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Despite public outcry, SARS still above the law (II)

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Despite public outcry, SARS still above the law (II)

SARS: Turning guns on the protected

 

In this concluding part of the Special Anti Robery Squad (SARS) story by JULIANA FRANCIS, victims of police brutality relate their gripping encounters with men of the unit while security experts and the Force speak on challenges and efforts to reform the squad

 

Mr Victor, who introduced himself as Yahoo boy, said that SARS men shouldn’t be blamed for harassing Nigerians, particularly Yahoo boys.

He said that Yahoo boys should be blamed, because they were the ones giving information about their colleagues to SARS men.

Victor said: “It is Yahoo boys that use SARS officers against one another. When you hit money and didn’t settle your colleagues to their satisfaction, they’ll inform SARS that you have hit some money. Some guys that had been set up that way had relocated to unknown destinations, to avoid a repeat. I have been set up twice and the worst part of it, was that the same person who I shared my runs with, was still the person that betrayed me. The last time SARS men came for me, they were about four men. I gave them N100,000 and we all went to a joint to drink. They advised me to be very careful of some of my colleagues; that my colleagues were envying me for doing well. I had just bought Toyota Camry car of N1.5 million. I bought the car in order to move around.”

 

Almost everyone knows why these SARS operatives embark on harassment of Nigerians and arbitrary arrest; it’s because of pecuniary interest.

 

Many of them are so rich that they have landed property scattered in different parts of the country. They also drive expensive cars, wear designer’s clothes and shoes.

 

Most criminals today, sensitive to the money SARS operatives are raking in from these illegal operations, have devised a new method of stealing from Nigerians. They know that people dread SARS and their uniforms, thus they went and sew SARS’s uniforms and started using them to scare, threaten and extort unsuspecting Nigerians.

 

On June 20, in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, six smart men, sewed SARS uniforms and started robbing and kidnapping. When they were arrested, they had on the real SARS operatives’ uniforms and were patrolling in a Hilux van in search of prey. The suspects were also armed with two pump action rifles and other weapons.

 

A senior police officer, who revealed the development, said the suspects had confessed to some kidnappings and robberies in Rivers State and its environs.

 

As these SARS men are harassing Nigerians on the roads, so also are they harassing commercial bus drivers, tricycle riders and motorcycle riders.

 

 

Almost every day, SARS men in Lagos State would be sighted at Pen Cinema-Agege axis, armed with AK47 rifles, collecting money from leaders of different transport associations. If these men refuse to cough up the money, their members are arrested on trumped up charges. The most targeted are tricycle and motorcycle riders. Their tricycles or motorcycles would be impounded if they refuse to play ball with the SARS men.

 

Association members, who spoke with our correspondent, refused to disclose their full names. Like most Nigerians, they are afraid of reprisal from SARS operatives.

A member of that National Amalgamated Motorcycle Rider Association of Nigeria, Railway Line, Agege branch, said that SARS men extorted them on a daily basis.

According to him, the association pays different sets of policemen N2,000 each. Even OPMESA are not left out of the payment.

 

He said: “We’re tired of giving them money. Anytime we refuse to give them money, it’s either they arrest our motorcycles or they arrest our members. They don’t want to know if we have money or not; what they are after is their own money. I cannot understand why they are collecting money from us, especially since the state government has stopped us from plying some routes. We are not plying those routes, yet they are always coming to collect money from us. They have turned us to their ATM. They come every day excerpt on Sundays to collect money from us. We even have a book, where the SARS officers sign whenever they collected money from us. Different sets used to come. What pains me most is that anytime we have issues at the police station, those among the policemen that usually come to collect money from us would ignore us.”

 

According to the man, every month, the association spends between N100,000 and N150,000 to SARS and military men.

 

A member of the association at Tabon Tabon area of Agege, who gave his name Adetunji, said that SARS operatives were extorting them heavily.

 

Whenever these complaints are made by members of the public, the Public Complaints Rapid Response Unit at Force Headquarters, Abuja, will come to the rescue by arresting and returning victims’ money. But Nigerians are saying that attitude will not bring lasting solution to SARS harassment of citizens.

