By Mike Okiro
The #EndSARS protests have come and gone and left some enduring lessons, bitter and sweet, mostly bitter.
The salient issue here is whether we learnt and embraced the lessons and whether we can utilize what we learnt for the benefit of our nation, Nigeria. The protests were not mainly or solely against SARS.
SARS was notorious in its dealings with Nigerians, the youth especially. So, #EndSARS become a rallying point, a slogan, that could be easily used to galvanize the youth against government policies and programmes. Because of this the police suffered casualties on behalf of government. On behalf of government? Yes. I will come back to that soon.
During the protests, the Toll Gate and BRT buses that were torched in Lagos were not police and did not belong to police, the correctional centres and other government structures destroyed were not police establishments. Vehicle stands, private buildings, commercial ventures and commercial banks looted and burnt were not police; private warehouses and properties looted were not police, palliatives carted away did not belong to the police. What happened was a recast of previous actions against government policies and decisions. For example The Ali-Must-Go demonstration of our student days wasn’t directed at Col. Ali, the then Minister of Education, whom we respected because he was a great Uite, but against Federal Government policies, which we considered were anti-citizens. Ali-Must-Go was just the tag.
EndSARS became a ready sobriquet that could easily generate a large followership for people to vent their anger and feelings of dissatisfaction against the system.
The police suffered casualties on behalf of government. It is an obvious truth that a popular government begets a popular police. Conversely, an unpopular government begets an unpopular police. The police force had been unpopular in Nigeria right from its embryonic stage. It was created by the colonial masters and used to collect taxes from the locals and to enforce obnoxious colonial laws against the nationalists. Then came independence in 1960 and the police were continually used to intimidate and oppress the opposition by Nigerian politicians. So, the police force was so hated that stories of policemen dying with their uniforms sticking to their bodies were of a general trend in the Western Region of Nigeria.
The abominable deployment of police by the politicians in the First Republic was one of the reasons that prompted Gen. Yakubu Gowon’s regime to create a unitary police for Nigeria, now the Nigeria Police Force. However, la plus a change, la plus c’est la meme chose. The situation is still the same. The hostility against the police is a psychological trend and extends to organizations in similar positions.
During the military regime in Nigeria, people who demonstrated hatred for the military government expressed their annoyance by attacking soldiers. So, soldiers were not leaving their barracks in uniform. If they had to go in uniform for duty, they had to go in groups and were armed.
This was directed at reducing attacks on soldiers by civilians in Lagos. It was towards the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. I, as AC (OPS) and later DC (OPS) in Lagos State, rescued soldiers in uniform who were attacked at Agege and Oshodi for no definite offence, only that they were soldiers and represented the military regime and that triggered off hatred and violent reactions.
The police suffered heavy casualties because they were the visible and outward and tangible representation of government. SARS was therefore viewed as an image of a failed system. The protesters vented their anger, their disdain, and frustrations against our detestable national ethos, a system that pushed them to the domain of hopelessness. The sorrowful condition did not start today, nor with the present regime. It has been a gradual deterioration in government over the years, right from Independence, because of leadership deficiency and lack of profitable and purposeful rulership. A humorous state governor in the Second Republic was quoted as saying that we should invite the British administrators to come back to Nigeria and govern us again. That, at the end of the financial year, they should declare profit, which we should share with them as dividend. This was an honest response and a proposed panacea to this misrule leeched on people by a government in which he was a notable dramatis persona.
Nigerians have over the years endured and accommodated this misrule, which is seen in many facets. A few examples will suffice. One of them is what I tried to explain or frame in an analoguous phrase that would capture the essence of my thought. The phrase has gained a wide usage among the educated elites in recent times. I called it POLICY SOMERSAULT. A few hypothetical examples, though very real, can explain what I mean. The Federal Government appoints a Minister of Works and he feels that Abuja-Lokoja road is very important, being a gateway between the North and the South. A contractor goes through the rigors of the procurement act and due process and the job is awarded to him. He is mobilized and achieves the first or second milestones. While his payment is being processed, there is a cabinet reshuffle and a new minister is appointed. The new minister, for reasons best known to him, feels that Abuja-Kaduna road has priority over Abuja-Lokoja road. So, the Abuja-Lokoja road is abandoned and the money diverted to the new road: POLICY SOMERSAULT.
