Recently, the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, dissolved the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force. The dissolution followed days of protests by #EndSARS campaigners across the country. In place of the defunct SARS, the IGP announced the birth of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team. Though a welcome development, the change did not assuage the fears of the #EndSARS campaigners as they continued with their protests against police brutality. The protesting youths could not see any difference between SARS and SWAT.
The fear of the protesters is understandable. Four times in the past four years, the police authorities had announced similar reform of SARS. In 2018, for instance, the then IGP, Ibrahim Idris, banned the outfit from mounting roadblocks across the country. Also, he ordered that SARS personnel should undergo a training programme on respect for human rights and human handling of suspects in custody. Sadly, these efforts were ineffective. Thus, what is the guarantee that the new SWAT will not be a mere change in nomenclature? What efforts are the police authorities making to ensure that the new reforms bear fruits? Will the personnel that will make up the new outfit come from the moon? Are they not the same people who are currently in the police?
These are questions for the police authorities to answer. To reassure Nigerians of their seriousness this time, the IGP has ordered all the personnel of the disbanded SARS to report to the Force Headquarters in Abuja for debriefing, medical and psychological examination. Operatives of the new squad will also undergo mental and psychological checks to ascertain their fitness and eligibility for the new assignment. This will be a prelude to further training and reorientation before redeployment into the mainstream policing duties.
In addition to these measures, the police authorities said no SARS officer would be part of the new tactical team. Their operations, the Force Public Relations Officer, Frank Mba, noted would be strictly intelligence-driven. Members of the new team are expected to be free of any pending disciplinary matter. They will not embark on routine patrols or engage in indiscriminate and unlawful search of phones, laptops and other smart devices. They will only respond to robbery attacks, scenes of weapon-related crimes, rescue operations and special operations involving high-profile crimes.
The #EndSARS campaigners were not totally satisfied with these measures. Hence, they made a five-point demand from the Federal Government. These demands include the release of all detained protesters; investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct within 10 days; justice for all the deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; psychological evaluation and retraining of all the defunct SARS personnel and increase in the salary of the police.
It is good that the Federal Government has agreed to meet these demands. The National Economic Council (NEC) has directed state governors to take charge of the new tactical unit. Each state will also set up a judicial panel of enquiry to investigate alleged atrocities of SARS. The panels, which have six months to complete their assignment, will recommend compensation and other remedial measures where appropriate.
Many state governors and lawmakers have also identified with the objectives of the protests and urged the protesters to sheathe their sword and wait for the reform process to take full shape. Some of the governors, like Babajide Sanwo-Olu of Lagos, have promised to compensate families of victims of SARS brutality. While addressing protesters in Lagos, Sanwo-Olu announced the setting up of a N200 million fund for this purpose. The House of Representatives also promised to appropriate funds in the 2021 budget for the compensation of the victims of the EndSARS protests.
We think that these measures are far-reaching enough to stop the protests, which have reportedly claimed about 10 lives, while causing social disruptions. While we urge the protesters to suspend their action, we implore the law enforcement agencies to improve on their respect for human rights and the rule of law.
It is worthy to note that policing has gone digital. It is more of intelligence gathering than mere show of brute force. SWAT should learn from the mistakes of its predecessor and refrain from constituting itself into a nuisance and projecting the police in bad light. The image of the force is so poor now that many Nigerians pray not to have anything to do with it. Whether on the highways or at the stations, police engage in undue extortion of people at the slightest opportunity. Little wonder the Nigeria Police came 127th out 127 countries considered in a recent ranking of world police.
There is need for a holistic reformation of the entire police force and not just SARS. Background checks for the members of the SWAT and other recruits into the police force is very vital. Nigerians want a well-trained and disciplined police force that is transparent, humane, well remunerated and equipped.
The #EndSARS protests should be a wake-up call on the government to look into other problems besetting Nigerian youths. Unemployment is one. Total alienation of the youths from mainstream politics is another. Poor access to health and educational facilities is also part of the problem. We believe that government can only command the respect and loyalty of people by improving the standard of living of the citizens, respecting the rule of law and guaranteeing security of life and property.