Governor Nyesom Wike of Rivers State is made of the bold stuff. He says it as he sees it. He is one of Nigeria’s most outspoken politicians. But because he is a politician, it is easy to dismiss his voice as inconvenient rant from a politician. Nigerians, long inured to bad governance, no longer believe the politicians. They cry wolf when there is none. They maintain dignified silence when hundreds of wolves bump into the scene to do damage for as long as the damage serves their interest.
So, when Governor Wike sometime ago told the world that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in Rivers State is the chief machinery for crime and criminality in the state, I doubt if there were many who believed him, except of course those in Rivers State and their associates who had tasted the bitter broth of SARS. Some labelled Wike a propagandist.
But Wike was categorical and he did not deploy the sophistry of language that lent his statement to ambiguity. He pointedly accused SARS of engaging in kidnapping and armed robbery in the state. He did not say this at a political rally. He spoke with newsmen in Port Harcourt. The Governor alleged that the SARS Commander, Mr Akin Fakorede, was planted in the state to sabotage the security architecture and create an atmosphere of fear.
His exact words: “Most of the kidnappings and armed robberies taking place in this state are done by men of SARS. They use exhibit vehicles to operate. As the Chief Security Officer of the state, you complain, but they choose to play politics with crime.
“They fight crime in some states but they refuse to fight crime in Rivers State. We are done with the elections, but they are using SARS to create insecurity in the state. As I speak with you, they will deny. But the SARS operative, who was killed, was amongst those who raided the Rivers East Senatorial District Collation Centre. This man can be identified in the video as one of those who invaded the collation centre with Fakorede.
“I have never seen a country where they politicise crime. It is very obvious that they want to give the impression that Rivers State is unsafe. They want to instil fear preparatory to declaring during the elections that there are so many killings. Authorities deliberately trying to destroy a whole state and you want the people to be happy. I will no longer write (to the IGP). Now is the time to take my case to the public for the whole world to know what is happening”.
These are weighty allegations, and coming from a Governor, should not be dismissed. But it was dismissed by the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the state and the police authority. If the APC as the opposition political party in the state can be excused for dismissing Wike’s allegations, it is hard to make a case for the police. The initial reaction of the police hierarchy was a flat dismissal of the Governor’s allegations as mere fib. But the realities in Rivers State say otherwise. There had been several cases of otherwise innocent citizens being abducted by persons suspected to be men of SARS and were only left off the hook after a ‘ransom’ had been arranged. In a country where victims of organized crime do not readily incident their experience with the police, keeping track of such cases is difficult. But ask any resident of Port Harcourt, they will tell you sordid stories too hard to believe about the excesses of those who are paid to fight crime and protect the people. For the avoidance of doubt, SARS is a special section of the Nigeria Police Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCIID), the highest investigating arm of the Nigeria Police. There are 13 other sections of this department. This makes it a very important unit and whoever created it should be commended. But it does appear that SARS has gone sour like a poorly preserved soup. On several occasions, the exploits of SARS have saved many lives, aborted robberies, assassinations and sundry crimes. In Lagos, for instance, this writer had once profited from the quick and efficient intervention of men of SARS for which they stand eternally commended. Yet, when they go overboard, when they seem to be agents and catalysts for the same crime they were supposed to combat, they should be censured.
No decent policeman should take offence at the rebuke from Wike. The recent social media #EndSARS protest demonstrably put a lie to the denial of the police hierarchy that all is well within the conclave called SARS. Sights of policemen seizing laptops and phones of innocent Nigerian youths and tagging them Yahoo-Yahoo boys is commonplace. In a knowledge century, owning a laptop, phone or any digital gadget is not a luxury but a necessity. And using same to accuse youths of engaging in illicit activities without investigation smacks of insanity. The #EndSARS social media movement has justified Wike’s allegations. The initial denial and sudden volte-face by the Inspector General of Police to investigate the allegations of abuses and extra-judicial killings by men of SARS as part of a sweeping effort to restructure the unit further justify the plaintive cry of the Governor.
But I disagree with those calling for a scrapping of SARS. We can reform it, not end it. With rising crime wave especially banditry and robbery, we need a responsive and responsible SARS. We can’t afford to end SARS. The immediate challenge is for IGP Idris Ibrahim to investigate the various allegations and testimonies of affected Nigerians against his men. He says he will retrain men of SARS to make them conform to basic ideals of policing; this is not enough. He should first fish out the crooks among them and such black sheep should be made to face the law. The IGP should conduct an independent investigation of the activities of SARS in Rivers State. He should make effort to hear from the victims in the state, not from the police or the politicians. The reason victims do not readily report their ordeals to the police is because of lack of trust and this is a failure of policing. The Police must be a friend of the citizens not just in words but in action. Some cops know the crooks in their midst. The IGP must create an environment that would encourage such cops, usually the rank and file, to speak out.
The National Assembly members as representatives of the people should dispassionately investigate the allegations against SARS. They should encourage Nigerians under strict confidentiality to recount their experiences, good or bad, in the hands of SARS. Finally, the Presidency, whom the IGP reports to, must not look away at this time. President Muhammadu Buhari should pay attention to actions and inactions of the police top hierarchy. History has shown that if anything goes wrong in the police, it is so because those at the top echelon consciously allowed such wrong to fester.
Meanwhile, Wike deserves garland, not guillotine, for raising the red flag. Our democracy suffers when leaders relapse into the mute mode. Other Governors should hit the red button when they sense institutional impropriety in their states no matter who is involved. This is how to be a voice for the people.