A government bans the importation of sorghum, wheat and barley and other agricultural items into Nigeria in order to encourage local production and conserve foreign exchange. Nigerians secure bank loans to farm rice, cassava, maize, etc; many breweries acquire new machines to accommodate the new raw materials. Suddenly, the government lifts the ban on those items and the local farmers go bankrupt: POLICY SOMERSAULT.
The Federal Government, with a view to making life more meaningful for Nigerians, gathers experts in many fields to come up with a master plan for the development of various aspects of our national life. We have slogans like Vision 2020, 10-Year Rolling Plan, Education for All By the Year 2020, etc. These are projected long-term plans for our future. A new regime comes, abandons the reports and the plans and starts afresh: POLICY SOMERSAULT.
As an unrepentant student union activist, I led Rivers State students to the Government House in Port Harcourt to protest against the abolition, by a new government, of automatic scholarship to students in Nigerian universities and the cancellation of many projects started by Governor Alfred Diette-Spiff, which were ongoing. My argument then as a student, which is still valid, was: Governor Spiff conceived and executed those projects not from his pocket or personal money but from the coffers and budget of the Rivers State government. Therefore, it was wrong for the new governor, in his maiden address, to cancel the projects and programmes because of lack of fund: POLICY SOMERSAULT.
This policy somersault spreads through the entire identity of all government and regimes in Nigeria. In fact, every regime has had its own characteristic imprimatur in policy somersault.
While serving in Ogun State as DCP, I came across a road started by the people-oriented Chief Obafemi Awolowo’s regime as the Premier of Western Region but was abandoned when he left office. The culverts were still there, showing that the road was actually under construction before being abandoned: POLICY SOMERSAULT.
Of a sad note also is the road and bridge across Oloshi River linking a part of Egbema clan in Rivers State and another segment of Egbema in Imo State. This road is of great importance to the indigenes of Egbema Kingdom in both states and to oil-producing companies working in the area and in the two states. The contract was awarded by the Shehu Shagari regime, but has been abandoned for years till now: POLICY SOMERSAULT.
This policy somersault is negatively affecting our development, as some foreign investors are wary of coming here because government policies change often without warning. Most renowned local contractors are equally skeptical of government’s determination to pursue a job to conclusion. A survey carried out some years ago showed that Nigeria had at least N6trn worth of abandoned projects, from the First Republic through the military regimes to the present democratic dispensation.
The policies and activities of subsequent regimes that have stalled our development are not limited to contractors and government, but are extended to civil servants, the workforce, the engine room and machines that are meant to drive and execute government programmes and policies. Unfortunately, since Independence, the average Nigerian civil servant, derogatorily called ‘EVIL SERVANTS’ by my boyhood friend and primary school mate, Dr. Mandy, of blessed memory, has been facing a steady decline in prestige, welfare package and empowerment.
I am the son of a civil servant, now late. My father worked in Eastern Nigerian Ministry of Works, Public Works Department (PWD). As a junior staff, he got a bicycle advance and bought a bicycle. Some years later, when he was promoted to the level of middle class civil servant, he was qualified for a motorcycle loan, which he got three months after promotion. He bought a motor cycle and left the bicycle for us, his children. Sometimes, we rode the bicycle to school or went on errands with the bicycle, to the envy of other children.
We lived in government quarters, according to our grade; we were comfortable and stood out from the crowd. All senior service or staff (Senior Civil Servants, that is, grade Level 8 and above) had cars and lived in Government Reserved Area (GRA), unless they opted otherwise. When a civil servant went on transfer, he was accommodated indefinitely in government rest house or catering rest house or gotel until official quarters were provided for him.
Teachers and civil servants were looked upon as endowed homo sapiens. They commanded respect, honour and prestige. Their children were well-fed, well-dressed and attended the best school in the area. During Christmas, we, children of civil servants and teachers wore the best Christmas dress among our mates. It was a thing of pride to be the son of a teacher or civil servant.
