That the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria police continues to use torture and other unlawful tactics in the discharge of their law enforcement duties is not exactly a newsworthy item; we have always known this. If a poll were created now on Nigerians’ perception of that unit, the result would be easily predictable. Police brutality is a major concern with SARS and in late 2017 as demands for accountability became stronger, the #EndSARS campaign was birthed.
It was borne out of a frustrating dissatisfaction with the excesses and gross human rights violations SARS had become infamous for. Social media platforms were flooded with the experiences of Nigerians, especially young people in the hands of this special unit that had become dreaded. The officers of this unit would often raid public places like football viewing centers, clubs and pubs frequented by young people, in order to make sweeping arrests. The victims were often detained and expected to pay bribes before they were freed. There have also been allegations of extrajudicial executions, rape, gross extortions and attempts to illegally confiscate properties of victims of brutalities by SARS officials. These patterns suggest that this unit, which was originally conceived to tackle robbery, has been largely preying on the civilian population. They have also been reported to have illegally investigated purely civil matters.
SARS officers also prominently feature in the attacks against freedom of expression in Nigeria. In 2018, Samuel Ogundipe, a journalist with Premium Times was arrested and detained by SARS officers for refusing to disclose his source. Tim Elombah, an online journalist suffered a similar experience, on 1 January 2020. He and six of his family members were arrested by 15 armed SARS officers at about 4.00 amat his home in Nnewi, Anambra State. He was detained for 25 days and subjected to inhumane treatment, after he was accused of publishing a defamatory article against a former Inspector General of Police on a website. Since 2016, Amnesty International has documented testimonies of at least twelve other media practitioners who have been subjected to arrests and harassment by SARS officers.
These violations have continued despite a robust legal framework prohibiting torture and other ill-treatment. In December 2017, Nigeria’s Anti-Torture Act was signed into law. In addition, the Nigerian constitution prohibits torture and degrading treatment in Section 34(1). Again, Nigeria is a party to regional and international treaties that prohibit the use of torture and other ill-treatment. These include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR); the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) and its Optional Protocol (OPCAT); the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR).
The effectiveness of any law is measured by state and its actors’ compliance and readiness to apply the law when it is necessary. Since the passage of the Anti-Torture law, no SARS officer is known to have been convicted under that law. Erring officers are rarely prosecuted. Even the Police Service Commission, whose mission statement reads "To improve service delivery in the Nigeria Police Force by promoting transparency and accountability in the police" hardly prosecutes any officers; it usually refers complaints from the public back to the police authorities.
Given the incessant complaints and protests from the public, there have been few attempts to reform SARS. These attempts have not yielded any tangible results. On 14 August 2018, the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo ordered an immediate reform of the unit. He directed the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to set up a judicial panel to investigate SARS’ alleged unlawful activities. Following this, the police authority rolled out a list of reform measures aimed at increasing the unit’s public accountability for its actions. However, apart from the change of name from Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS), there are no other tangible results from this attempt at reform. SARS officers continue to subject detainees in their custody to torture and other forms of ill-treatment with total impunity.
When a unit of the police continues to violate rights with total impunity, it is necessary to ask if they are above the law. In a nation that is governed by laws, the government cannot continue to shy away from addressing the excesses of this unit that has continued to do the exact opposite of what it was established to do. The government must bring perpetrators of these violations to justice, including superior officers. Police officers should also be trained on the human rights standards relating to policing. The Police Service Commission which has oversight functions on the police should live up to expectations in ensuring accountability. One thing a lot of Nigerians would really want to see is the enforcement of the Anti-Torture Act to the effect of prosecuting and convicting SARS officers found guilty. Maybe it’s only after then that we might be able to have a positive result from a poll on the image of SARS.
Programmes Manager, Amnesty International Nigeria.