Against the backdrop of any social upheaval featuring wide ranging angles from which to view its implications, the recent wave of street rage running simultaneously across several cities in Nigeria, with the hashtag EndSARS, also offers its own lessons.
Spurred by an endless stream of tales of woe featuring incessant abuses of privilege and breaches of their standard operating procedures by operatives of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS), there erupted a nationwide, co-ordinated talk-down and associated street level protests against the squad.
A rather significant dimension of the demonstrations is the now emerging evidence of its elaborate pre-event organizational endowment, as well as international dimension whereby several cities across the world had Nigerians joining their compatriots at home to press home the campaign of #EndSARS.
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And like the African proverb holds that “when one finger is stained by oil, it spreads same to the remaining four fingers”, the fight against SARS which started with youthful protesters, showed early signs of bludgeoning into a full blown showdown between the general public and the country’s police establishment, with portends of a possible state of total anarchy, if caution is not considered by the authorities.
Not surprisingly, the suddenness and novelty of the upheaval as well as its sophistication and spread, threw the Administration of President Muhamadu Buhari into a stampede as it came face to face with the reality of its ultimate vulnerability, in the face of this new-found peoples’ power by hitherto seemingly docile Nigerians.
The battle tested general he is, Buhari – apparently proving more discretional than his lieutenants – saw the need for a tactical withdrawal in order to ensure that the situation did not degenerate into a worst case scenario of an eventual showdown between the Nigerian general public and the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) – if not the country’s entire security apparatus.
Indeed, for all practical intents and purposes, the #EndSARS protests have actually proved to represent a new Nigeria which had been angling for such an opportunity to get even with the this government, over the now intolerable spate of serial denigration, pauperisation, emasculation and disdain of Nigerian citizens, which it inherited from past administrations and has elevated to a new level.
However, in a rare show of sensitivity, the government buckled under pressure from the escalating street rage and the massing up of people’s power against it to disband the SARS, redeploy the operatives and replace the unit with a new outfit under the name SWAT, a name borrowed from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) of the United States.
However, events were to prove that such measures were seen as rather too cosmetic to pacify protesters, given that the public angst was spawned by circumstances that required a more definitive, full blown restructuring of the country’s police establishment, and by implication the recourse to better governance practice.
Among the litany of grievances by members of the public against the now disbanded SARS, feature a wide swathe of abuses which included extrajudicial killings, extortions, connivance with criminals in instances of armed robbery, rape, kidnapping for ransom and illegal trade in firearms.
In this respect has been a deluge of reports from actual victims who survived the deadly ordeals from the SARS operatives as well as witnesses of their outrages, where the victims did not live to tell their stories.
It therefore remains established that the protesters have a water-tight case for the #EndSARS campaign.
SARS as metaphor
However given the dawning reality that the scrapping of SARS alone, even with its replacement with any other outfit, may not meet public expectations, the situation remains a matter that should concern the government.
The questions here are two fold. Firstly is how far can the government go in assuaging the street rage and move the country to the next level?
The second is how willing can the government be to bend over to move to restructure the country in line with public expectations?
This is where a closer look at some aspects of the root and course of the protests associated with the street rage betrays tendencies that profile SARS as likely serving the role of a metaphor to stand in for a more profound irritant and therefore causative factor for the protests.
And without any endowment of clairvoyance, it is clear that whatever irritant that will attract a disproportionately globalized protest over a Nigerian domestic problem goes beyond the outrages from a single operational unit of the country’s police establishment.
After all from an organizational perspective, SARS was only a unit under the Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Department (CIID) which in itself is just one of the six departments of the Nigeria Police Force.
It was created as a child of necessity to provide that department with a punching capability for containing the growing menace of armed robbery and other heinous crimes.
That it had degenerated into a public enemy number one is a matter that demands proper consideration and interrogation by Nigerians.
In this respect the signs point to the fact that SARS and its parent NPF outfit are presently villified as fall guys in the wider context of failure of government to execute its social compact with Nigerians.
Put otherwise, the disbanded SARS, like its parent body the Police, may have been consigned to the role of a whipping boy for the sins of the government.
It is against this backdrop that #EndSARS needs to be seen from a more embracing perspective that goes beyond the campaign chants and activities by protesters on one hand, and the reported disposition of the exiting SARS operatives to indulge in reprisal attacks on sponsors of the campaign on the other hand.
If media reports are anything to go by in these times of genuine and fake news, there are several reports that police units are turning down distress calls and other emergency responses due to resentments over the scrapping of SARS.
The foregoing is a situation that qualifies for the consideration of the organisers of the #EndSARS campaign, and police authorities as well, given that Nigeria still needs the police in their full strength.
The policing challenge
Statutory policing which requires the protection of lives and property as well as maintenance of law and order has never been an easy task from the days of the ancient Greeks who were the first to establish a police system which they referred to as ‘polis’, to the Romans who improved on the concept and to the present era.
Ordinarily, policing is a noble profession that should attract the brightest, boldest and most humanistic of souls to join.
Good police officers are a special breed of humanity – who can remain stable and committed to playing the role of guardian angels in protecting the society from its internal enemies and vagrants.
If in the case of Nigeria the force is suffused with unqualified and undesirable elements, also referred to as bad eggs, the authorities remain duty bound to clean such out of the system.
Meanwhile, seen in proper perspective, the present situation that pitches the police and its SARS operatives against the #EndSARS campaigners and the country in general derives from a constitutional conundrum featuring an untidy interfacing between the force and the government as well as with the people.
For instance, Section 214 (2a) of the Constitution provides that “the Nigeria Police Force shall be organized and administered in accordance with such provisions as may be prescribed by an act of the National Assembly”.
Meanwhile Section 216 (1a) of the same Constitution prescribes that the Inspector General of Police, who by statute controls the operations of every police officer in the country, shall be appointed by the President acting on the advice of the Nigeria Police Council.
Hence, while the National Assembly remains responsible for establishing the operational modalities for the police, the Inspector General of Police who exercises absolute control over the operatives of the force is appointed and controlled by the Police Council with its head as the President.
This self-contradicting position of the Constitution is yet to be adequately resolved, leaving the police to operate under two masters as well as any other potentate that is smart enough to exploit the conundrum of conflict of roles, between the executive and legislative arms.
And in a country with diminished respect for the rule of law, the wide swathe of abuses that can be wrought with the loose oversight of the powerful police force, is easy to imagine.
That is why, if Nigerians want a better police system they should look no farther, but hold the National Assembly responsible and accountable.
So says the Constitution.