Now things have changed for the worse. In the late 1980s, government promulgated a policy that entitled a civil servant on transfer to stay only 28 days in a hotel. Presently, even such luxuries no longer exit. Some years ago, the Federal Government sold all their houses across the country. From then on, civil servants had to fend for themselves in terms of accommodation. This has contributed in making civil servants retrogressive. Imagine a low or middle-cadre civil servant who forms the bulk of the workforce, working in Federal Secretariat, Abuja, for example. He/she cannot afford to rent a house inside FCT Abuja and so moves to Suleja, Abaji, or further down after Keffi, where he/she can afford rent and commutes from there to Federal Secretariat daily. Many of them do not come to work. Among themselves, they create a roster for attendance, if per chance you go to any of the dilapidated offices, with decript furniture and broken window panes, to look for a civil servant, they will tell you he/she is not on seat. ‘’Not on seat” is a common phrase in Nigerian civil service parlance, which is open to a myriad of interpretations.
Nigerian civil servants and teachers are now regarded as the wretched of the earth, jobs meant for unemployed citizens who have no choice. All efforts made by various regimes to alleviate the suffering and hardship of civil servants seem to yield no tangible result, from Udoji Award to upward review of minimum wage. Up to now, there is no month that passes in Nigeria without news of public or civil servants going on strike or threatening to go on strike for better living and working conditions, from states to the Federal Government. A cursory visit to the Federal or state secretariats dotted all over Nigeria will show civil servants working or operating in squalor. The lifts are not working, the toilets are in shambles. Nothing seems to work.
It was of recent that I came to realize the disdain and hatred Nigerians have for their civil service. I got a teaching job for a relation of a friend of mine who had a second class honours (Upper Division). He bluntly rejected the offer and said he preferred to remain jobless until I could get him a job in an oil company, bank or some special agency or companies. It is as bad as that.
We view the civil service as a place where nothing happens and, if it does happen, it happens sluggishly. Come to think about it, these same Nigerians who are never-do-well in Nigeria do exceedingly well outside Nigeria. They are seen in very high and rewarding positions outside Nigeria. They receive awards and encomiums in various fields of endeavor and are openly welcome because of what they can offer their host countries. They bring honour and respect, including money to Nigeria. In 2019 alone, Nigerians in diaspora remitted about $8 billion to Nigeria. Talking about the medical field alone, there are more than 10,000 Nigerian doctors and nurses in the Uk and over 23,000 of such in the USA. There is even a saying that if Nigerian doctors and nurses in the US are withdrawn, their health facilities will collapse. There will be no more care in Obama care. I was told that the best cardiologist in the US is a Nigerian. The best surgeon in Canada is a Nigerian, etc.
Nigerians in diaspora, as I earlier said, have done well and done us proud. Unfortunately, back here, the story is melancholic. Where is the goose that has layed the golden eggs found in USA, Canada, Britain, etc?
The #EndSARS protest has actually propelled us to deeply ruminate to find out how and where we got it wrong, how the Nigeria Police found itself on a slaughter slab.
I hated the police as a students’ union activist. I took part in, planned, championed and led peaceful and violent demonstrations against perceived retrogressive government policies and the police. My joining the police immediately after NYSC was fortuitous, as captioned in my biography: Sir Mike Mbama Okiro: Striking Footprints.
I am exceedingly grateful to God for making me a police officer, as this offered me ample opportunity to travel round Nigeria, have a first-hand knowledge of Nigeria and Nigerians, mingle and interact with Nigerians at all levels- the high and the low, wine and dine with the good, the bad and the ugly. Being a Nigerian myself, I saw Nigeria and Nigerians inside out. The police is the mirror and a visible replica of the society. A law-abiding society creates a gentle police; a lawless and violent society gives birth to a brutal police; a corrupt society will beget a corrupt police. So, the Nigeria Police Force cannot and will not be sociologically different from the society where it is drawn from and where it works.
I have regretted creating the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). I created it as a response to an official challenge, an answer to a lack of arms and equipment in the police. About 1991, when I was the Assistant Commissioner of Police, Operations (AC OPS), Lagos State Command, a notorious car snatcher, Shina Rambo, was holding sway in Lagos. He used to come to Lagos, snatch expensive and exotic cars from Lagos, and head towards Benin Republic in a convoy of about 10 or more stolen cars, all with their head lamps on and a Land Rover jeep mounted with a machine gun and sophisticated weapons leading them. Among his high-profile victims whose vehicles were snatched included the Ooni of Ife, Oba Sijuade, whose limousine was snatched at Agege, and General Olusegun Obasanjo (then retired General and former Head of State), whose Honda Accord was snatched along Lagos-Ibadan expressway. Owning expensive and attractive vehicles became a burden and an invitation to death in the hands of Shina Rambo and his evil clique.