 

It has been argued that SARS impunities continued because of Idris’ weak policies and lack-lustre attitude in ensuring implementation.

 

Many SARS men had been arrested for extortion, killing Yahoo boys while chasing them to collect money and marching them to ATM at gunpoint to empty their accounts and pocket the money, but these arrests have not checked the illegal activities of these SARS men.

 

Most of these SARS men have been repeatedly arrested, but that arrest seemed not be acting as a deterrent. May be because Nigerians are not really sure what becomes of them after media hype associated with their arrest.

 

There are always noise about their arrest, maybe trial and dismissal; but nobody can state for sure that these officers are truly sacked. So, the malady continues to grow.

 

 

Recently, the Lagos State Commissioner of Police, Imohimi Edgal, ordered the arrest of six SARS officers on charges of robbery.

 

They were alleged to have stopped a young man at Morogbo area on the outskirts of Lagos metropolis and collected N300,000 from him. They were taken to the Divisional Police Officer (DPO), in charge of Morogbo, who then took them to the area command. The money was recovered from them.

 

The area commander called Edgal, who instructed that   they should be brought to the command. The commissioner said that they should be tried, that it was sheer robbery. The six policemen were led by an inspector. The others were sergeants, two of them were newly promoted. The inspector later said that he wasn’t aware that his men collected such an amount of money from the alleged ‘Yahoo boy.’

 

The same week the six policemen were arrested, two others attached to Onireke Police Station, located at Cement bus stop were arrested,.

 

One of the SARS men was alleged to have submitted his Toyota Camry car for the operation. The operation was to cruise around Lagos metropolis, look at young men and decide which one looks like an internet fraudster.

 

After conferring with each other, they decided to leave their rifles at the station and drove off in the operational vehicle. They didn’t book or alert their DPO that they were going off on an operation.

 

They had been cruising around for a while when mother luck smiled on them. They sighted a young man at Ile-Epo axis; he looked like he was into cybercrime.

 

Like hungry hyenas, they pounced and frisked him without a warrant and seized his phone. They browsed through his phone and allegedly found some incriminating items.

 

After argument and counter-argument, they marched the victim to the nearest ATM gallery, where he withdrew N100,000 and handed it to them.

 

Fuming, the victim went home and innocently later narrated the encounter to his friend. The victim didn’t know that his friend’s uncle is Edgal’s close pal.

The commissioner soon got to hear of the incident. Luckily, the victim was able to remember the registration number of the Camry car. After some preliminary investigations, the SARS men were tracked to Onireke Police Station.

 

The two operatives were marched before Edgal and both denied knowing what the police boss was talking about.

 

 

It was at that point that the victim revealed that the two SARS men collected his phones and dollars that were then in his possession. When the Camry car was searched, two iPhones were discovered. The policemen, however, vehemently denied collecting dollars from him. Edgal said that they should be charged for stealing since they weren’t armed.

 

A police officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Edgal had seriously been trying to sanitise SARS since he became commissioner.

 

This was even as he alleged that SARS glory departed with the departure of Mr. Abba Kyari, who was formerly the officer in charge of the SARS unit in Lagos. He explained that when Kyari was leaving SARS to kick start the Inspector-General of Police Special Intelligence Response Team (IRT) Unit, he took the best hands.

 

He said: “SARS operatives we have now are those who came into the unit through the backdoor. They came to make money. They are criminals. In the former days, before someone was allowed to join SARS, he would have to sit for examinations and go through oral interview. Before one was allowed to join SARS, the person goes to Abuja for screening. Today, any politician and influential Nigerian can fix anyone into SARS. SARS officers are so many that they don’t even know one another. These days, you only need to know how to bribe your way. These crops of SARS men hardly take corrections.

