The Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mohammed Adamu, got it all wrong. Why was he in such a hurry to replace the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) with another police unit just in 48 hours after its disbandment? The haste is indecent. The action looks premeditated. It is a tactical error in every sense of it. It bears all the imprint of a cover-up aimed at bringing back SARS in a different guise. A hurriedly conceived Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) squad such as the one the IGP has given us is SARS in another name. It is an attempt to deodorise the dog shit called SARS.
But Nigerians are not taken in by this antic. The lie is too obvious for anyone not to notice. The institution of SWAT just two days after the disbandment of SARS simply means that the police authorities did not mean to disband SARS in the first place. They were only working towards a name change. That was why they were able to package something in two days. If the authorities meant to do away with the excesses and abuses associated with SARS, it would have taken a well-thought-out rebranding strategy to come up with something new and refreshing. The present order is cosmetic. It is deceitful. Little wonder some are insinuating that SWAT has been in existence before now and that the authorities merely dusted it up for a new role in the absence of SARS.
The overall impression we get here is that the police authorities have betrayed the fact that they do not think that SARS operatives did any wrong. They disbanded the squad just to make the police look like a citizen-oriented body. They merely played to the gallery. In all seriousness, the authorities feel that the people are crying wolf where there is none. SARS operatives were just doing their work. If the authorities meant business, they would have made a pronouncement on the perceived wrong-doings of the disbanded SARS. They would have told us the steps to be taken to ensure that the rot that was SARS is cleansed. But there was no such thing because, as a matter of fact, there is no difference between SARS operatives and other police personnel in various units of the police force. They are made of the same stuff. The only difference is in the jobs or responsibilities assigned to them. In any case, the police officers who operated under SARS were not employed strictly for that unit. They were regular policemen who only got a posting or deployment to that squad. Now that SARS has changed name, some of the operatives will be retained in SWAT (regardless of the assurances by the IGP) or be deployed to other departments of the force. That is why the authorities found it so easy and convenient to come up with SWAT just with a snap of the finger. It is all the same thing and the same story. Nothing has changed. You can see why #EndSARS protesters have remained adamant. The IGP’s action has simply lent impetus to their nationwide march against police brutality and extortion.
Under the circumstances we are in, some people could be persuaded to argue that the police in Nigeria do not operate in isolation, that they are just a part of the ills bedevilling the country. We will be quick to concede this point. But we will also quickly remind ourselves that we cannot continue along that line. Things have got to change. We must move away from the rot that has crippled the country. In more specific terms, we must underline the fact that agencies like the police, which interface with the public on a daily basis and wield all the instruments of coercion and suppression, are in dire need of reform. The positive change that we expect from the new Nigeria of our dreams must begin with public institutions like the police force. If the authorities realise this, what they will be concerned with at this time is how to reform the police force. They will not be embarking on ill-conceived and poorly digested name change.
To reform the police force, there are institutional drawbacks with the present order, which must be addressed. What we have at moment are police officers that are not interested in the job. Their primary concern is money. Our highways are lined up with police checkpoints that make road travel so tedious owing to sluggish vehicular movement. Sometimes, the checkpoints lie from pole to pole. At each stop, you are confronted with unfriendly policemen whose primary motivation is to fault your vehicle documents in order to extort money from you. While we do not ask the police to gloss over irregularities on the part of vehicle operators, they must ensure that those who run foul of the law are brought to justice. They do not have to pay their way through police checkpoints because that is what the police want.
We must also worry about the fact that people who go to police stations to bail alleged offenders are compelled to pay for the release of detainees even when the same police have said that bail is free. This is bare-faced corruption and thievery, yet we have come to accept it as normal because the police have made it so. It is corruption all the way. When your house is burgled and you decide to report the incident to the police, they will take your statement in return for the money you will be asked to pay. After that, the police will take no action on the matter unless you continue to fund them on a regular basis. Again, if your vehicle has tinted glasses and you apply to the police for permit, you must pay to obtain this even though it is meant to be free. Every job of the police is tailored towards money-making for the personnel. There is no real effort to perform their statutory role.
The list of police misdemeanors is a very long one. What every unit does is to perfect its own extortionist strategy. When SARS was created, therefore, those who were deployed to the unit had to perfect their own extortion plan. To achieve maximum result, they also brought brutality into the mix. The victims, most of whom were innocent, became helpless in the hands of SARS operatives. The present outcry over police brutality and the need to reform the force must, therefore, be taken seriously.
Now, the IGP has rolled out the ground rules that will govern the operations of the SWAT squad. It sounds good. But our experience with the police tells us that those rules and regulations are as good as the paper on which they are written. SWAT will hardly be intelligence-driven as the police chief will have us believe. Also, it is only a newcomer to Nigeria that will believe that SWAT will not patrol the streets. We have heard all of this in the past. Successive inspectors-general of police have had to ban roadblocks on assumption of office. But none was able to sustain the order. They caved in just like others before them. The IGP’s assurances, therefore, do not resonate with us. We view them with suspicion.
As a matter of fact, the matter before us is bigger than the IGP. It is for the Federal Government of Nigeria. The President should address the nation on this vexed issue. He should take practical steps that will assuage the anger in the land. We expect at the end of the day that Nigeria will, after this upheaval, have a police force that we can be proud of. At the moment, we are too ashamed of the activities of the personnel of the Nigeria Police Force.