Anytime Shina Rambo came to town, Lagos streets were deserted and desolate. Policemen abandoned their duty posts, especially the roadblocks where Shina Rambo would sail through. The police had no arms or needed equipment to return fire for fire. It is worthy to note that this time, the Nigeria Police was disarmed. The United Nations had just banned the use of Mark IV rifles by armed government agencies all over the world. The Nigerian Police withdrew their Mark IV rifles, and had just a few SMG guns left for use. Some police officers were as a consequence posted to beats and posts without arms.
The police, therefore, had no answer to Shina Rambo. Nigerians/Lagosians became desperate and no solution was forthcoming. An idea hit me from the blue.
I went to the Commissioner of Police and told him: “Sir it is our duty to protect the people even at the expense of our own lives. Therefore, we should not throw in the towel and leave Shina Rambo to have a field day. We should take up the gauntlet and carry the battle to him.”
I suggested that we should select some Police Mobile Force (PMF) personnel, train them in musketry, special and hard endurance training to prepare them for difficult and risky operations and to conquer fear. They were to dress on mufti, carry K2 rifles (we had a few K2 rifles then and they were used by PMF only). The Mobile policemen were to conceal the rifles in bags, with hidden walkie-talkies to monitor the movement and location of Shina Rambo and his convoy of stolen cars. They were to mingle with people at bus stops and crowded places. The essence was to give him a surprise attack on his escape route. He approved that after discussing with the IGP. That was the magic panacea. The first surprise attack we gave to Shina Rambo was at Berger Bus Stop, Isheri, along Lagos-Ibadan expressway. His men went into disarray, though he was able to escape with a few vehicles, the second was at Isokoko, on his way to Otta in Ogun State. Soon his criminal activities reduced and Lagosians heaved a sigh of relief and went back to Owambe. We equally used SARS to contain and control bank robberies in Lagos.
Shina Rambo, in his dare devil criminal nature, shifted his operations to Ogun, Oyo and other states. Some state CPs who were contending with growing, harassing and embarrassing car snatching, sent their men to us in Lagos to train them as SARS. Soon, every state command copied Lagos and established their own SARS.
The SARS I created were operational, not investigative. They did not investigate any case. They responded to robbery incidents, after which they withdrew for the robbery section in the State CID to do the investigation. Some SARS personnel were attached to State CID, Panti, Yaba, Lagos, to provide cover for State CID robbery investigators when proceeding to effect arrest or visit scenes of armed robbery. Of course, there was Federal Anti-Robbery Section, headed by CP Fulani Kwajafa, now retired, whose duty was to investigate intricate robbery cases that cut across states.
Unfortunately, SARS turned into a Frankenstein monster that killed the inventor/operator. See my Biography, Sir Mike Mbama Okiro: Striking Footprints.
SARS personnel mistakenly shot and killed Col. Rindams at the Herbert Macaulay end of the Third Mainland Bridge, while lying in wait at the bus stop for a jeep that was snatched at gunpoint in Ikoyi, Lagos. This led to a high-powered investigation that resulted in the compulsory retirement of CP Yomi Odubela, thereby bringing to an abrupt end the beautiful career of one of the best and most intelligent police officers I ever worked with. The Assistant Commissioner of Police in charge of State CID, Panti, ACP Shettima, was equally compulsorily retired. The O/C SARS and his men who operated at Herbert Macaulay on that fateful day were dismissed from the police. I escaped the devastating Waterloo by divine providence. On that historic day, I was indisposed and had to take a bed rest that evening on my doctor’s advice and so I was not on duty. Ordinarily, I should have been the person to command the operation.
The SARS I founded did not mount roadblocks, did not investigate mundane cases such as business transactions, land cases, family disputes or bounced cheques. It is a fact that some of the officers who operated SARS last year (2020) were either not born or had not even joined the police by 1991 when SARS came into being. So, they did not know the vision nor the raison d’etre of SARS; that was why they derailed woefully and disgracefully. My SARS was an operationally intelligent response to the inadequacies of Nigeria Police, even at that time.
The EndSARS protests once again in a very large scale exposed the vulnerable underbelly of the Nigeria Police Force, the lead agency in Nigerian internal security architecture.
