SARS, police brutality and the uprising of the youths

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#EndSARS protesters across Nigeria are calling for an end to police brutality Lekki
#EndSARS protesters across Nigeria are calling for an end to police brutality

The Insight by Lateef Adewole

“The day people realise that if they are in large unified numbers, they can demand anything from their government, is the day the government is in big trouble, which is why they keep you divided”. – George Orwell

If there is anything that has made me so glad and proud in a long while, it is the “wokeness” (as they say on the street) of the youths in the past two weeks. Although, that was almost ruined with the attempted divisiveness introduced by people who were uncomfortable with the agitations but the resilience of the youths prevailed.

In times past, I have written articles, raising issues about the complacency of Nigerians, especially the youths, to their plights as citizens. The last one was on the occasion of the 2020 International Youth Day (IYD) titled; “Youth Development: Having the Wrong Focus”. It was published in the Sunday Independent Newspapers of 23rd of August, 2020 (backpage).

I always worried about what seemed like the youths of this country having given up already without even lifting a finger. Not that I was calling them to violence but to wake up and demand for their rights as Nigerians. So, you can imagine my elation when “like play like play”, the youths rose to the occasion to protest against a lingering issue that has plagued them and other Nigerians for a long time. I am referring to the brutality of a supposed “elite” unit of the Nigeria Police Force called SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad).

President Muhammadu Buhari PIB Girls sars
President Muhammadu Buhari

In the past five years, their case reached crescendo many times with the authorities always making promises to “handle” them but little or nothing was ever done. Whenever an incident of extra-judicial killing by them happened and became public (many happened quietly) and there was public outcry, it often prompted the police hierarchy to promise to investigate and bring the culprits to book, but that was where it usually ended.

A few times too, the government did intervene like in August 2018 when Professor Yemi Osinbajo, while acting as president, directed the then Inspector General of Police (IGP), Ibrahim Idris to overhaul SARS. A committee was set up and we saw the usual “abracadabra” before everything was swept under the rug or carpet, as the case may be. Nothing happened. Culprits were not punished. Victims did not get justice.

Ever since, the hashtag #ENDSARS regularly trended on twitter. Government has banned or reformed or give directives to SARS more than four times in the past few years but it seemed that; while the powers-that-be were doing their own, the brutal and beastly foot-soldiers in SARS were doing their own without any bother in this world. They live and operate in a different world; a world of their own where they make their own laws and rules. They became lords onto themselves.

So, it reached a tipping point last week when a report of extrajudicial killing of another person filtered into the airspace. This triggered an avalanche of reactions across the country, championed by the youths. They took over the major cities and demanded for an end to SARS and their menace. Protests were organised across the country and it is now eleven days since they started with no end in sight.

Even when this has forced the government to act unexpectedly speedily and acquiesced to their demand and disbanded SARS with immediate effect, the protests continued. Their other 5/5 demands were also acceded to. The president was forced to “reluctantly” come out of his cocoon to address them as demanded, though recorded and posted on social media.

Pastor Adeboye will lead a prayer protest on Friday as he calls for an end to police brutality rccg
Pastor Adeboye led a prayer protest on Friday as he calls for an end to police brutality

However, it seemed the #ENDSARS was just a trigger for bigger issues. It is like all the past “sins” of our political leaders are being revisited and visited on them, and the previously endless suppressed anger and bitterness people had, resurfaced. The general dysfunction of the country now fuels their resolve to continue the protests. They camp and sleep at different locations they were protesting, especially in Lagos. In other areas, they kept vigil till late in the night, went back home, and returned afresh the following morning. This is prevalent all over the country. The northern youths have also begun to demand for #EndInsecurity, something they have suffered for years without much complaint. I have written several times about this too.

Beyond everyone’s expectations and to our surprise, despite the huge crowds of protesters, the spread and the duration it has lasted, these youngsters have mostly conducted themselves with utmost discipline. Contrary to the usual, there were no cases of highjack by hoodlums or criminals. They were very peaceful, and surprisingly, they have no particular leader. Only some known faces were seen speaking for them once in a while, here and there, especially celebrities. Nigeria has never seen anything this big, totally organised, maintained and sustained by the youths themselves. I have been in cloud nine ever since.

Some miscreants and thugs, who must have been “sponsored”, tried to disrupt the peaceful protests in Abuja, Lagos and Benin. These hoodlums armed with clubs, machetes, sticks attacked the protesters but they handled the insurrection perfectly. That scheming failed as the protests still continued. Aluta Continua!

All the gimmicks and tricks employed by governments at all levels to get them to stop were exposed, rejected and shamed. All attempts at discrediting it with the usual name calling government officials and profiling them as being sponsored by the opposition failed as there were no prominent opposition members seen in the gatherings. Omoyele Sowore tried to get involved on Thursday in Abuja but was asked to leave. No security report to blackmail them worked because they have been very civil, organised, peaceful and creditable. We learnt some governors tried to bribe them in some states but they were rebuffed. It looks like the governments’ cup is finally full.

Governor Gboyega Oyetola of Osun state addressing #EndSARS protesters before he was attacked
Governor Gboyega Oyetola of Osun state addressing #EndSARS protesters

For the first time in a while, no religion, ethnicity or political differences was able to divide the youths across the country. Though, we saw attempts by some in the North who claimed they were protesting for SARS to be retained. I believe that mirrors the thinking of some governors there as the 19 northern governors rejected the disbandment of SARS by majority decision. This is understandable since the nefarious activities of the rogue SARS officers were prevalent more in the south. He who wears the shoes knows where they pinch most.

