Henry Uche, Lagos
Responding to the ongoing protests by young people across major cities in the country to end the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police, Global Rights Nigeria, an NGO, has stated that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria.
In a statement delivered by its Executive Director, Mrs Abiodun Baiyewu, the rights group charged the Federal Government to listen to citizens and ensure that their fundamental rghts are not thwarted.
The Executive Director called for an end to impunity in the country, saying that the rule of law must prevail and victimisation and suppression of citizens by security personnel be put to an end.
According to her, the government must fulfil its constitutional mandate of ensuring the security and welfare of the people through its organs, particularly the security forces, noting that an urgent but holistic reform and overhauling of the police force is more important than ever.
‘When President Buhari ran for his first term as civilian president in March 2015, one of the core reasons why many citizens voted for him was his promise to put an end to insecurity in Nigeria. Nigeria was confronted with what it considered at that time to be its worst security crisis particularly in the North East of the country. Pockets of violence were also starting to spring up in other parts of the country. Communities and individuals feared for their lives, they feared for their country. They stepped to the ballot and voted with their thumbs. They wanted a positive change,’ she stated.
‘Fast forward to October 2020, citizens have spontaneously taken to the streets to decry their insecurity in what is now known as the #EndSARS movement. While the #BringBackOurGirls movement had been about citizens insecurity from insurgents, the #EndSARS movement is about their insecurity from state security forces, and in particular, from an anti-armed robbery special unit known as the Special Armed Robbery Response Squad (SARS).
‘The brutality of the Nigeria Police Force dates back to the nation’s colonial history in which the nation’s security forces’ allegiance was to the British Crown and not the Nigerian people. They were a force to keep the colony in check. In this ironfisted grip, brute force was permitted to deter dissent and to cow the people into subjection. Security forces were therefore above the law and never learned adhere to human rights norms of restraint, or a learned respect for the rights and dignity of the people. Post-colonial Nigeria had a lot of changes to make. Unfortunately, 60 years later, the structures and ethos of the nation’s security forces has not changed.
‘Nigerians remained second class citizens in their own country, and the allegiance of the security forces transferred from the British Crown to the Political Class. The many years of military rule which also bred a culture of impunity further entrenched the mistrust between the security forces and the people they were meant to protect.’
She continued: ‘Since its formation in 1992, an entire generation of Nigerians have grown to live in the dreaded shadows of SARS and other security forces as since pre-independence Nigeria.
‘Year after year, their notoriety grew, causing a fearful citizenry who feared being attacked by violent criminals as much as being subject to extra-judicial treatment by their own security forces. Between January and September 2020, “Nigeria Mourns” recorded at least 122 persons that had been killed in extrajudicial circumstances by security forces including SARS.
‘These numbers did not include the ‘disappeared’, or the other various forms of rights violations that citizens suffered. Amnesty International’s special research report on SARS -Nigeria: A Time to End Impunity states that, “within the period of January 2017 and May 2020, it had documented 82 cases of SARS brutality, which included various forms of extortion, torture and ill treatment such as: hanging, mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding.’
She added: ‘SARS was also notorious for its unlawful ‘stop and search’ which often targeted young men and subjected them to harassment and extortion. Many victims reported being kidnapped by SARS operatives, their debit cards taken from them and their bank account drained as their ‘bail ransoms’, some spent weeks in detention waiting to be ‘bailed’ by their families.
‘Some were not so lucky and never returned home. Offences unknown to law such as wearing dreadlocks, driving an expensive car or wristwatch, wearing a tattoo, owning an iPhone, or carrying a laptop could put them in trouble with this squad who would search without a warrant, slap, kick, mete out corporal punishment, and generally intimidate citizens.
