, and collected N1,500 from me. “The IPO later came to meet me and Usman and started asking us where we are from and so on.
I told him I am from Kogi State. He asked which part I told him that it’s Ebira; naso the man said all Ebira are criminals and that he would make sure I rot in jail.
He was so serious as if it was something personal. He asked Usman and he said Hausa but his mum is from Kogi too from the Igala stock. Fortunately for Usman, the IPO too is an Igala man. The same Kogi o! When my mum came the next day, they collected N200,000 from her for my release.” Also, in a new report, “Time to End Impunity”, Amnesty International documents at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May this year.
The victims of the police unit, according to the report, are predominantly male between the ages of 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups. One of such victims was 23-yearold Miracle, who was arrested and detained in Neni, Anambra State. He was accused of the theft of a laptop, tortured and scantly fed during the 40 days he was in detention before he was charged and brought before a court.
Miracle had told AI: “…their leader directed them to go and hang me. They took me to the back of the hall and tied me with ropes. Then they started using all manner of items to beat me, including machetes, sticks, inflicting me with all kinds of injuries. One of the officers used an exhaust pipe to hit me on my teeth, breaking my teeth. I was left on that hanger for more than three hours…”
But the one that assaulted the sensibility of Nigerians was the recent graphic footage, which showed SARS officers dragging two men from a hotel in Lagos, and shooting one of them in the street.
The gory incident spontaneously ignited mass fury across the country and fuelled long-standing calls for the disbandment of the squad. In the disturbing footage taken by visitors at the hotel and posted on social media, armed officers of the SARS were seen dragging two limp bodies from the hotel compound into the street before one of the men was shot.
The video sparked a deluge of footages and stories posted on social media alleging recent atrocities and brutality by the notorious police unit, often accused of rampant abuses. The unit, spread around the country, often operates in plainclothes, brandishing heavy weapons and setting up roadblocks for indiscriminate searches, fuelling widespread anger that they are frequently indistinguishable from armed criminals.
In one of the videos posted on Twitter, onlookers accused a squad of SARS officers of shooting a motorist and dumping him on the roadside. They filmed the incident before the officers’ sped away from the scene with the victim’s vehicle.
In another one, a man standing against a parked bus seemingly unarmed was allegedly gunned down by SARS officers. But, the latest shooting of a young man in Delta State, allegedly by men of the SARS, according to an online news portal, Whirlwindnews.com, seemed to have shot the final arrow into the hearts of police authorities in Abuja and forced them to move against the special outfit, to contain the level of casualties recorded in their name.
The SARS men were said to have mowed down the young man in Sapele, Ughelli North Local Government Area of Delta State and made away with his Lexus Jeep, a development, which caused a lot of uproar in the media.
This happened a few days after the controversial death of one Ifeoma Abugu in the hands of the outfit. SARS operatives had allegedly arrested her in lieu of her lover in Abuja, and subjected her to physical and sexual abuse. Indeed, torture and ill treatment remain routine practice during SARS’ daily operations, and at its detention centres.
These had angered several public figures and celebrities, including stars like Wizkid and Davido, to condemn these brutalities. Many other prominent Nigerians have joined the campaign to “End SARS”.
In what looked like a direct response to the campaign, the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, banned SARS and other “tactical” police units focused on armed crimes from stop and search, setting up roadblocks and ordered that henceforth, such officers would always be uniformed.
The Lagos State governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, also promised that “appropriate actions would be taken, and speedily too”. Meanwhile, the Force Public Relations Officer, Deputy Commissioner of Police, Frank Mba, has said that SARS cannot be scrapped because of its potency in combating criminality and deadly criminal gangs in the country. Mba however, said that the Police headquarters is currently reforming the operations of the squad nationwide to curtail their excesses.
Speaking during an Instagram Live Chat with Nigerian artiste, Azeez Fashola, aka Naira Marley, on Tuesday morning, Mba advised Nigerians to take video recordings of SARS operatives, who abuse their fundamental human rights “as long as it is safe to do so.”
However, a former Director of State Security Service (SSS), Mike Ejiofor, has also lent his voice on the issue in an interview with Saturday Telegraph. Ejiofor argued that it would be unwise to disband SARS because, according to him, the police authorities would not easily find a replacement for the squad.
“Or, do we let the criminals have a field day?” He asked. He added: “You can’t disband the squad, what you need to do is to reform it to curb their excesses and I think the IGP has come up with directives, he has given specific directives. The Commissioner of Police, Lagos, has also come out with some solutions.
“This is not the first time we are hearing of SARS’ misusing their mandate, what we need to do is enforcement of these directives, it’s not a question of directives and it’s not implemented because this is not the first time we are also hearing of such directives and they have continued to abuse the rights of the citizens they are supposed to protect. So, what I believe is that there should be further reforms of the activities of SARS.”
Solomon Arase, former IGP has also said that it would be a waste of time to ban SARS. Arase reportedly said that the ban on the SARS and a host of other police tactical units allegedly involved in various forms of police brutality would not curb such excesses of the police. In a chat with Vanguard, the ex-police boss advised both the Federal Government and the Nigeria Police to go to the source of the problem and tackle it by disbanding outright all forms of roadblocks in the country’s highways.
He advised that vehicles should be acquired to be used for routine patrols of such highways. He also wondered how Adamu’s directive would be implemented: “Now the IGP has issued the order, what is the implementation strategy of the order? Are you going to send people on monitoring units to make sure that they are cleared from the highways? What should happen is to just dismantle the roadblocks.”
Warning on likely increase of roadblocks, particularly in the southern part of the country, Arase said: “You will see what will happen between November and December on the highways, especially in the South-South, the roadblocks will increase and it is difficult to keep a policeman on the highway for hours at a stretch without food and water. He becomes agitated and his anger management will become very low.
“The solution is for you to remove those roadblocks and you will get the whole issue solved. If you ban SARS, have you banned policemen from the roadblocks? SARS is just a component of the people who block the highways. So, if you ban SARS, what about the others, or are there not going to be policemen on the highways? There will still be trouble between the policeman on the road and members of the public, and once you have a roadblock, there must be arguments between civilians and policemen.
“The best solution is to just remove those roadblocks and let the Federal Government buy more vehicles, put it on the highways and let them patrol the roads, give the operatives launch parks and water and you will see the outcome.”
For Amnesty International, the Nigerian authorities have failed to prosecute a single officer in the notorious SARS, despite anti-torture legislation passed in 2017, and evidence that its members have continued to use torture and other ill-treatments to execute, punish and extract information from suspects.
“The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or to bring any SARS officer to justice is shocking and unacceptable.
Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity,” said Osai Ojigho, Director of Amnesty International Nigeria. She added: “The systemic use of torture and other ill treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.”