 

“This idea of chasing Yahoo boys, marching them to ATM galleries and collecting money started after the departure of Kyari from SARS. When Kyari was heading SARS, there were too many robbery and kidnapping cases before him and his men, for them to be chasing Yahoo boys. There is a section of police saddled with cybercrime, not SARS. Today, if a senior officer is posted to SARS, he would report to duty with legions of his boys. Many of these corrupt SARS officers are reaping from the fears that former SARS men had created in the minds of Nigerians.

 

“Many are not even SARS officers, but because they know that Nigerians fear SARS, they claimed to be SARS operatives. These fake buy or sew black Tee-shirts and write FSARS on them and then start driving around, harassing and extorting Nigerians.”

 

According to him, it’s quite easy to know genuine SARS men from the fake.

“First, a real SARS operative can’t march anyone to ATM point at gunpoint. All real SARS operatives always have animal images and names on their T-shirts and jackets. For SARS men working at Ikeja, Lagos Command, the animal sign is Scorpion, those attached to FSARS, Adeniji, is Leopard, Ogun State SARS operatives is Hawk and so on,” he said.

 

According to the officer, corruption in SARS won’t stop unless the activities of senior policemen who send these operatives out on illegal operations are checked.

He noted that SARS men menaces became quite unchecked after some of them were posted to police stations, to be closer to the community members with respect to community policing. The officer said that once they were moved to different stations, it became difficult to check some of their activities.

He said that to beat SARS men at their own games, the Yahoo boys had started putting senior police officers on their payroll. Thus, when SARS men stop ‘Yahoo boys’ on the road, they’ll simply call the superior officer, who will then order the operatives to allow the suspect to go.

 

A cultist, Muritala Babatunde, who also introduced himself as internet fraudster, allegedly killed his friend, Adebisi Oriade (21) and the latter’s 18-year-old girlfriend, Julian Eke Imaga, because of $6,450 internet scam deal that didn’t go as planned. Adebisi and his girlfriend, Julian, were both students of Olabisi Onabanjo University (OOU), Ago-Iwoye, Ogun State.

 

Babatunde said he didn’t report Adebisi side-lining him in the deal to the police because the deceased had contacts of many senior police officers. Adebisi was perceived as untouchable. Thus, Babatunde decided to take laws into his hands.

To further thwart the SARS men, these fraudsters also befriend military men, whom they pay to watch their backs against SARS operatives.

 

Although SARS operatives’ torturing of suspects to get confessions was prevalent some years, but Arase, during his administration, checked such human rights’ violations. Indeed, many suspects died in SARS detentions while undergoing torture. Others were summarily executed.

When Arase took over the leadership of the police in 2015, he ensured that some SARS officers were arrested for killing suspects in their custody. He also dismissed them. They were then charged to court.

 

Today, killings may not be prevalent, but there have been arguments that extrajudicial killings are still being carried out silently.

 

Recently, a 200 Level student of Architecture, Kaduna State University, Richard Gora (21), was alleged to have been murdered by SARS officers for being in possession of a phone allegedly used to send threat messages. It would be later discovered that the deceased bought it from somebody. The undergraduate’s troubles started after the phone was traced to him. The SARS officers arrested and took him to their office on Independence Way, Kaduna, and allegedly tortured him.

 

When the mother heard that her son had been arrested, she rushed to SARS’s office and found Richard unconscious. She wanted to take him to hospital, but the SARS men refused. The suspect later died. He was his mother’s only child.

 

Attempting to check the negative reports which have continually followed activities of SARS men, the Zone 2 Command, Police Public Relations Officer (PPRO), Dolapo Badmos, said: “Bad eggs within SARS please be informed that not all good-looking young men out there are ‘yahoo boys.’ A lot of them are young Nigerians ‘hustling’ up and down to make ends meet. Kindly note that some young upcoming stars believe that weaving, plaiting and designing their hair Rastafarian is another way to be accepted as an entertainer, even though most times it doesn’t appeal to me. A couple of days ago, I saw the son of a high ranking officer with dreadlocks. Does that indicate that he’s a fraudster?! Hell ‘No’, that young man is well-trained and brought up. He’s just shooting his shot in the entertainment world.
“It will, therefore, be highly unfair for any security agent to arrest him under the guise of being a yahoo boy.”

