By Omeiza Ajayi & Ndahi Marama
Like the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome SARS – a contagious and sometimes fatal respiratory illness caused by a coronavirus (today we have the deadlier SARS-COV2)- Nigeria’s now disbanded rogue police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad SARS was a deadly virus which grew into a Frankenstein Monster, often leaving in its trail, a tale of tears and blood.
For SARS -both the virus and the operatives- it was a tale of torture and bloodletting in areas where they had become a ‘pandemic’.
When armed robbers graduated into bandits and kidnappers, rather than go after them, SARS found it more convenient to go after ‘Yahoo Boys’ and other ‘flashy’ Nigerian youths in the guise of fighting cyber crimes – an area largely within the remit of the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission EFCC.
SARS had become a metaphor for everything that was wrong with Nigeria and so it was not surprising that the agitation to disband the unit and try the officers soon became almost a national concern.
For the most part, it would appear that there were two different Standard Operating Procedures SOP for SARS – one for the North and the other for the South.
While it was complaints galore in the South about the activities of the unit, it was a pat on the back for their operations in some parts of the North where some states have continued to hail their exploits in the face of attacks by deadly insurgents.
Okechukwu Nwanguma, Executive Director, Rule of Law And Accountability Advocacy Centre RULAAC had recently documented numerous atrocities of SARS under successive Inspectors General of Police who appeared to be helpless in addressing them until the recent mass protests elicited the rare decisive actions which led to the disbandment of the unit.
While he described the SARS office in Awkuzu, AnambraState as outstandingly notorious and occupying the zenith in the hall of infamy, that of the Lagos state Police Command was described as a “human abattoir”.
On one occasion in early 2015, a 46-year-old man was arrested and detained in SARS, Ikeja, Lagos, after he was accused of robbery.
“The IPO insisted that the only way to release the man from custody was for him to sleep with the wife of the suspect and her 17-year-old daughter, who were coming for his bail. The ladies resisted for a while but after two months and increasingly looking like their bread winner was going to die in custody, they buckled and gave in to the demand of the SARS officer. To cut the story short, the SARS officer raped the wife and daughter of the man in his custody and shortly after still executed the suspect”, Nwanguma had narrated.
But, for SARS, it is different strokes for different folks. While there is almost an unanimity of opinions on the atrocities of the defunct unit, Borno State, and perhaps many s others in the North have expressed their preferences for retaining the unit.
For instance, Borno, a state which has suffered devastating attacks from Boko Haram Terrorists, did not waste time in identifying with SARS and condemning the disbandment of the unit.
First to condemn the disbandment of SARS were some Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) in the state, the State Governor, Professor Babagana Zulum and the Borno State House of Assembly (BOSHA) which equally presented an award to the SARs Commander in the State.
Since then, the state has not witnessed any #EndSARSprotest. In fact, on 13th October 2020, hundreds of pro-SARS protesters embarked on a peaceful march in Maiduguri, urging government to reverse its decision despite the joy expressed by many Nigerians down south over the disbandment. Plateau State Governor, speaking on behalf of northern governors was also to commend the work of SARS in the north. And truly, there were few cases of SARS brutality in the north.
The protesters who stormed the Government House, Maiduguri comprised mostly of youths, some Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) and trade unions.
Chairman of a coalition of CSOs in Borno, Ahmed Shehu, said though they were not happy with happenings in other parts of the country, “the SARS operatives have contributed immensely to the fight against terrorism.” The protesters who carried placards and banners said “We want SARS for peace to reign in Borno.”
Addressing the protesters, Gov. Zulum who was represented by his Deputy, Umar Usman Kadafurenjoined them not to take the laws into their hands, as he would convey their grievances and requests to appropriate authorities.
On that same day, Gov. Zulum specifically called on the federal government, especially the Inspector General of Police IGP, Mohammed Adamu to kindly redeploy the disbanded members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad SARS to Borno State to complement the efforts of the military in the fight against Boko Haram.
Zulum made the call when he received the Minister of Interior, Ogbeni Rauf Argebesola who led a delegation to the state including his counterparts from the Police Affairs and Defence ministries.
“We are not in support of brutality by any security outfit, but to be sincere, here in Borno State the efforts of SARS operatives in the counter insurgency operations need not be overemphasized”, Zulum stated.
On its part, the Borno State House of Assembly BOSHA on Thursday 15th October presented an award to a former Commander of the defunct unit in the state, CSP Ibrahim Mohammed for displaying gallantry in the fight against Boko Haram, banditry, kidnapping and other crimes in the state.
Presenting the award at plenary, the Deputy Speaker, Abdullahi Askira who presided over the ceremony said the honour became necessary in view of the tremendous contributions CSP Mohammed and his team had made towards fighting insurgency in the state.
The Deputy speaker said, it has never been in the history of the assembly to present an award to any security personnel, but the show of bravery and selfless service by CSP Mohammed warranted his invitation to the hallowed chambers to recieve the award in the presence of lawmakers, friends and associates.
“During his time as Commander, CSP Mohammed performed wonderfully well which led to the dislodgement of unspecified number of Boko Haram terrorists with seizure of arms and ammunitions, and freed many hostages in Borno”, the House stated in his citation.
The encomiums showered on the SARS commander in Borno is not out of place. In life and in every 12, there is usually one Judas. However, in every 12 SARS, it would appear that there were 11 Judases, with only people like Mohammed standing out. While it is trite law that there is presumption of innocence during trials, the outrage against the defunct SARS operatives points to a presumption of guilt, an indication of the extent of damage the operatives had done to many Nigerians. The time to put them on trial is now!