Last week, it was easy to imagine a smile on the faces of many Nigerians over news that the police Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) would be overhauled.
Nigeria News had reported that acting President Yomi Osinbajo had issued the directive to the Police IGP, Ibrahim Idris. The order for the police to get on with the work of rejigging SARS was unambiguous.
This came out of the blues. Nobody had expected such a directive. Since last year, after the atrocious human rights abuses perpetrated by SARS became too much, an online campaign, #EndSars, was launched.
For a while, it seemed like the momentum would force the government to do something. Nothing tangible was done except to inform the public erring officers should be reported with a promise to deal with them after investigations.
We knew how that worked out. Most times, victims find it hard to get the needed evidence. In a case like this, it becomes the victim’s word against the officer’s. The default attitude of the police is to believe their own in the absence of hard evidence.
To be clear, the call for the scrapping of SARS was justified. These officers acted like criminals in uniforms. And we know there is nothing worse than a corrupt police officer.
They stole from ordinary citizens; they arrested people arbitrary; torture and extra-judicial killings were very common. In many instances, the unit became a gun for hire for whoever had money or influence.
The SARS officers were a law unto themselves. And there was nothing anybody could do about it.
Innocent citizens suffered more than the criminals they were tasked to deal with.
Like all social media fad, the #EndSars campaign petered out. Nigerians had already learned to live with the menace. It was a case of avoiding them as much as possible.
So one could understand the feeling of relief when the announcement to overhaul the unit came through.
But if you’d lived long enough in this country, you wouldn’t be enthused by that order. The government can talk the talk impressively but fail miserably when it’s time to walk the talk.
The phrase that came to mind when the IGP later reeled out the revamping plans was, ‘No matter how much makeup you put on a pig, it would still frolic in the mud.’
To put it another way, most of the changes planned by the IGP are cosmetic. The changes would not make a jot of difference to what those officers in uniform do to innocent citizens.
How is this for a start? SARS is now Federal SARS (FSARS) with a centralized command under a Commissioner of Police in Abuja. In the former structure, SARS in each state had its own head.
Not only that, the uniforms too would be adjusted to bear the name of each officer and all officers must wear uniforms when they are on duty.
This wouldn’t be the first time these sort of changes have occurred in the past in a bid the make the police better. Our current reality is an outdated, criminal institution in spite of all the previous reforms.
Okay, to add a bit of gloss to the makeover of SARS, the IGP directed all officers in SARS to undergo a psychological evaluation. Obviously, this is to weed out those not right in the head.
And for the public, there would be 247 helplines to report any rogue officer breaking the law.
The National Human Rights Commission has been co-opted in the new FSARS to investigate all reported cases of violations of our civil rights by the officers.
Some of the measures are commendable. But a pig would always remain a pig.
Many of the people recruited into the unit are criminals at heart. They are not going to suddenly change their ways.
Psychological evaluation? Please, give us a break. That is just noise to make the gullible think something is actually been done.
Many of the human rights abuses leveled against the unit bother on extortion of large sums of money from innocent people. Young men are branded fraudsters for merely carrying expensive phones or laptops and are arrested. They only get released after paying money.
This MO is similar to what regular policemen do but on a smaller scale.
In all cases of extortion by either SARS or the regular police, it is known that their superior officers get a slice of the money. It is a huge racket sanctioned from the top.
There are reports out there that the officers are given a target sum to bring in daily. Because lots of money is involved, SARS would not suddenly change.
The best solution is to disband that unit. It’s not as if armed robberies, Kidnapping and violent crimes reduced significantly after SARS was established.
Some would argue that ordinary citizens even suffer more violence from these officers than they did at the hands of real criminals.
The argument that violent crime would increase if the unit is disbanded is spurious. That is the sort of narrative that gets floated around by people who gain from the activities of SARS.
Nothing would change. FSARS is SARS. Period.