Badmos urged SARS men to do more in combating crime, than in chasing youths because of the way they dress or under the wrong perception that they are into cybercrime.

 

She added: “Can we take a cue from the IG’s Intelligence Response Team (IRT), whose main aim has been to rid the nation of criminal elements? This team has done a lot to protect our nation. The team always sacrifices comfort and sleep! By so doing, they’ve been able to abort violent crimes such as kidnapping and armed robberies. They have not only rescued victims, but made arrests. Dear SARS, we appreciate the ones among you, who are doing what is right while we advise the bad eggs to take a cue from IRT team and stop causing pains to legitimate young men and their families. Please note that it is not right to accost anyone   on the road and start checking his or her phone, respect people’s privacy and rights.”

 

Most Nigerians have expressed surprise that despite the argument by some security experts that policemen in Nigeria are not enough to police the estimated 180 million Nigerians, SARS men still have enough leisure time to focus and target young Nigerians perceived to be yahoo boys, while crimes and criminals continue to envelop the nation.

 

Perhaps, in an attempt to stem the lawlessness and human rights’ violations of SARS operatives under his leadership, Idris recently approved the request of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to commence an independent audit of detention cells in all police commands and formations in the country, including those of SARS.

 

These visits will enable the NHRC oversee the human rights situation of detainees as well as undertake general audit of the state of police detention facilities (cells) in the country. This exercise is part of the NHRC 2018 audit of police detention centres.

 

The NHRC was established by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) ACT, 1995 (as amended) to deal with all matters relating to promotion, protection and enforcement of human rights in the country.

Also on June 27, Idris ordered that a litany of instructions be wired to different police commands across the federation as the battle to rein in SARS begins.

In the signal, Idris ordered that SARS section in every area command should be disbanded immediately. He further instructed SARS operatives, in every police command, to be under the direct control and supervision of the Deputy Commissioners of Police, in charge of Operations (DCOps).

 

Idris added that every SARS operative, going on operation, should be in full uniform; trousers must be black and jacket must indicate the SARS of that state or they should be in full police uniform. He noted that any SARS on patrol without full uniform should be arrested by the state commissioner of police X-Squad.

 

SARS operatives, henceforth, should venture only into matters that have to do with robbery, kidnapping and murder. They shouldn’t go out on any operation, unless there is a distress call. And only those who are on duty or assigned, should attend to the distress call, the IG added.

 

The National Coordinator, Network on Police Reforms in Nigeria Foundation (NOPRIN), Okechukwu Nwanguma, said: “It is a well-known fact that for many years, SARS men have turned into a criminal unit in the Nigeria police force. Harassing Nigerian youths is not a new thing because it has become their daily duty. To prey on the youth just to make money. It is also because at the leadership level of the Force, criminality is prevalent. It is on the leaders’ of the Force to deal with members of the unit who are set up to combat crime, but have turned to be criminals themselves. Since the Force leadership itself is aware of all those things, we expected that they should look into it. The things are that Nigerian Force as an institution, need comprehensive report, and that call would only come when there is a political leadership that is genuinely concerned about the situation on the ground, which is the primary purpose of government. As it is now, except we reform the Force and employ creditable leadership, which is committed to the safety and protection of Nigerians, this thing would continue to be with us.”

Retired Commissioner of Police, Chief Frank Odita, said: “Police have a right to arrest anybody, but don’t have right to convict anybody. If somebody is arrested and he is found to be innocent and cleared, I don’t see what the problem is. The only problem we have in the country is that there are so many idle youths roaming the streets every day. What government should do is to find job for them because idle hands are devil’s workshop. If youths are idle, they’ll get involve in crime, may be like Yahoo Yahoo or robbery. Nigerians should not worry who arrest who, but people should be able to assert their rights. What I see is that if somebody is taken to the police station, and he or she knows they are not guilty of any crime, the person has the right to appeal.”

