By Chijioke Okoronkwo, News Agency of Nigeria (NAN)
On Oct. 8, a wave of protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force erupted in many cities across the country.
The protests were triggered by a video trending online showing a young man allegedly shot by SARS operatives at Ughelli, Delta; an allegation the police denied.
The predominantly young remonstrators with the hastag #ENDSARS sought the dissolution of the unit and end to police brutality.
By most accounts, the protests seemed to have been accentuated by resentments built up by previous and recent alleged incidents of extra-judicial killings, harassment and extortion on citizens by SARS operatives.
Worthy of note, before the situation snowballed into street protests, the Federal Government had waded in with a view to finding a lasting and assuaging solution.
On Oct. 4, at the directive of President Muhammadu Buhari, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo met with the Inspector-General of Police (I-G), Mohammed Adamu, at his residence over concerns on the activities of SARS.
Adamu was prompted to ban SARS, other tactical squads from undertaking routine patrols as well as stop and search duties.
The vice president said he was concerned and angry that young men and women, who were arrested, were in some cases, maimed or killed by men of the Nigeria Police Force.
He said that the president was displeased about reports on activities of SARS and resolved to ensure reforms.
“Such violations are completely unacceptable because these are individuals who are meant to protect Nigerians.
“The arrests, maiming or killings of young people or anyone at all, is completely wrong.
“It is unlawful and illegal and anyone involved in this act ought to be investigated and prosecuted.
“Today, I had a meeting with the I-G and we reviewed several of these issues.
“The president is very concerned about it; he wants to see a reform.’’
Again, on Oct. 10, Osinbajo met with the 1-G, Director-General, Department of State Services(DSS), Yusuf Bichi and Executive Secretary, National Human Rights Commission(NHRC), Tony Ojukwu, to determine the next steps toward addressing concerns of Nigerians on the excesses of SARS.
The vice president and the I-G afterward briefed Buhari who gave further directives to the I-G on the matter.
Buhari said he was being briefed regularly on the reform efforts aimed at ending police brutality and unethical conduct, and ensure that the police are fully accountable to the people.
The president urged all citizens to show more understanding and patience as government would continue to do its best in protecting lives and property of Nigerians.
“I met again with the I-G tonight; our determination to reform the police should never be in doubt.
“I am being briefed regularly on the reform efforts ongoing to end police brutality and unethical conduct, and ensure that the police are fully accountable to the people.
“The I-G already has my firm instructions to conclusively address the concerns of Nigerians regarding these excesses, and ensure erring personnel are brought to justice.
“I appeal for patience and calm; even as Nigerians freely exercise their right to peacefully make their views known.’’
On Oct. 11, as the protests raged and neared crescendo, Nigerians got pacifying news from the I-G; he announced the dissolution of SARS across police commands in the country.
Adamu said that the dissolution was in response to the yearnings of Nigerians.
He said that by the disbandment, all officers and men of the defunct SARS would be redeployed.
The I-G said that the force was mindful of the need to combat armed robbery, kidnapping and other violent crimes in the country which was the core mandate of the erstwhile squad.
Adamu said that a new policing arrangement to address anticipated policing gaps by the dissolution of SARS had evolved and would be announced in due course.
“As part of measures to prevent a recurrence of events that gave rise to the dissolution of SARS, a ‘Citizens’ and Strategic Stakeholders’ Forum’ is being formed.’’
He said the forum would regularly interface with police leadership at all levels and advise on police activities as they affect the general public.
“In addition, the force is constituting an Investigation Team which shall include civil society organisations and human rights bodies to work with the police in investigating alleged cases of human rights violations,’’ Adamu said.
The inspector-general commended Nigerians, who genuinely expressed their concerns for a better policing orientation in an organised, patriotic and civil manner.
The I-G pledged the commitment of the force to bequeath to the country, a Police Force and system that would be accountable and professional in service delivery.
The dissolution of the unit has elicited reactions from the president, vice president, governors and other notable Nigerians even as protests remained active in some areas.
Buhari said that disbanding of SARS was the first step to extensive police reforms by his administration
He also directed that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts be brought to justice.
”I will like to use this opportunity to say a word on the recent genuine concerns and agitations by Nigerians about the excessive use of force and in some cases extra-judicial killings and wrongful conduct of the men of the Nigerian Police Force.
“The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of our people.
”We will also ensure that all those responsible for misconduct or wrongful acts are brought to justice.
”We deeply regret the loss of life of the young man in Oyo State during the recent demonstrations.
”I have directed that the circumstances of his death should be thoroughly investigated.
”Meanwhile, it is important to recognise that the vast majority of men and women of the police force are hardworking and diligent in performing their duties.
”The few bad eggs should not be allowed to tarnish the image and reputation of the force,” the president said.
Osinbajo, on his part, said that there was a clear message of government’s commitment to ensuring reforms.
He said that those who had committed wrongful acts would be duly investigated and prosecuted.
“ And that whatever replaces SARS is something that is acceptable, and comply with all tenets of the rule of law.
“I think these are deep issues that we are all concerned about; I don’t think one person is more concerned than others.
“ I have also been involved in many cases of many young people trying to resolve these kinds of conflicts that have been reported.
“I think it is a good moment for the police force and for all of us to try and reform the police; we are all committed to it,’’ he said.
In his reaction, Gov. Ifeanyi Okowa of Delta described the dissolution of SARS as a welcome development.
Sharing similar sentiments, Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, said that the dissolution of SARS by the I-G was a victory for Nigerian youths.
Former Vice President Atiku Abubakar, Senate President, Ahmed Lawan, Speaker, House of Representatives, Femi Gbajabiamila, Senate Chief Whip, Orji Uzor Kalu have all backed the dissolution of SARS.
More so, the Voice of Nigeria Youths (VONY), a youth group, applauded Buhari, Osinbajo and the I-G on the dissolution of SARS.
The group’s founder, Temilade Okesanjo, congratulated Nigerian youths for lending their voices online and offline to the need to #ENDSARS and reform the Nigerian Police Force agitation.
Nonetheless, some protesters, while appreciating government’s responsiveness, say more pragmatic steps were needed to soothe their anger.
They demand immediate release of all arrested protesters; justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; setting up an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct within 10 days.
Also, the protesters demand that in line with the new police act, psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS, should be carried out before redeployment.
They also demanded higher pay for police officer, and equipping the police adequately to boost the protection of lives and property of citizens.
Perceptive observers say that the government has been reasonably responsive in handling the issue.
They hold that investigating and bringing to book all ex-SARS operatives involved in extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses will go a long way in smothering the flames in the streets.