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I have consistently argued that extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions do not serve to improve the public security of any society. This position was resolutely proffered yet again in my last column and here and now, it shall be similarly expatiated. This time around, the global exemplar is the West African nation of Nigeria is useful. This country has been called to attention by this intervention because of the acute demonstration of the cataclysmic results of this dangerous practice of EJEs.
I must jog your memory by making an important note. EJEs for all purpose and intent of this column means the tacit policy by the state to identify and execute citizens under the guise of crime-fighting. In this regard, a look the events surrounding the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) formed in Nigeria in 1992 and it subsequent disbandment in 2020 is certainly worth the time.
THE FORMATION OF SARS
When the youths of Nigeria took to the streets and the internet to rally around the cry of #EndSars, they caught the world’s attention. Beneath the veneer of the fanfare of colorful social movement flavored with revolutionary fervor, there were troubling concerns about a police unit synonymous with wanton executions, torture and extortion. It all began in 1992 when the Nigeria state decided to create, what they considered, a silver bullet or a panacea to the crime situation. A heated debate between the military and the police produced a compromise that satisfied the national security bureaucracy. The unit was placed under the purview of the Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department (FCID) under the command of Deputy Inspector General of Police Anthony Ogbizi. It was the conception of Police Commissioner Simeon Danladi Mihenda. Following the trajectory of all special units formed in the context of weak institutions in a fractured country, SARS quickly metamorphosed from a crime-fighting unit to a political hit squad. What was intended to be police work based on intelligence gathering became a witch-hunt for those with dreadlocks, piercings, cars, expensive phones and profiles which the Ministry of Police Affairs determined to be consistent with criminal activities. Bodies popped up everywhere and in its almost 30 years of existence, there is no evidence that SARS was able to reduce crime in Nigeria. The aforementioned thesis was on display again.
Insofar as endemic corruption, a lawless and tribal society are concerned, Nigeria possesses these dishonorable similarities with Guyana. In such contexts, one can never be reassured of the lawfulness of special units. Even though those units may function under strict statutes and structures, the divisive gravamen of the society invariably snakes its way into the operations. Added to this, the circumstances which produced SARS give good guidance on the matter under discussion. It emerged from a clarion call by citizens for the government to tackle rising crime which had reached its apogee. In such circumstances, the state spots an opportunity to exploit political leverage while appearing to be genuinely concerned about the protection of the citizens. The secrecy of SARS can be compared to the Phantom Squad which operated here between 2002-2006. Ranks within the SARS unit were not allowed to wear uniforms and operated in unmarked vehicles with no license plates. No updates on operations were issued on the group and the members were never known. All of this opacity was conducted under the statute. Once EJEs become a tacit policy, the modus operandi of the conduit through which this scourge materializes can take many deadly forms.
After seeing execution of a 15 year school boy and wanton executions based on suspicions, the very citizens who called for the state to do something about crime and may have inadvertently given rise to this squad, demanded an end to the death machine. In 2017, Segun Awosanya began to organize an online campaign. The most popular online campaign resided with the Twitter account, @letter_to_jack. At this juncture, the inevitable consequence of EJEs was making a natural and inevitable entry. It is inescapable, EJEs always spawn national movements that may go as far as toppling a regime. During this process in Nigeria, a debate worthy of notice for anyone who manifests an interest in these affairs emerged when the time was nigh for the disbanding of the odious unit. Some advocated for a holistic reform of the police force and changing of the entire culture of the society. Despite tumultuous public outcry, the President of Nigeria advocated for the reform of SARs. Now, this may seem facetious but it is not. It was a stark reminder that special squads are adored by the custodians of the state because they are politically useful. It is often never about crime-fighting.