Odita added: “If police demand money from the person, all the person needs to do is to be patient and get out from the place. By the time you leave the police station, the Inspector-General of Police, Commissioner of Police or anybody in-charge of that area should be sued. By the time you sue them, and they are being convicted, others will learn, the activities will stop. It is two sides to a coin. One is to ensure that the youth leave the streets by creating jobs for them. The other is for them to fight for their rights when they are arrested for committing no crime.

 

“Every person in the country has a right, which is inscribed into our constitution for our advantage. Some of the problems I have with Nigerians are that they always like to give money to buy their freedom when they are arrested by the security agencies. When somebody is arrested, he or she will ask the officers what they can do, how much should I give to you so I can go? There are many non-governmental organisations, which are doing a lot of things to assist citizens against the security agents’ harassment.

“We should not shy away from our responsibilities. Our youths are our responsibilities. We also should stop police from carrying out illegal arrest. If one or two SARS men are taken to court and convicted, the court will order compensation to be awarded against the policemen, they’ll stop carrying out illegal arrest. These policemen don’t know who they are arresting or who the person is related to. It’s better for them to arrest after investigating the suspect properly. Any person arrested illegally should seek redress in court.”

A Public Affairs Analyst, Comrade Michael Adebisi, said: “I think it is out of ignorance because according to Code of Conduct that established SARS, they are not supposed to be harassing Nigerian youths. The right thing and acceptable thing is for security agents to apprehend someone with comprehensive evidence against the person. Arresting innocent Nigerians illegally, means that somebody, somewhere, is promoting impunity in the country. It is very important to know that government has a role to play in the ugly development because an innocent person walking on the road cannot be arrested without a reason.

“The youth has freedom to walk on the streets of their country and you don’t say because some of them are into crime, then everybody should be tagged as criminals because Yahoo crime is trending. It is not all youths that are involved in the crime of yahoo stuff or defrauding people. We have hard working youths, who come from very good homes and will not go into such act. I believe that activities of SARS operatives, especially harassment of people on the road under the belief that they are fraudsters, are as a result of corruption and impunity in the high places of the Force.”

Adebisi further advised: “Nigerian youths dressing should be moderate. They should show a good behaviour. Also, they shouldn’t get involved in any kind of criminal activities. Young men should avoid tattoos on their bodies. Tattoos are not Nigerian culture. When you see people with tattoo on their bodies, people looked at them as a bad child. Most importantly, youths must not walk late night and should avoid bad gangs.”

The Force Headquarters (FHQ) said that a lot of reform initiatives were being undertaken, to change the image of SARS.

The Force Public Relations Officer (FPRO), DCP Jimoh Moshood, made the disclosure in response to allegations of extra-judicial killings, brutality and other human rights abuses made against SARS.

 

While urging the public to support the Force in its determination to execute its crime fighting and prevention mandate, Moshood, however, underscored the fact that policemen were also entitled to their human rights, which must be respected at all times.

 

He said: “Anybody that is going to protect peoples’ rights, his rights too should be protected. We are doing a lot to ensure that the behaviour of police officers and men conform to best practices. People need to appreciate what the IG is doing. When he came on board, the first thing he did, was to direct training programmes for SARS on human rights and operational capacity. That was done in earnest. But then, the issue of agitation (for the scrapping if SARS) came up; SARS as a department of the Force, is the strike force of the Force. They are the people that tackle robbery, kidnapping, cattle rustling and other violent crimes. Of recent, apart from the committee, the reform agenda of SARS is being implemented, and is being completed. The IG has appointed a Commissioner of Police to be in charge of SARS; they are no more under the state command.”

 

He added: “They are now under Operations Department at the Force Headquarters, and the CP SARS is in Abuja. And, all the commanders of SARS are reporting to him.

 

“We have equally created human rights desks in each command, where people who have complaints against SARS can report their complaints. We have equally opened up interactions with the public. You know, we released some numbers. Even human rights commission, and other civil society organisations are part of the reform process.”

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