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SARS and abuse of human rights

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The police and Misau dramaIT is a common sight to see the police stop and search individuals on transit in a broad day light and then go on to forcefully extort money from the passengers and even collect their phones before inquiring for identification. Woe unto you if there’s none. In some cases when there’s some sort of identity, it won’t even stop them from threatening thunder and brimstone, and asking you to unlock phone apps. They scroll through all messages, pictures, videos and Facebook chats. Some would argue that they are doing their job to keep the citizens safe. Let’s understand that there is something called personal effect, personal property, that means it is an extension of who we are. What we and the secrets we keep. Yes, we keep secrets. Who doesn’t? How about some office secrets or some trade secrets?

One Mr. Onyeme Henry recently recounted how he was grabbed by SARS some time ago along Igwuruta – Etche road in Rivers State, they checked his vehicle papers and everything was in order. They collected his phone and spent close to 15 minutes going though the contents, and later returned it before demanding for N5,000 so they could let him go. Imagine such insolence. This is a squad operating outside the law and inflicting daily brutality on Nigerians who are often legally powerless to defend themselves against criminal accusations, let alone from the torture meted out by SARS. Stories of how individuals were unlawfully beaten, thrown into jail or arrested are being retold in all corners. People no longer feel safe walking the streets, gathering for a luncheon or, after dinner, hanging out, because SARS would molest  them with impunity. Let’s not forget that members of the political opposition or a company’s competitors could bribe some of these agents to plant bugs, micro chips, or even steal documents for them, not to mention the abuse of power. The big question is, how many money bags or politicians have you seen being stopped on the road not to mention going through their phones unless the person is an opposition or his mere existence is threatening the powers that be? These are the people with the right connection to privatise or even sell Nigeria to the highest bidder.

Some civil society organisations and individuals have started a campaign calling the Federal Government to look into this matter, but it seems as always that what these concerned citizens are transmitting wouldn’t connect with the transmission room. Sometime ago, a friend was kidnapped and we reached out to the police hotline. Apparently, whoever was on duty that night wasn’t in the mood to help or redirect our request to anyone who could. His scornfully giggle portraysed him as a man who couldn’t care less. Later, he said “Go pay the ransom and let us be”,then the line went dead. We tried connecting afterwards but he wouldn’t take the call. It was the most frightening I have been about anything. If an organisation established with the sole responsibility of keeping Nigerians safe is not living up to expectation, then of what use is it? According to the 2016 budget, the police got N7.2 billion, so it couldn’t have been an issue of underfunding even though the Inspector General of Police is shouting poor budget allocation.

Just recently in Onitsha, Anambra State, some security agents under the guise of SARS raided a street. First, they started harassing elderly women and everyone passing by, collecting their valuables. As if that was not enough, they jumped into a woman’s shop and picked up her wares on display, from provisions to drinks and water and when her brother stood up to them together with his elder sister, they were beaten to a pulp and dumped in their vehicle, together with some onlookers. No one dared to challenge these guys, it seemed almost like we were breeding home-grown terrorists. If all this could happen in broad daylight, what evil that goes on in the dark?

Meanwhile, let’s not forget how most UBER drivers now bring innocent passengers to the SARS spot. How do you tell someone who wears a shirt and shorts that she is indecently dressed, since when did dressing become an offence? There was a time a lady even paraded proof of payment/ transfer she made to a SARS operative, not even a statement acknowledging or denying the payment came from the force headquarters or the Presidency. Nigerians are being robbed by the Nigerian Police force through SARS and the government is sitting idly, watching. Someday, Nigerians will revolt, having no more of an idle government that doesn’t understand a singular thing about safety. Is SARS even allowed to break into people’s homes when they are not around? How are Nigerians supposed to differentiate between these SARS and robbers when they wear no uniform or show any form of identification, shooting sporadically in residential areas. Are they really officers of the law? Driving a vehicle boldly with SARS written on it is not enough to prove they claim they are. Anyone could get that done.  Until there are checks and balances, killing and maiming citizens as they go about their business will continue to happen. This means that public safety is not in the presidency’s bucket list of priorities.

In Nigeria, the police force is typically viewed as inefficient and corrupt. From available statistics, the Nigerian Police alone had killed 7,108 persons in four years as of December 2012. Of the victims, 2,500 were detained suspects. On my way to Port Harcourt, Rivers State, a few days ago, our driver was accosted by a mobile police man who was demanding that the transit driver “drop” something, otherwise he wouldn’t allow us to leave. But on sighting my identity card after I spoke out he said: “Oya dey go, soon this journalist go publish my name”, he quickly covered his name and number. What a shame! According to Amnesty International, apart from the torture and rampant bribery, some family members stated that SARS stole their cars or withdrew all the money from their bank accounts. When people don’t pay up, they are detained and these detainees are held in a variety of locations, including a grim detention centre in Abuja known as the “Abattoir” where 130 persons were kept as at 2016.  How do you begin to challenge red-eyed men who are high on substance and cheap drinks and with loaded guns?

While in Lagos, I had to visit Palmgroove station to see a friend who was picked up by policemen in mufti. But on getting to the station, I found that he wasn’t there. After I called again, the officers told me where to meet them and on getting there, I asked what his crime was and the men said he had condoms and lubes in his wallet. So, my question was, since when had condoms and lubes become illegal in Nigeria, with people having consensual sex or carrying condoms to protect themselves? Ok, why was he not taken to the police station? And their reply was they were doing him a favour, that the station would be worse. Alas, after I flashed my identity card the story changed, they said “we are trying to protect you ooo, na this kain people dey kidnap people”. What is the connection between condoms in a wallet and  kidnapping ? This can only happen in Nigeria.

  • Odigwe is a social media campaigner

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