Has Osinbajo put final nail in the SARS coffin, or is there more to come?

The Acting President has ordered an "overhaul" of the notorious Police unit, but how does it play out exactly?

For the federal government and concerned Police stakeholders, the unit is an indispensable core of Nigeria's security architecture that could never be jettisoned even if millions of people bayed for blood.

In the concluding months of 2017, Nigerians started taking to social media to cry foul over the many atrocities of SARS including, but not limited to, harassment, extortion, assault and extra-judicial killings.

The social media campaign started gaining traction that even the international media started to take notice of the movement that was soon hashtagged "#EndSARS".

One story of misconduct by officers of the special unit started to pool into hundreds of other citizen with tales of unfortunate, unprofessional conducts suffered in the hands of people that should protect them and serve their interests, each story worse than the last.

When SARS was created as one of the numerous units under the purview of the NPF, they were charged with arresting, investigating and prosecuting suspected armed robbers, murderers, kidnappers, hired assassins and others involved in violent crimes.

While the success of the unit in diligently fulfilling this mandate is arguable, their reign of organised terror to the average innocent citizen is well-documented with an overwhelming stream of evidence of misconducts.

SARS operatives have gained notoriety for profiling citizens, especially young Nigerians, and extorting them through threats and assault like the violent criminals they're charged to protect against.

A belated Presidential order

On Tuesday, August 14, 2018, Acting President, Yemi Osinbajo, directed the Inspector-General of Police, Ibrahim Idris, to "overhaul the management and activities of SARS".

In a statement signed by his spokesperson, Laolu Akande, he said the persistent complaints and reports on the activities of the unit informed his decision and directed the National Human Rights Commission to set up a Committee that will conduct nation-wide investigation of the alleged unlawful activities of SARS.

The Acting President further directed the Police Force that whatever unit emerges from the overhaul process must be strictly restricted to the prevention and detection of armed robbery and kidnapping, and apprehension of offenders of said crimes.

"The Acting President has also directed the IGP to ensure that all operatives in the emerging unit conduct their operations in strict adherence to the rule of law and with due regard to International Humanitarian Law and the constitutionally guaranteed rights of suspects. The operatives should also bear proper identification any time they are on duty," the statement read.

While Osinbajo's directive has been rightly hailed by Nigerians as a victory akin to finally seeing the end of the dreaded police unit, a little caution might be needed here.

A history of false dawns

Two years before #EndSARS became a trending hashtag, the atrocities committed by the men of the Police unit were not exactly secret.

In fact, it was so well-publicised that, in 2015, then-IGP, Solomon Arase, split SARS into two units in an effort to curb numerous human rights abuses.

He directed that the same officers cannot make arrest and investigate the same case, thereby, isolating the operational men from human rights abuses and other allegations.

The #EndSARS campaign suggests that this measure, taken three years ago, has not worked out well; and this is the same case with IGP Idris' 'reorganisation' directive from last year.

When the #EndSARS campaign came to a head in 2017, with unrelentless social media clamouring, IGP Idris ordered the reorganisation of SARS' operational roles and activities.

Under the reviewed arrangement, state Commissioners of Police were installed as overall heads of the Federal Anti-Robbery Squad nationwide.

The IGP also ordered that all SARS personnel nationwide should undergo a new training program to be organized in collaboration with some civil society organisations, local and international NGOs, and other human rights organisations.

Even though this quietened the campaign a little, with many still asking for a total scrapping of the unit, the campaign kicked off in full gear again in 2018 when more evidence showed that the IGP's band aid could not cover the rot in the Police Force.

So what exactly will change this time?

What is Osinbajo's new directive worth?

It is a matter of public record that the man at the top of the Police food chain is a serial defiant of authority, the irony.

In just 2018 alone, the IGP has refused to honour several invitations by the National Assembly to answer questions on insecurity and has defied President Muhammadu Buhari's directive to relocate to Benue State when dozens of Nigerians were getting slaughtered.

Considering that despite the president's public irritation at the IGP's failure to comply with that order, no official reprimand was recorded over it even though he promised to investigate and call his appointee to order. This either suggests that the IGP has more authority than the president or the president is content with him flouting a direct order in such a public manner.

Whichever it is, it will be interesting to see how promptly the IGP will comply with the executive directive of Osinbajo who will remain Acting President for only a few more days before Buhari returns from his 10-day vacation to reassume power. Will this directive hold as much water then?

It's important to note that many have always questioned Buhari's political will to resolve the SARS issue as he's failed to even publicly comment on it during the months of intense outcry by Nigerians; so it remains in the realm of speculation if he approves with this directive himself.

Putting Buhari's political will and the IGP's history of insurbodination aside, Osinbajo's directive still leaves a lot of room for certain questions that only offer unsatisfying answers.

For instance, "overhaul the management and activities of SARS" sounds more like a cosmetic makeover and less like a definitive strike at the very essence of what has made the unit such a notorious disgrace on law enforcement.

In a significant revelation of the federal government's plan for SARS, while speaking on the #EndSARS campaign in June 2018, Osinbajo said the unit cannot be scrapped but be rehabilitated to curb the atrocities of the bad eggs.

When his directive is picked apart, it sounds eerily close to the same 'reorganisation' that the IGP ordered in 2017 that has been so abysmally ineffective in dealing with the core of the problem.

Reducing the operational scope of a possibly reborn unit may appear spotless on paper but laughably ineffective in implementation. The problem has never been that clear mandates were not given, it's that they're usually casually treated as mere suggestions by law enforcement officers who become their own authority.

What this points to is a rotten system that needs more scrutiny and goes way beyond SARS. SARS as a unit is not the problem, it's a mere manifestation of a system that gives room for impunity that is so terribly dangerous. If this core decay is not appropriately checked, we'll have another SARS problem on our hands in only a matter of months.

Osinbajo's directive to "overhaul" SARS is a welcome development that might suggest the government hears what the citizens cry about, but this is not the end of SARS.

More vigilance is required to tame the beast of impunity in Nigeria's security architecture and put it to eternal sleep. One can only remain vigilant and hopeful that this is the beginning of a new dawn and that we'll not be back here again in three months.


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