By Cheta Nwanze
With the latest round of protest to #EndSARS, Nigerians need to know the origin of the rogue unit that has served to terrorise a large section of the populace, especially young people.
The Nigerian Police has a history of extrajudicial murders. One of the most notorious was on September 6, 1992, when an Army Colonel, Israel Ridnam, was at a traffic jam caused by a police checkpoint in Lagos. Col. Rindam got out of his car to ascertain what the problem was, and was promptly shot to death by the policemen who had set up the checkpoint. He was in mufti, but his beret was on the dashboard of his car, so upon realising that they had killed a soldier, the murderous policemen took to their heels.
Col. Rindam’s murder was one in a series of murders by police officers. On May 15, 1991, Dr. Nwogu Okere, a general manager at Klinstine Limited, a building contractor, was killed by policemen who trailed him to a petrol station in Gbagada, Lagos. On May 27, 1991, Andy Esiri, Kayode Oladimeji, and U.S.-based athlete, Ndubuisi “Dele” Ojo were killed when policemen opened fire on them at a checkpoint while they were travelling in Esiri’s car. Ganiyu Yekini, a danfo driver, was shot dead by a policeman at a checkpoint over a ₦10 bribe in February 1992. A 52-year old widow, Fidelia Oguonu, was murdered by a police constable at a checkpoint at Oba Junction, Anambra State on September 20, 1992. The difference between Esiri, Oguonu, Ojo, Oladimeji and many others on the one hand, and Rindam on the other, was that Rindam had men with guns who could respond on his behalf, and respond they did.
In retaliation for Rindam’s murder, soldiers took to the streets of Lagos searching out and shooting any policeman they could find. So the police abandoned the streets and hid in their barracks.
Remember that this was 1992; cash machines were a decade in the future, so most people still moved around with huge sums of cash, giving the robbers a vacuum that they could exploit, and exploit it they did. Robbers had a field day in Lagos, operating with impunity.
It took two weeks of talks led by Col. Fred Chijuka on the one hand, and Aliyu Attah, the inspector general of Police on the other, before the military and police authorities succeeded in convincing the soldier to return to barracks and for the Police to come back to the roads. By that time, it was too late. Armed robbers were in control in Lagos and the likes of Shina Rambo could not easily be dislodged.
So in response, IGP Attah looked to a Superintendent of Police called Simeon Danladi Midenda, who was at the time in charge of the Anti-Robbery Unit in Benin, Edo State. Midenda had a reputation as an effective crime fighter, and had kept robbers out of Benin since the Anini affair of a few years before. Midenda arrived in Lagos, and met three different groups, the Alagbon Close CID, Panti Street CID, and Zone 2 Command tasked with fighting robbery, and who were, in his opinion, doing a poor job of it. His solution was to take the best of them and create the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
An important question to ask is what these squads were really doing prior to Midenda’s arrival, and why they were not streamlined, rather than a new squad being created.
It boils down to something that has been a constant in Nigeria’s history, and not just the Police. Rather than trying to understand, and then solve the problem, we create a new problem. It is important to state that the blame does not rest with the Police alone. Successive military governments viewed the Police as a rival that needs to be tamed, hence the low investment and subsequent neglect. This continued even under civilian rule.
From past experience, and from the data, it is clear to me that the Police and the ruling elite would resist every attempt to disband SARS. This is for the ostensible reason that armed robbery would rise if anti-robbery policemen are taken off the streets. To concede the point, yes, armed robbery would rise, it has happened twice before after SARS were taken off the streets. But anecdotal evidence indicates that the robberies would not be carried out by “genuine” armed robbers, but by policemen themselves. In June this year, SARS operatives from the Delta State police command killed seven police officers in a robbery attack in Ughelli North. The dead officers were said to be from the Bayelsa State Police command’s SARS unit. When I was robbed in Ojodu, Lagos, nine years ago now, the guns carried by the robbers had police colours. You can make of these what you will.
This is why any talk of ending SARS should not stop with just SARS alone. Any talk of reform must include state and community policing that seeks to make policemen accountable to the people they are employed to protect. But crucially, the entire Nigerian security architecture needs rebuilding.
The data says a lot. 1007 civilian victims were reportedly killed by police officers in Nigeria last year. Of the 1007, 142 died from “accidental discharge”, an indication that training in the use of firearms is grossly inadequate; 29 were students, pointing to untold human rights abuses not just from SARS alone; the number of robbers and kidnappers extrajudicially killed stood at 710; cultists killed were 61; ordinary civilians, 47.
For a police force consistently ranked among the worst in the world, SARS is just the tick in the large cow. The major reason why this menace has persisted for years, even after the decline of the dreaded “Mopol”, is the thriving nature of the patronage networks the country’s political elites have put in place by commission, deliberately wrecking the economy, and divestment from the Police force in order to keep them subservient to pecuniary interests.
All talk of scrapping SARS is likely to fall on deaf ears on account of the fact that senior officers and the leadership cadre of the NPF get remittances from the junior officers who go out on the street to “hunt”. The target may have been “Yahoo Boys” (which is even a deviation from its original purpose of chasing after armed robbers, not necessarily internet fraudsters), but insatiable hunger and the money to be made have encouraged them to widen the net to just any young man on the road.
Cheta Nwanze is lead partner at SBM Intelligence.