Nigerians on Saturday amplified a social media drive which seeks to force the hands of federal authorities to immediately scrap the police Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
The demand for an end to SARS dominated Twitter activities by Nigerians, during which citizens used #EndSARS to list allegations of extra-judicial killings, wanton arrests and dispossession of properties through physical assault and other intimidation tactics.
Police spokesperson, Jimoh Moshood, initially asked PREMIUM TIMES to ignore the campaigners, saying he would call back to give reactions to the allegations against SARS later on Saturday evening.
However, PREMIUM TIMES attempts to get his full reaction between Saturday night and Sunday morning didn’t work out as he didn’t pick phone calls.
Similarly, Hyacinth Dagala and Umar Shehu, the Deputy Inspector-General and Assistant Inspector-General in charge of Criminal Investigation Department, did not answer PREMIUM TIMES phone calls and text messages seeking their comments Sunday morning.
The social media campaign comes after years of appeal to police authorities to address alleged gross rights abuses by SARS fell through, said Segun Awosanya, a concerned citizen who was amongst the lead coordinators of the initiative.
In September Mr. Awosanya led a team that visited the National Assembly to make the case for an urgent elimination of SARS as a police department because its personnel had become too barbaric and its atrocities too grave for any meaningful repositioning.
“The federal SARS has become overpopulated by people who have no regards for human life or dignity of citizens,” Mr. Awosanya told PREMIUM TIMES by telephone Saturday night. “Their grievous activities have gone for too long and we can no longer hope that the police leadership can effect any change.”
Speaker Yakubu Dogara promised to look into the issues raised by Mr. Awosanya’s team, the campaigner said. A copy of their petition that was presented to Senate President Bukola Saraki had also been acknowledged with a promise of possible solution, he added.
An online petition has also been opened to draw awareness to the situation and canvass government action.
A look at the hashtag #EndSARS, which has been trending at number one since Saturday, showed thousands of complaints by citizens who said they had been victims of SARS officers.
Those who have not personally encountered SARS told tales of how their friends and loved ones had suffered at one point.
PREMIUM TIMES could not independently verify the authenticity of the claims, but some of them are not beyond what police authorities have themselves acknowledged in the past.
The segment of Nigerian population that appears regularly targeted by SARS includes young men who bear laptops on the road. They say SARS men routinely stop them and order them to strip their backpack for clues about their activities.
But notwithstanding what they do and how much evidence they present to ascertain their status as law-abiding citizens, SARS personnel would see them as Internet fraudsters and treat them accordingly.
A lot of boys turn up at CcHUB with tales of how they were harassed for carrying a laptop. Some of the police officers simply classify anyone with a laptop as a Yahoo boy.
— 'Bosun Tijani (@bosuntijani) December 2, 2017
In Nigeria its now a crime to use good fragrances and dress well. It is punishable by forced ATM withdrawals or getting killed by SARS. #EndSARS now!!! If you cant tweet the hashtag atleast dont scroll past it without retweeting #EndSARS
— Hunta (@LanaAkintola) December 2, 2017
I can't even count how many times I've witnessed SARS officials bullying supposed yahoo boys at ATMS, extorting 200 to 300k from these lads. It's very rampant in delta state, Warri and Abraka to be precise. You dare not mention "rights" to their hearing. They'll burst ur lip..
— Emegha Andolini (@MeanAndolini) December 2, 2017
I'm very very happy with the response to the SARS issue today but please this is not a one day move, we must continue this for about two weeks!!
We must take this opportunity now!
Don't wait till you're harassed before you can have a say
— Strong headed Nigerian (@Naijirian) December 2, 2017
Some have also accused SARS of summary execution of citizens.
The campaign comes a year after Amnesty International accused SARS of torturing detainees in its custody to extract confession or lucrative bribes under duress.
Although the police initially denied the allegations and accused the foremost rights group of exaggeration, Inspector-General Ibrahim Idris convened an emergency meeting a day after the report was published to demand that SARS commanders turn a new leaf in their conduct.
“You have to correct this impression .This is a new beginning to give the nation a new anti-robbery squad,” Mr. Idris told SARS commanders from across the country in the September 27, 2016, emergency meeting at Force Headquarters, Abuja.
“You don’t have the right to take life of anybody or change civil offence to criminal offence. Please don’t fail us. This management has the hope in you, I don’t want you (SARS) to fail us,” he added.
Mr. Idris promised to send the commanders on further training to enable them manage their subordinates in their respective domains.
But Mr. Awosanya said the matter has gone beyond what the police leadership could address alone.
Asked why the campaign was more targeted at getting Messrs. Dogara and Saraki to act rather than President Muhammadu Buhari who has the control of the police and other security agencies, Mr. Awosanya said his team had met with the Minister of Interior Abdulrahman Dambazau.
He said the top lawmakers are better positioned to mount pressure on the executive to act.
The police complaints unit had responded to the campaign with a flyer which urges citizens to send in their bitter encounters with SARS.
The growing cases of armed robbery and other violent crimes compelled the police to establish SARS in early 2000s with the hope that the department would mitigate the situation.
“But over the years, the department has gone beyond its mandate. Its personnel now arrest and torture citizens for purely civil matters while carrying out activities that qualify them as criminals rather than policemen,” said Okechukwu Nwaguma of the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, NOPRIN.
Mr. Nwaguma, whose organisation has chronicled alleged infractions by SARS for several years, told PREMIUN TIMES that experts first reached agreement to scrap or reform SARS in 2010.
But now, he said, the reform option might no longer be in the cards, praising the citizens for taking the campaign to social media.
“They violently rob and kill citizens at will,” Mr. Nwaguma said. “At times, influential persons also use them to settle scores amongst themselves.”
“This is not how a police department should behave and those who are crying out on social media are doing so because they have suffered or witnessed the atrocities of these characters,” Mr. Nwaguma said.