The name – Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, usually sent cold shivers down the spines of criminals who saw the unit not just as an antidote to their atrocious acts, but capable of sending them to their graves at the snap of the finger.
SARS, which is one of the units under the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department, headed by a Deputy Inspector-General of Police, was established to detain and prosecute those involved in violent crimes such as kidnapping, armed robbery, among others.
The unit was founded in 1992, by a former Commissioner of Police, Simeon Danladi Midenda, to address the surging wave of crime in Lagos State.
That year, one Col. Rindam. an Army officer from Plateau State was killed by some policemen at a checkpoint in Lagos.
His death sparked protests as soldiers took to the streets of Lagos in search of any policeman to avenge the death of their officer.
Policemen, therefore, abandoned all checkpoints and flashpoints in Lagos and withdrew to their respective barracks, thereby giving robbers room to have a field day as they operated with impunity. The era witnessed the reign of terror by the Shina Rambo robbery gang.
To put an end to the reign of terror, SARS was formed with only 15 policemen who operated in two Peugeot station wagons, until the rift was settled after much deliberations between authorities of the Police and Army.
One unique feature of this unit was its mode of operation. Its operatives operated in plain clothes and used vehicles that could not be associated with the security or any government agency.
They were also barred from carrying Walkie Talkie and guns openly in order not to destroy their element of surprise.
The operatives were fully combat-ready at all times and stayed undercover while monitoring radio communication of conventional police operatives.
As soon as robbery incident was reported anywhere in Lagos, they went out with speed, each team to a predetermined location.
At their various locations, they patiently waited while the conventional policemen continued to chase the robbers around Lagos.
In their bid to escape, robbers always fell into the operatives’ traps and met their waterloo. All robbers arrested in combat had no option but to give details of their composition and number of the operations they had carried out to the operatives.
The information were then used to solve previous cases of robberies and also gave them names of other robbers on the loose to go after.
One other distinctive feature about the unit at its initial stage, was that the operatives never stood on the road looking for robbers.
Rather, they met the robbers on their beds and hideouts. Gradually, they were able to dislodge the terror gangs and restored calm in the state.
Operatives went off course
Between 1992 and 2002, SARs only existed in Lagos. With time, it existed in every state command but unfortunately, it deviated from its original concept.
Today, the element of surprise and facelessness have disappeared, as they are seen in every nook and cranny of every state of the federation, brandishing their weapons.
Another original concept which the unit deviated from, was in dealing strictly with violent crimes such as armed robbery and kidnapping as the operatives started receiving complaints from members of the public, some of which were civil issue in nature and had nothing to do with violent crimes.
In their bid to stem the tide of crime, operatives went off course and at a point, became a national embarrassment as Nigerian youths were routinely arrested for frivolous reasons such as wearing dreadlocks, driving posh cars or having expensive phones.
These youths would be arrested on allegation of being internet fraudsters and at the end, forced to part with cash.
Also, the unit was turned into a money-spinning machine where suspects were forced to cough out huge amount of money before they would be granted bail. Operatives were also accused of turning the units into a torture chamber, just to extract truth out of suspects, some of whom died in the process.
The new trend of extortion, which was copied from the conventional policemen reached an appalling height where victims were forced to transfer money from their Automated Teller Machines, ATM, with some policemen owning POS machines for easy transaction.
In December 2016, an online advocacy campaign to end SARS brutality, was championed by Segun Awosanya, a human rights activist.
The signal bell echoed across the country with calls to the concerned authorities to scrap the unit. Calls for the scrap of SARS, however, received knocks from some quarters on the ground that it was being championed by some criminal elements who did not want to be hindered in their nefarious activities.
Before the campaign, Amnesty International, a Non Governmental Organisation, had threatened to sue the Nigerian Police for human rights abuse following the arrest and detention of three commercial motorcyclists, for over one week, by SARS operatives in Borokini, Port Harcourt, Rivers State. Amnesty International alleged that the suspects were beaten every night with the butt of the gun and iron belt.
Disturbed by the calls for the unit to be scrapped on the grounds of violation of human rights, the Federal Government ordered its total overhaul on August 14, 2018, consequent upon which the then Inspector-General of Police, Idris Ibrahim, announced a change in its name from SARS to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, FSARS.
But this change witnessed a brazen disregard for constituted authorities as most SARS operatives carried on without reporting to Commissioners of Police in their states of operation.
This was because their operation was monitored from Abuja and since they did not take orders from the state commands where they were based, the Commissioners’ hold on them was limited.
When it became apparent that the initial change did not get the desired result, the present IGP, Mohammed Adamu, in 2019, ordered the immediate decentralization of the FSARS. Consequently, it was removed from the Force headquarters, Abuja, back to its original state.
In addition, IGP Adamu charged the DIG Force Criminal Investigations Department, FCID and Commissioners of Police across the state commands to take charge of the unit and threatened to hold them responsible for any unprofessional conduct by the operatives.
As first step to ensure that human rights were upheld in all SARS offices across the country, investigation into series of complaints ranging from indiscriminate detention, extortion and human rights violation, were carried out by the DIG, FCID and his team, where all SARS offices were visited and suspects interviewed to know whether the crime they committed warranted their being in SARS custody.
Also, strict warning was handed down to officers in-charge of SARS offices across the country, to restrict their duty to violent crimes such as kidnapping and armed robbery. They were also warned not to handle any case that has not been transferred to them by the Commissioners of Police in the state commands where they were operating, and also to carry out routine checks of their cells, to ensure suspects were not detained illegally and more than the mandated period of time.
Investigation carried out by Crime Guard revealed that some of the officers in-charge of the unit have introduced a human face to treatment of suspects in their custody.
For instance, at the SARS office under the Lagos State Police Command, suspects who spent festive periods such as Christmas, Eid-el- Malud and Fitri, and Easter celebrations, were usually given free breakfast and dinner on the expenses of the former O/C SARS, CSP Peter Gana.
In spite of moves by the concerned authorities to project positive changes in the unit, Amnesty International, recently accused Police authorities of not prosecuting erring policemen from the unit.
In its new report, titled “Time to End Impunity”, Amnesty International documented 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial executions by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020.
The report signed by the Director, Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, read: “The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetuated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or to bring any SARS officers to justice is shocking and unacceptable. Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity.
“The systemic use of torture and other ill treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards”
The findings of the report showed that these violations were carried out under the supervision of high-ranking police officers.
Continuing, Ojigho, said, “No circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification of torture. In many cases the victims are the poor and vulnerable, easy targets for law enforcement officers whose responsibility it is to protect them. Impunity sends the message to torturers that they will get away with it. Impunity denies victims and their relatives the right to have the truth established, the right to see justice served and the right to reparations.
“The Nigerian authorities must go beyond lip service to ensure there is real reform within the Nigeria Police Force with an emphasis on SARS.
“These reforms must translate into holding police officers suspected of torture to account, ending torture, unlawful detention, extortion, extrajudicial execution and other human rights violations that SARS officers have been known for across Nigeria”, he stated.