In the recent past, there were sad cases of police stations being destroyed; the trend continues. During the colonial period and up to the Shehu Shagari era, police stations were built alongside police barracks and this policy assisted in police operations and in protecting the station. Policemen were easily mobilized by the DPO or Sergeant Major to protect the police stations and the community they were serving. With the sale of Federal Government buildings, the building of police barracks by government came to an end. This equally saw the end to police efficiency and effectiveness. During our time in the Police College, we were trained and indoctrinated and propelled to believe that a police officer is on duty 24 hours and we acted likewise. In those days, a policeman in the barracks must respond to the blast of the whistle in the barracks by the Sergeant Major and fall in instantly for every emergency or operational call of duty.
Now the story has changed. What do you say of a police officer serving in Maitama, but living in Abaji, Suleja or Keffi, where he/she can manage to afford a rented accommodation in the midst of hoodlums/criminals he/she is supposed to fight? How efficient, devoted, loyal or committed to duty can such an officer be? It was the accommodation problem for the police that moved me to introduce Police Housing Scheme. I was able to get houses for some police officers before my retirement. The policy and efforts were abandoned after my departure: POLICY SOMERSAULT.
It was M.D. Abubakar who resuscitated the scheme and took it to higher level when he became IGP. It will be recalled that, during the sale of Federal Government houses across Nigeria, the IGP’s official quarters in Maitama, the houses occupied by CPs and other police officers in Abuja and the states belonging to the Federal Government were sold. I had to put up a dogged and tedious fight before I could recover the IGPs residence in Maitama and the quarters of Command CPs in the states.
SARS came into existence in the midst of shortage of arms for police to confront Shina Rambo and his dangerous gang of car snatchers in Lagos. This was in 1991. Regretably, in 1999, when I came back to Lagos on a rescue mission, on my second missionary journey, this time as the Commissioner of Police, Lagos State, the issue of scarcity of arms for the police had not ameliorated. It was so bad and frustrating that I did not have firearms to cover key posts (KPs), vulnerable points (VP), banks, critical and important installations, officers quarters, courts, roadblocks, flashpoints and stop-and-search duty point, judges quarters, etc.
It was obvious I was saddled with enormous responsibilities without corresponding tools and needed logistics. I wrote series of requests complaints to IGP Alhaji M.A.K. Smith, now chairman, Police Service Commission, who was instructed to bring me before President Olusegun Obasanjo, VP, NSA, SGF, Chief of Staff, the governor of Lagos, etc, to defend myself on the rate of crime in Lagos. I listed out my responsibilities and commitments in the state, the efforts I made to stem the tide of crime and my demands for secure and crime-free Lagos.
I gave them a catalogue of requests and ended up by saying that, by the grace of God, I have never been associated with public failure. I told them to post me out of Lagos, if they did not want to give me what I needed to succeed in Lagos as CP. I dared them, but I was definitely sure they would not change me from Lagos, if they meant well for Lagos and Nigeria, though I was equally ready to leave Lagos because I was already frustrated and my potential dampened ( I was CP Benue State when the insecurity in Lagos attained its highest ebb. Many prominent men, including Air Commodor Tony Ikhazoboh, were killed and many others started relocating from Lagos for fear of their lives. IGP Smith called me on phone while I was in Benue and said among others, “I have a problem in Lagos State and I was told you are the only one who can solve it. If you know your good officers in Benue who made you have outstanding success in Benue, give me their names. I will transfer them with you to Lagos.” Before then, I had not met IGP Smith nor did I lobby to go to Lagos as some officers used to do).
So, I called the bluff of the powers that be in the Villa. Somebody shouted at me angrily asking who I was and what I thought I was to threaten the President. President Obasanjo took the man’s anger and vituperations calmly and asked me what was my immediate need to control the insecurity in Lagos.
I told them I needed AK-47 rifles to assist my men measure up to the sophistication of armed robbers in Lagos. That was how AK-47 came into the arsenal of the Nigeria Police Force. An order was placed immediately and a consignment of AK-47 rifles was airlifted from an European country to Lagos. I took custody of the arms, put them in Police College, Ikeja, under guard until the Force Armament Officer came to take stock and do the distribution. Lagos had the lion’s share in the distribution. From the Lagos supply, I allocated one AK-47 rifle to myself and I used it personally to lead my men in high-profile and robbery operations, to show them the way and demonstrate to them that though the police job/operations are difficult, they are not impossible.
• Okiro is former Inspector General of Police