Anxiety as NHRC Probes Rights’ Abuse by SARS

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, of the Nigerian Police was created in 1992 due to the need to have a dedicated arm of the police that would tackle armed robbery, kidnapping and other serious crimes which assumed a terrible dimension then. The squad was empowered to use all legal means possible to prevent and arrest armed robbery in the country. At inception the squad performed creditably well as the escalating cases of armed robbery and kidnapping began to reduce significantly.

Following various successful operations, arrested armed robbery suspects began to recant their sins and evil exploits on national television to the delight of Nigerians. Like an Emperor basking in the praise of worshippers, the squad suddenly began to unleash terror on anyone suspected to be involved in just any crime. Even cases of family quarrel became an area of jurisdiction for SARS officials.

The hysteria that greeted their performance however recently evaporated as details of their inhuman treatment of suspects in cells across the country emerged. Practically everyone who has had an encounter with SARS officials had a terrible experience to recount.
Moved by public outcry, the federal government earlier in the year announced a reform of the squad. The reforms were aimed among other things to curb the excesses of the squad. Good as the reform appeared; it failed to address the injustices and miscarriage of justice that have been melted to innocent citizens by the squad.
Rising to its statutory mandate in a view to address the outcry of victims of SARS’s excesses, the National Human Rights Commission, NHRC has embarked on nationwide investigation of rights abuses and other activities of the squad.
Headed by NHRC’s Executive Secretary, Tony Ojukwu, the panel is expected to sit in Abuja and perhaps the six geo-political zones of the country to listen to complaints from victims of alleged human rights violations against SARS operatives and members of the public, who have suggestions on reforming SARS and improving public safety and security in Nigeria.
Members of the panel are Tijani Mohammed (from the Police Service Commission), David I. Shagba , Public Service Commission, and Chino Obiagwu, representing civil society, Hashimu Argungu (a retired police officer), Prof. Etannibi Alemika (an independent expert on policing) and Abdulrahman Ayinde Yakubu , from NHRC, who will act as panel’s Secretary.
In a statement, Ojukwu said that the Panel is expected to submit its report to the Federal Government after 90 days of its inauguration and that member of the public are requested to cooperate with the panel to ensure a smooth national assignment.
He said the panel’s members were carefully selected in accordance with their deep commitment to deepening promotion of respect for the rule of law, depth of experience and knowledge in human rights and policing and their track records in public service.
Civil Society Reacts: Members of the civil society have been expressing their views about their anxiety and expectations from the panel. Among those that spoke to Vanguard Law and Human Rights are lawyers and human rights activists. Investigation should extend to police cells—Joseph Otteh, Executive Director, Access to Justice said:”The probe effort is a good, even belated initiative, its value diminished by the fact that it only jumped in on the bandwagon of the Acting President’s intervention to reform SARS. I am concerned that there would be people, (victims and victims’ families) who think that the Commission’s inquiry is too post-dated to make any effective impact on the work of SARS (or FSARS) Unit at this time, and this might dampen the enthusiasm with which they relate with the goals of the inquiry. The Commission must work to close this credibility gap. “In any event, the Commission should use this auspicious opportunity to stamp its authority in the promotion and defence of human rights on law enforcement and security agencies. The Commission’s probe must reaffirm the importance of maintaining strict oversight on how the police relates with the Nigerian people: the Commission should ensure that new operational guidelines are fashioned for the work of FSARS as well as provide more effective safeguards against abuse of policing powers and impunity by the police. “The Commission must engage with the Police, the Police Service Commission, and civil society stakeholders to develop more effective rules of engagement for the police, rules that prevent arbitrary and extrajudicial action, such as arrests, detention and extra-legal killings by FSARS. “It must also expand its monitoring functions over the conduct of police and security forces. Monitoring places of FSARS detention, and undertaking systematic reviews of arrests of citizens and the basis of these arrests, as well as providing effective sanctions for impunity and abuse against police officers can strengthen the framework for police operations and respect for human rights by the police. Post-dated audits – like the current probes – may provide some insight into the incidence of the problem but will offer very little, of themselves, unless the findings of the probe are used in constructive ways to deter future acts of lawlessness by the Police, and inspire verifiable changes in the conduct of FSARS operatives. “
Probe panel should get videos of rights violation — Wale Ogunade, lawyer, activist and President, Voters Awareness Initiatives, argued that the investigation panel should visit media houses and get much information to unravel what have been perpetrated against Nigerians. He said: “Concerning the probe of the Anti Robbery Squad, it is a notorious fact that they have degenerated from their main occupation of carrying out anti robbery activities, that is arresting suspects by stamping out crime and reducing armed robbery to its barest minimum. Now they have found themselves in mundane issues, sometimes issues between husband and wife, boy friend and girl friend, commercial transactions etc. ”Having done that, what we see is that innocent citizens are being brutalised, they are made to suffer injustice because they are made to go through terrible stress in term of oppression, in term of bullying, intimidation and above all involving in extra judicial acts, leading to unexpected death. “All those are excesses of the squad, which had made Nigerians to cry out for government intervention. And indeed the government intervened. Now that there is a probe, what we expect is that the probe panel should visit media houses, particularly the electronics, and the internet to get video of such atrocities or put notice to the world that those who have suffered in one form or the other from SARS’s brutality should send their experiences or video to the panel. From where they will analyse, look at it and of course use it to now move forward. “That will be the first leg of the assignment, which will follow by training of the officers. The time has come for the police to embark on real time training of the police officials, especially the men of the SARS. They need to be trained on their areas of responsibility and mandate, so that they don’t overstep their bond. Also, those found culpable should be punished, especially those that have involved in extra judicial killings according to the dictates of the law. If one or two are made to face the law squarely, others will sit tight.”
The committee should go to hinterlands where victims leave– Monday Ubani, former 2nd Vice President NBA, “”My take is that there has been wide spread allegations of human rights abuses by SARS officials. It is a good move that NHRC is looking into those allegations. My advice is that should be able to make bold recommendation in cases that require prosecution of airing officials. They should not only make recommendations, they should also be able to recommend for compensations. Their seating should also not be restricted to city centres. They should try as much as possible to go to the areas where the victims leave. I must tell you that some of us are not too happy with the activities of the human right commission because most times, they seat and receive so many evidence but at the end of the day, nothing is done concerning their recommendation or the outcome. There was a time they came to Lagos to take evidence in the case where the state government evicted several residents from their homes. I was one of those that represented the victims and commended the commission for taking such step. Since that panel finished its sitting, nothing has been heard of about their findings. It is important that the commission should make something out of the evidence it has received.

Investigation must stamp out impunity—Malachy Ugwummadu, is the President Committee on Defence for Human Rights, CDHR— The National Human Rights Commission, has taken proactive steps in line with its mandate. What is needed is to ask to what extent will the commission use its investigation to improve on what is on ground and take some steps forward namely those who have perpetrated these crimes and bring them to book. ”I am not aware that the commission has the mandate to prosecute, but it must make a statement that they are really out to stamp impunity. ”After the conclusion of all the processes, the NHRC could prevail on the government to make a statement and declare those officers or whoever perpetrated any heinous activities to be brought to book. And those victims should be reconciled and compensated adequately in line with international best practice. ”Also, the officers should be engaged, educate them and train them on how to engage with the people on how to carry out their job. You will be surprised and amazed that some senior police officers are not aware of some reforms in the administration of criminal justice system. So, they have to be trained adequately and let them know the implication of whatever they do or their action against the law.”

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Oluoma Egwudobi

Information and Communications Officer

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