Policy & Government

Reform or End SARS – The Need for Urgent Action

The Federal Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) is a special unit of the Nigerian Police Force that is meant to be dedicated to the pursuit of curtailing the growing armed robbery and other crimes in the country. In the past few years, they are more popular with every other thing but curtailing armed robbery. 

They mount roadblocks and create stop-and-search checkpoints on roads across Lagos and other major cities. In many instances, these officers appear under the influence of alcohol and other substances, and with heavily loaded ammunition. In some instances also, they are not dressed in police uniforms. In recent times, there has been increasing allegation that these rogue SARS officers are now targeting and harassing people in collaboration with drivers on the popular ride hailing apps – Uber and Bolt.

SARS personnel has a simple target during their operations – anyone that is young (looking) and trendy. If you are caught with sophisticated smart devices such as phones, laptops, tablet PCs and headsets, then you are doomed. They start by forcing their preys to open up their gadgets and devices while they search through. They don’t stop at reviewing the social media engagements of such preys, they go to check messages and emails for the recent bank notifications to have an idea of the prey’s bank balance. With loaded guns, the officers would then accompany such preys to withdraw funds from their banks or ATMs. Several people are being harassed and extorted in this manner while on their way to their homes after a tiring day’s job. I have also seen videos of SARS officials going to people’s homes to search through their homes without any authorization to do so.

Amnesty International has accused the officers of SARS for detaining young Nigerians and extorting money from their friends and relations. The cases of unlawful arrests, privacy invasion, humiliation and extortion are just a few of the excesses of these SARS personnel.  The SARS officials are also known for constantly bragging that they can kill anyone without any trace or consequence. This does not appear like an empty bragging as there have been reported cases of extrajudicial killings of many young people across the country by SARS officials.

Is SARS useful at all? I believe they probably do. However, for every single armed robbery or kidnapping incident that SARS successfully repel, there would be news of up to a hundred privacy invasion or harassment or extortion of the innocent citizens. Some of the incidents are very fatal and highly unnecessary. 

In 2018, subsequent to the popular #EndSARS campaign on social media platforms, there was a petition to the Nigeria’s National Assembly with over 10,000 signatories on the petition. As usual of the National Assembly, the discussion on SARS is only raised after a new incident from SARS. In the same year, the Inspector General of Police announced an “immediate overhauling of SARS” to address the complaints and allegations leveled against SARS officials by members of the public. There was also a special panel of the National Human Rights Commission that was formed at the request of the Federal Government. The panel was able to identify several violations including illegal detention, extortion and torture of the victims, and recommended the dismissal of 37 officers and prosecution of 24 officers. I am not aware if any of these recommendations has been implemented. 

Between 2018 and now, there has been several new allegations against SARS, with some including video evidence and evidence of bank transfers to police officials by the victims. Several young people are being subjected to harassment, illegal detention, torture and extortion. During the first weekend in October 2020, SARS officials were allegedly caught on video shooting a young man in Ughelli and driving away with the SUV that he was driving before be was shot and abandoned on the street by the SARS officials. This incident has reignited the discussions around the SARS menace. The lack of consequence on these proven allegations tends to strengthen these officials to continue with this impunity since they know that they can get away with their crimes.

In order to stop this menace of SARS, the Federal Government needs to go beyond ordering them to stay away from the illegal checkpoints. All the Inspector Generals of Police that have been appointed since 1999 has given similar orders to the Police anytime they were appointed – it means the “orders” are not even being complied with. This tend to support the believe that the SARS activities tend to have the indirect endorsement of the “people in power” across the police hierachy. The SARS problem thus seems like a deep structural problem. There is definitely a need for an immediate overhauling of the processes and procedures around policing services in Nigeria, especially the SARS operations.

I am hopeful that the Federal Government would immediately review the activities of SARS with all seriousness to ensure that these incidents of illegal arrest, harassment, detention and extortion are stopped. The SARS reforms must cover areas such as the recruitment process, eligibility for employment, regular testing for drug and alcohol (in federal teaching hospitals), Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), Code of Conduct, reporting on usage of ammunition, Violation Reporting Process, and Disciplinary Procedures.

There is a need for a real urgent reform of the SARS unit while working on the overall police reforms. If a market is burning in one’s village, that won’t be the time for any Professor to give a motivational speech, that won’t also be the time for an elderly grandpa to do nothing as usual. So, this is not the time to do nothing on this SARS brouhaha. It is time to take visible action. If the reforms cannot be speedily implemented, then it is time to #EndSARS.

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