Governor Zulum of Borno state has asked that the disbanded SARS officers should be deployed to his state to help him combat the insurgency. I am sure many of them will prefer to resign than undertake such assignment.

While many have praised the action of the youth so far, the support they receive should not be mistaken as endorsement for lawlessness and criminalities, as being insinuated that these youths wanted SARS out so as to have field day in committing different crimes. It is said that “yahoo-yahoo” boys and girls, robbers, kidnappers, ritual killers and others were behind the protests.

And that the protest is just a smokescreen to get the security agents out of their ways. I hope this is not true. In reality, apart from countless innocent victims of SARS and police brutality, the majority of their targets are cyber criminals. Truly, SARS was their nemesis. The only unfortunate part is that, oftentimes, they did not do it genuinely to curb crimes but for extortion.

Or how do we explain many reports that when some criminal police officers arrested cyber-criminals, they demanded huge bribes from them? They ask many to transfer money from their accounts at gun points. They follow them to ATM machines to withdraw money for them or take them hostage while demanding “ransom” from their family members. Those who could pay were released back to continue their criminal activities while those who could not pay were either detained endlessly or summarily executed in the extreme cases.

Also, the case of SARS is like someone who stole once. Whenever anything gets missing, the first suspect is that person. Many other security agents, including the regular police officers, do imitate SARS in their activities. They commit similar crimes while the society assumed they are SARS. Is it only SARS who extort people in different police stations and on the roads?

Without excusing these bad behaviours, we should also look inward while trying to solve this problem. We need to review the whole process of policing and police establishments. I watched a documentary about Police Colleges some years ago and I was moved to tears when I saw the deplorable state of the police training school. Even the one in the so-called cosmopolitan Lagos at Ikeja looked worse than a prison.

The hostel, the beddings, the foods, toilets and bathrooms, the environment and all, were terrible. Many of our political leaders will not keep their dogs, goats or cows there. Yet, that is where we train the people who we expect to protect us, including the political leaders who display unjustified obscene affluence too.

As if that was not enough, after the training and deployment, what kind of welfare do police officers get? I have visited many police barracks and they are not better than the state of those training schools some are even worse. Many officers were not provided with any accommodation. They were left in the cold. Yet, we expect them to act rationally. Police officers buy their uniforms, boots and other personal gears which were supposed to be given to them free of charge. Stations have no stationeries, no fuel in their patrol vehicles, no power in their offices.

Until recently when their salary package was reviewed, they were paid peanuts. Worse still, they are handed guns to protect the society on empty stomachs. And they could also not publicly voice out their frustrations because of their training, professional ethics and code of conduct. Many wondered why Nigeria Police officers performed brilliantly whenever deployed in any peacekeeping operation outside Nigeria, where their welfare was topmost and they get all the trainings and equipment they need to function properly as and when due. I guess that is common to all cadre of the Nigerian society.

Therefore, while SARS was disbanded but with the rogue individuals still in the force, it will only amount to mixing rotten fruits with good ones. They will corrupt the rest. This must be the concern of the youths who have rejected their replacement called Special Weapons And Tactical (SWAT) team. People are seeing them as old wine in new bottle. And given the history of inconsistency of government and trust deficit that exists between the leaders and the led, citizens could not take their words for it, a reason the protests have gone unabated.

The speed with which government responded to the demands of the protesters is impressive and should be commended. That was showing good faith. They should go further by actualising many promises they made practically. One critical part is setting up Judicial Commissions of enquiries to investigate all the atrocities committed by the SARS and other security agents. Victims and relatives of those who are deceased should be given avenues to ventilate their bottled anger and bitterness.

Officers who are found guilty should be arrested, prosecuted and appropriately punished for their crimes no matter how heavy or light. Justice must be well served and be seen to be served by the public. This might help in the healing process. Adequate compensations should be paid to them too, even when it cannot replace lost souls or ruined lives.

There is need for psychological evaluation and psychiatric tests for people being recruited into the force and those already there. Recruitment process needs to be reviewed. The behaviours of many security agents are no different from criminals. Serious background check is imperative now more than ever. The need for better training and retraining in modern ways of policing using more of technology is paramount. Their welfare should be looked into as well as life insurance. How can we ask people to risk their lives for us without provision for any eventualities? That is not fair. Aren’t they humans too?

Now that the “lions” in the youths have been awakened, I hope that they can sustain the awareness and momentum, not by continuing the protests but by getting involved in the governance of their country. They must always demand for performance and accountability from the leaders at all levels of government. They should also be responsible enough and position themselves politically towards 2023; after all, they form the largest voting-age population.

The existing political structure which nearly excluded the youths needs to be changed by them. Being satisfied to be agents of the older politicians, their foot-soldiers, thugs and PAs should stop. It is time to get to the driver’s seats. Power is never given, it is taken. They should get registered, collect their PVCs, get into existing political parties or form theirs, contest elections or support candidates from among themselves, and get to the position of authority to make their desired difference.

By this, they will be at the table when issues that concern them are being discussed. Their heads should stop being shaved in their absence. Let this be the nudge they need. But, the protests cannot go on forever. 2023 is still far. They should articulate all others of their aspirations and start building towards actualising it, starting from now. It’s time for a new beginning!

“Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable”- John F. Kennedy (1962).

May God continue to protect and guide us aright.

God Bless Nigeria.

Lateef Adewole is a political analyst and social commentator can be reached by email [email protected] or via WhatsApp +2348020989095 and @lateef_adewole on Twitter