‘SARS epitomizes for most Nigerians the brutality of their security forces – in particular the police force; and each year there has been fierce public outcry against their flagrant disregard for the rule of law and their atrocious impunity. As a matter of fact, the hashtag #EndSARS was first used on Twitter in 2017 by @mzNkemjoy, and apparently created by @billz005. And since then, it has taken on a life and a verve that finally hit its crescendo this week. Since 2017, the government has in very vague terms ‘disbanded’ or ‘restructured’ SARS. It makes its 5th promise this week, but citizens are asking for more than promises.
‘In September 2020, Nigerians reeled shock in as they had many times before, at the impunity of the SARS unit when Ms. Ifeoma Abugu a 28 year old woman who had been ‘arrested’ in lieu of her fiancé, and in custody, was raped, killed, and her family advised to pick her body up from the morgue at the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja. Not a single officer was indicted for her wrongful ‘arrest’, torture, and death – not even when it was raised on the floor of the National Assembly.
‘On October 2nd, they were further outraged when a video had emerged of SARS agents accosting and gunning down an unarmed young man, had fled the crime scene in their victim’s car at Ughelli town in Delta state. On October 8th, another video of an unidentified, unarmed woman who had been shot in the mouth at a bus-stop in Lagos, by a police officer later identified as Sergent Eze Aiwansoba emerged on twitter.
‘Nigerians had had enough! Their fury became unleashed. They started to vote with their feet. Governor Wike of Rivers state threatened protesters and ‘banned’ all #EndSARS protest in his state. Protesters in Abuja suffered tear gas attacks, arrests, and live bullets being fired at them-which is against the Law.
‘It was in this context, at a moment of absolute defiance, while bullets flew from the police to silent, peaceful but defiant protesters, that Aisha Yusuf with a single fist raised, stepped forward, and in that single moment became an icon of the movement.
‘Nigeria’s uprising is not a novel movement to the rest of the world, earlier this year, the United States had also erupted in yet another #BlackLivesMatter wave of protests, and became a global symbol against the violent atrocities of state security agents, and the racial injustice with which black people were being treated. Only this time, it was in the world’s most populous black country-Nigeria.
What Do Nigerians Want? She queried and continued: ‘At the crux of the #EndSARS protests is a simple cry for DIGNITY. The right to live without oppression in their own country. A right to fair hearing. A right to freedom from discrimination. A right to life! All rights guaranteed by the country’s constitution. Section 14(2) (b) of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria clearly states that, “the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government’; while Section 17(2)(c) instructs that “governmental actions shall be humane”. If the Nigerian government had simply followed the injunctions of the Constitution, it is very doubtful, that in the throes of a global pandemic Nigerians, young people, mainly in their 20s and 30s would take to the streets no longer fearing the brutal treatment meted on protesters.
‘And I ask, what needs to needs to b done urgently? First, the government must listen to its citizens if it must show to be responsible. Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria and the legitimacy of the government is derived from their collective will. Section 14(2) (a). Second, the government needs to fulfil its constitutional mandate of ensuring the security and welfare of the people through every single one of its organs, in particular – the security forces. Third, impunity needs to end and the rule of law prevail in Nigeria. The government needs to demonstrate immediate action investigating and punishing the crimes of its security forces.
‘More so, a reform of Nigeria’s security forces must commence immediately and its loyalty realigned. Sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria! Human Rights norms must be taught to be respected, and security based on intelligence rather than torture or brute force needs to become cultural.
‘Also, Nigerian security officers, especially its police force need to be treated with greater dignity. These officers are some of the poorest paid in the world, work and live in some of the most deployable conditions. It is difficult for frustrated, gun-toting, and often inebriated officers to be respectful.
‘Finally, Nigeria’s civic space must be made free from every deliberate and draconian encroachment by its government. In essence, Section 14 (1) of the Constitution must come alive and in the country’s reform must now begin to happen 60 years after its first independence.
‘Be that as it is, Global Rights and its partners will continue to partner with grassroots activists to ensure that a culture of respect for the rights and dignity of all persons ‘till the hills of Nigeria sway with truth, Peace & Justice,’ she added.