One popular mantra that the public relations department of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) uses to interact with the public is that: “police is your friend”. This phrase, when put side by side with the actions of the dissolved Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), sounds like an irritating cliché to the ears of many Nigerians, especially those who have had the ugly experience of SARS brutality and overzealousness.
SARS, according to Wikipedia, was created in late 1992 as one of the special units in the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligent Department. As a unit, and going by their name, they had the operational mandate to detain, investigate, and prosecute people involved in crimes like armed robbery, kidnapping and other related crimes.
At the inception of this police unit, the crime rate in Nigeria, particularly in Lagos, was very high, but their incognito operation made it possible for criminals to be fished out from their hideouts. Where did they get it all wrong? Because the operatives of SARS were to track criminals and their likes, they were trained to behave and look like criminals. For it is often said that to catch a criminal, “you have to act, think, and look like a criminal too.” They were, in essence, specifically trained to adapt to any kind of environment where criminals abide.
Beyond looking like criminals with their dressing and hair (mostly dreadlocks), SARS operations were done incognito. This, of course, made it very difficult for Nigerians to identify them. Or, perhaps, differentiate them from the actual criminals. The “criminal-esque” training and dispositions of SARS made it easy for them to turn rogue and they were later accused of extrajudicial killings, extortion, framing, blackmailing, etc.
Going further, the excesses of SARS were exacerbated by their obsession to track Internet fraudsters (Yahoo boys), who are commonly known for their flashy and extravagant lifestyles. Consequently, once a young man has an iPhone in his possession and, maybe, is driving a Mercedes Benz, he is automatically seen as an Internet fraudster in the eyes of these operatives.
The kind of training SARS had, over the years, became a limiting and distracting factor to their operations. They had little or no intelligence gathering mechanism, as they had to rely on the physical appearance of an individual to determine if he/she was a criminal or not. And because of that many youths who had tattoos, dreadlocks and any kind of criminal physique became victims of their brutality.
No doubt, the perceptible brutality of operatives of SARS and the police at large warranted the ongoing nationwide protest by Nigerian youths calling for the dissolution of the dreaded police unit and total reformation of the law. This protest is encapsulated by #EndSARS, which became the most trending topic on the microblogging platform Twitter at a time. The Federal Government, after foot-dragging, had no option but to yield to the demands of the protesters by dissolving SARS.
While announcing the dissolution of the unit, the Inspector-General of Police, Adamu Mohammed, swiftly created another tactical company of the force, Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), to replace the dissolved SARS. However, with the continuation of the #EndSARS protest, it seems protesters are still not satisfied with the formation of SWAT, as they have also called for it to be abolished.
Personally, while I am in support of the #EndSARS protest, the call to end SWAT may not be such a good idea. At this point, we must realise that the operatives of SARS were essentially trained not to deal with civilians but criminals. So, integrating them into the conventional policy would spell doom for the public. Again, and very significantly, these operatives must not be disengaged or dismissed from service because of the criminal mindset they already posses from their training.
Considering that government has spent money to train them, their expertise must not be left to lie fallow. For all these negative probabilities not to happen, this is where a new unit like SWAT comes in handy. SWAT, in any case, must operate under the caveat of a tactical force that is drafted to handle precarious instances of terrorism, kidnapping, hostage-taking, armed robbery, and any other criminal situation beyond the capabilities of ordinary police officers. Once such an operation is finalised, they return to their base.
The ongoing protest, indeed, may be a good time to reform the police, especially with the kind of security challenges bedevilling us. The police must be retrained to have the dignity of labour and know that extorting N50 from road users adds no grace to their service. While some persons, conversely, think that the poor remuneration of the police is the reason many officers resort to the illicit acts of extortion, taking of bribes, and any other unwarranted exhibition, I beg to differ.
Nothing in the professionalism of the police has justified the amount of money the government has invested in the force. While I am not against or for police salary increment, I am, however, of the opinion that what is budgeted to them be fully utilized, rather than always making budgetary increments with nothing to show for it. The administrative cost of running the police force needs to always get to the appropriate quarters.
A police officer, for instance, who wants to go for patrol, does not need to fuel the police van with his money, if the administrative cost of patrolling gets to his post. Perhaps, circumstances of this nature make officers have “itching palms” while on duty.
Above all, reforming the police has to be complemented with increasing the force of human capacity. According to data obtained from the official website of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF.gov.ng), the total workforce is about 371,800. When this number is compared to the population of the country that is placed at 202,176,065 by world meter, then the ratio of a police officer to citizens would stand at 1:540. This is sharply below the policing standard outlined by thenited nations, which recommends a police officer to every 450 persons.
So, given the fact that Nigeria’s population has been projected to outgrow that of the United States and become the third most populous by 2050, according to a report released by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, we must increase the capacity of our police to mitigate inherent security challenges that come with population explosion.
The motor to the settlement of every war is a peaceful resolution. Therefore, it is imperative for a committee to be set up by Mr. President. Members shall include Minister for Interior, Inspector-General of Police, director-general of the Department of State Security, National Security Adviser, representative of the Senate, representative of the House of Representatives, five delegates of #EndSARS protesters, representative of the Nigerian Bar Association and representative of human rights organisations, two members of the Police Service Commission and Minister of State for Labour.
I am being specific because of the youthful disposition of those involved in the protest. The committee should be given a time frame of no more than 30 days to come up with recommendations on how best to attend to the demands of the #EndSARS protesters and police reform in general.