By Lasisi Olagunju Ph.D
“You know if I shoot you, nothing will happen. The highest anyone will do is cry justice on Twitter,” Lagos-based entrepreneur, Samuel Otigba told CNN that he got that threat live and direct from a SARS operative. He said his offence was his refusal to pay bribe to the officers. There are several experiences like that. The government disbanded SARS yesterday, I heard sighs of relief in close and distant places. But, wait. The witch died and you are rejoicing, you forget that the child left behind by the dead eats exactly what the mother eats. I have a friend who was told point blank by a mobile policeman (not SARS) that he would be ‘buried today’ if he moved an inch from where he was. The cop corked his gun, my friend froze, momentarily playing back his life of struggles and hope. The urge to ‘waste’ any clean person smells very strong at police road blocks. Nigerian author, Jude Idada, wrote recently that he was pressing his phone at a checkpoint and heard: “If you touch that phone again, I swear God, I will fire you hia.” Jude said the policeman in T-Shirt “lifted his gun, cocked it, and pointed it at me. Chest level. I stopped.” The writer soon went back to his phone and the man promised to kill him and use the phone to send a text message to whoever he was chatting with to come and pick his corpse. “I will kill you here and let us see how your big man friend can come and resurrect you…” There are many of such stories, many buried in blood-soaked graves; only the lucky ones live to tell theirs.
There is a trending cartoon online that shows Nigerians choosing a road manned by armed robbers over the one that takes them to a police checkpoint. A female friend said she always had her heart in her mouth whenever her male children went out of the house. And they are very good boys, well-bred and well-turned-out. “Until they are back, my chest pounds,” she said. Every mother feels so. The common criminals lurking here and there are not the reason for her fears, the police are. A celebrity in Lagos told the media: “One man told me they pulled his phone and searched his banking app, they took him to an ATM to withdraw money for them. You are supposed to be anti-robbery but we are afraid of you. People who are meant to protect us are the ones oppressing us.” I do not know any Nigerian who does not dread the Nigeria police. The dread is not just for the strain in devil’s attire which the government said it disbanded on Sunday, it is system-wide.
There is a way in which we live our history. The Nigeria Police is a product of predatory necessity. Colonial records are replete with accounts of police abuse and people’s resistance to abuse. They contain copious details of the customary, historical triumph of evil over good. In 30 short years from 1860 to 1890, what we have today as the Nigeria police morphed from Consular Guard in 1861 to Armed Hausa Police Force in 1863 to Gold Coast Constabulary in 1876 to Lagos Constabulary in 1886 and to The Lagos Police in 1897. Yet, the verdict on its operatives, even in those early days, was that they were “dishonorable and treacherous persons.” (See letter from McCallum to Chamberlain, July 9, 1897). Another appraisal as recorded by S.C. Ukpabi in his ‘The Origin of the Nigerian Army’ says policemen of those early years ‘‘turned themselves loose upon the people, filling up the role vacated by kidnappers, and rioters … marauders and free booters.” Yet another describes them as an “instrument of violence and subjugation; as extortionists and harbingers of bad news and trouble.” It all sounds as if these are descriptions of Nigeria of 2020. It sounds almost exactly like what Folarin Falana (Falz) told the CNN at the weekend. He said he joined the protests against SARS because there had been “too many incidents of harassment, extortion and police brutality,” in the country.
A tree and its fruit are conjoined in flesh and soul. You cannot have a bad country and have a good police. As the country goes down, the police follows it along that alley of decay. Look at the leaders we’ve had since 1999; every new election is a descent to lower depths in badness. We thought the fouled air of the second republic broke the hymen of the police. But it has turned out that the experience of that era was a mere push-up. As bad as the police was 40 years ago, it wasn’t as brazen in misbehaviour as what we have today. Could it be that criminals have migrated from their traditional dens into the force just as they did with the core of the government? And why not? Why do you have to take risks of arrest, trial and death when you can use the law to sin; when you can be the arrester, the judge and the executioner of others? And the system permits anyone’s entry into the forces without any background probe. The checks that matter are encoded in cash. Like Madam The Madam said in Village Headmaster, “it is a matter of cash.”
SARS means Special Anti Robbery Squad of the Nigeria police. But the things it did cancelled out the ‘anti’ in its name. Many would agree that it progressed from its noble beginning and became ‘special robbery squad.’ Dreaded, despised, in costume and conduct, the picture SARS painted of itself personified paradox. An artist’s portrait of an armed robber will most certainly resemble what we knew of SARS operatives. The good ones among them must be pained that the baby roiled in dirty bath water. The Nigeria police has its values, and they are many. The reason the authorities serially aborted killing the SARS dog was the same reason we are warned against throwing out the baby with the bath water. Robert Reiner, author of ‘The Politics of the Police’, spoke of ‘police fetishism’ – the belief that “without a police force, chaos would ensue.” If you live in crime- infested Nigeria, you won’t wait a second before validating this assumption. The police, including its dark gang, the SARS, like bad children, has its days of good use. For many in this country, the police – including, and especially, SARS – had been there for them in very desperate situations. Balancing the existential need of law enforcement with protection of the citizen from police excesses is therefore a knot to untie. Jude Idada was told at the scene of his torment that despite the fact that his police attacker was called ‘mad dog,’ the force values him. His informer said the police was “managing” that dog because “he is one of the best we have. Armed robbers fear him.”
SARS has nine lives. It may still come back from the dead wearing caucasian mask. Apart from Boko Haram’s Abubakar Shekau who has been killed countless times, the only other entity the authorities have severally killed is SARS. We have a clumsy government, no doubt, but the SARS case is really a quandary. There is always a reason for abortion of decisions. Wait and see what replaces SARS.
- The Nigeria police is a dog that bites even the owners. It may say sorry, it may not. And every victim yells, nurses his wounds and trudges on, very helpless. There is (was) a movement that demanded an end to SARS. Who funded that movement? Good people? Bad people? Should SARS truly go the way of the dead, buried and forgotten as announced on Sunday by the authorities? The country is badly divided on this like on every matter. Someone said here, we replace something with nothing. Is that what government has done? Iron sharpens iron; only the bad confronts the bad. We do not believe conventional policemen can be useful on days of fire. SARS was. But it also did what robbers do. Now, how do you go to paradise without experiencing death? There is a dilemma: The tree has thorns and its fruit is poisonous, but the tree gives cover from the scorch of the sun. The relationship between the police and the citizen is historically an Orwellian struggle, a paradoxical fascination for peace and frustration with law enforcement. A post-apocalyptic society dishes out great suffering, injustice and impunity. That is what we experience here from government and its instruments of violence. Dystopian George Orwell thinks society provides its citizens “meaningless, dark, and dreadful” security. Is that not in itself a dreadful irony? The police seeks our love because it claims to be our friend. But it threatens us with death. It robs and extorts, rapes and defiles, maims and kills its friends. How do we love those who kill us?