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The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) now known as the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT) unit of the Nigeria Police Force is one of the 14 units under the Force Criminal Investigation Department (FCID). The unit is charged with the prevention and investigation of armed robbery, one of the most serious crimes committed on Nigerian soil. While most Nigerians, including many policemen, cannot identify any of the other 13 sections under the FCID, the acronym SARS is known countrywide. Frequently dressed in plain clothes, the operatives of SARS have proven to be the most unruly and brutal unit in any security service in the country – and that is putting it mildly.
The Inspector-General of Police, IGP Mohammed Adamu recently set up the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team to take over from the disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police Force.
This new unit created by the Inspector General of Police has been paraded as a guile move to pacify the public while putting former SARS officers into the new outfit with the same terrible behaviour and ill-mannered approach to the dispensation of justice.
These former SARS officers are known as shabbily dressed, AK47-bearing men on the street or sometimes in a seized public taxi buses who are mistaken sometimes for Armed robbers. Similar not only in appearance, but these former officers of the SARS force are also sometimes a greater evil on the roads than roving armed robbers. Armed robbers may stick to dispossessing a person of any luxury that catches their fancy before making a quick escape. On the other hand, SARS officers concentrate on dehumanising and humiliating people into submission through threats and violence before extorting them.
Little wonder that sordid tales of unguarded or misguided brutality and summary executions by men of SARS now litter social media in an on-going campaign calling for the folding up of the notorious unit. The calls have led the Senate to open an investigation into the nature and activities of the unit. Nigerians seem to have had enough of the unbridled terror and the atmosphere of fear and resentment that SARS creates. Protests have also been organised in multiple states to urge the government to scrap the unit.
It is often said that the men picked for SARS are hardened men who match the capacity for violence of desperate armed robbers. To let such men lose on the streets is not only irresponsible on the part of the police hierarchy, but it also shows a disregard for people’s dignity at the highest levels.
The former SARS officers routinely mounted road checks at will, preying on young men and women, with no identifiable agenda other than to extort. Worse than being openly humiliated, sometimes in full view of one’s family and children, people have been indiscriminately arrested by the unit. Many have been ‘arrested’ by SARS in circumstances closer to abduction, and are never heard of again. If they are not killed in transit, they are taken to cramped holding cells where they are tortured and most likely killed, especially if there are no witnesses to their ‘abduction’.
Each and every SARS facility in any state is dreaded. The SARS headquarters in Abuja, known as the ‘abattoir’, is one of these. Apparently sited on what used to be an actual abattoir, the place has kept with the spirit and letter of that name through the deadly excesses of the men of SARS there. Close neighbours report gunshots in the dead of night, as in most other SARS bases, like Akwuzu SARS in Anambra and many others.
The arrest in Kaduna of one of the top campaigners calling for the end of SARS just last week struck fear into his colleagues, friends and family who took to social media to create awareness about his arrest. He was eventually released, probably because of the quick attention drawn to his plight. Nobody wants to think of what would have become of him, had no one been aware, after he was chained by the hands and feet, and bundled to the abattoir in Abuja.
In many instances, these former SARS officers display an unmistakeable ignorance of their duty. They hound smartly dressed young men, in good cars or even on foot and invade their phones and personal gadgets. Some of these former SARS officers even go as far as breaking into people’s homes and places of abode to arrest ‘rob’ individuals who they suspect to be armed robbers or fraudulent individuals. People that have identified themselves with ID cards have had them broken and dismissed as fake without even a cursory investigation. Every young man is a ‘yahoo boy’ and young woman a prostitute, by the SARS playbook. The men are stripped of their cash or taken to ATM points to drain their accounts, while unfortunate women are raped. Some officers of the SARS unit have also been used to settle personal scores between two disputing individuals and they are mostly used by politicians and influential people in the society to torment and intimidate other lower people. The efficacy of this strategy is ensured by their indiscipline and propensity for violence.
The stories are sickening, not only by the horrors described but by the sheer number of stories. By the accounts, without any research, it seems that one in every three Nigerian has been humiliated and extorted by men of SARS or knows someone who has been so shabbily treated. Their impunity is based on an assumption that they have a license to kill and inflict unreserved brutality and they say as much. Where do they get this idea from?
And to make matters worse, the Police force, the Police Service Commission and the Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Adamu Mohammed have all put in joint efforts to thwart any measure to totally disband and quash the unit. This is because these SARS officers operate in a very organised form whereby the proceeds of their daily extortion go their supervisors or Superintendents who in turn pay royalties to the Inspector General of Police. It has also been revealed that these SARS Superintendents give out daily and weekly quotas of renumerations that should be submitted by their field agents.
This is why in the midst of all the uproar, the Commissioner of Police and his other colleagues have denied these claims in a farcical response. Frank Mba, the Police Force’s Public Relations Officer was on TV recently pointing fingers and accusing the campaigners of the END SARS movement of political motivation while denying the excesses of the SARS officers.
This is despite the fact that there have been numerous reports about the excesses of these SARS officers. Amnesty International even released a report on the SARS unit three years ago, detailing many of these same claims. A lot of books, reports, articles and editorials have been written on SARS and police excesses by some of the voices now calling for action, movies and short films have even been made to warn the general public on the SARS menace and expose their Modus Operandi.
To claim that the horror stories and reports of the actions of these former SARS officers are untrue is insulting. The reorganisation of the unit now announced by the present Inspector General of Police has been tried before, most recently in 2015 all to no avail. Veteran police officers often claim that the disposition of the public towards policemen usually leads to some of these cases. The truth is that there was no excuse for the way the former SARS officers resorted to questionable activities when dealing with the public. What level of defiance from a member of the public can justify taking him/her to the ATM point to clear his account? The fact is that these SARS officials have no moral or professional compass and the public is sick of their rudderless menace.
Changing the name of the brutal outfit from SARS to SWAT is just just like changing the name of a vicious, blood-loving dog from Bingo to Scorpion. The intent for violence is still in place, the motives are still inherent among the officers. The name SWAT, which is short for Special Weapons and Tactics is a borrowed name for a special police unit in the United States. SWAT officers in the US undergo special training, thorough medical and mental evaluation to counter to counter public disturbances and acts of terrorism or violence in the United States. They are made up of specially selected officers who have excelled in one way or the other in their duties. The SWAT officers of the United States and the newly reformed SARS/SWAT officers of the Nigerian Police force are completely incomparable. The Inspector-General of Police and the Nigerian Government need to put in more strict reforms and evaluations to uphold the legibility of the SWAT structure. Failure to do this might result in another protest time bomb.
AFRICA DAILY NEWS, NEW YORK