Human rights activist and founder of the Social Intervention Advocacy Foundation (SIAF), Segun Awosanya (more commonly known by his Twitter handle, @segalink) has observed that other police tactical squads appear to be increasingly victimising Nigerians because of the focus placed on SARS (the Special Anti-Robbery Squad).
He said this on Monday during an interview with award-winning journalist Mercy Abang, supported by the Open Society Initiative for West Africa (OSIWA).
Awosanya said many policemen in Nigeria use their position to extort money from the families of their young victims. He noted that after his organisation started championing the EndSARS campaign, other police units started “operating in the shadows” to brutalise citizens.
“We realised that, over the years, those other ones that felt that their names weren’t mentioned, continued this impunity to the point where they started knocking on doors to kidnap young people in their doors,” he said.
“It happened in Abuja and several other places. They just say there are too many young boys here who must be yahoo boys, carry all of them, take their phones, take their laptops, complain about the way they dress … simply because sometimes you see a phone with a young person that can actually pay your gratuity or the gratuity of the entire police squad and you feel because you cannot afford it, he must have stolen to get it.”
He particularly mentioned the Inspector General of Police (IGP) Intelligence Response Unit and the Special Tactical Squad as having officers who travel long distances to abduct innocent citizens “because he refused to finish the website of one big man or just because one woman said they said something bad about her on social media”.
“So they were guns for hire for anybody who can pay,” he said.
He recalled an incident where about four or five siblings were arrested and their mother was asked to pay N500,000 for each person before they are released. SIAF intervened, conducted its investigation, got the police headquarters involved, and secured the youths’ release.
“Corruption in the police is peer-induced and peer-reinforced, meaning there are people within the system who oil the gear of corruption, who keep telling these people, go on, nothing will happen, do anything you like, because they are benefitting from the proceeds,” he explained.
“You can imagine a special unit meant for intelligence investigation kidnapping people and demanding ransom in millions, in hundreds of millions. I got another report that the same set of people will tell you that the car you are looking for has been recovered, you will now come and buy the car back from them. Then what is the essence of policing if they are worse than the criminals?”
Shortly after SIAF called for the disbandment of the units, the police announced that it was shutting down satellite bases of the Intelligence Response Squad and Special Tactical Squad. It also ordered the officers affected to submit their firearms and transfer suspects and cases to the state commands.
“Things are getting easier because the police know we are not against them, they know we are working together for a better society. They know that having become the worst police in the world two years consecutively, it is a shame on the nation that we must not continue to fly the flag,” Awosanya explained.
“With that, they are responsive and they are also working towards their own healing. But it is not in their hands to reform themselves, it is the law that reforms. That is why we are waiting for the legislature to fix the law and we are also creating stopgaps whereby the youth will not be killed on the street and the police will not continue to work with impunity without being brought to book when they err.”
On SARS, the SAIF president said they are no longer as vicious and confrontational as they used to be even though some of the officers still commit crimes.
“But the good news about that is no matter how bad it gets, no matter what they do, in as much as you can report them, we guarantee you that within 24 or 48 hours, they will be arrested,” he assured.
“No matter what they stole or have taken from you, it will be restored immediately and in full, and you can also determine their fate. If you don’t want to press charges beyond that, they probably won’t be fired from the system because we don’t even have enough police anyway, but the kind of punishment they will get they will regret for the rest of their life.”
The officers, once found guilty, are often demoted and may never have the opportunity of getting to their previous rank because of how long it takes, he added.
He observed that policemen themselves are a victim of the system who cannot protest the injustices they are facing. He highlighted as some of the challenges unexplainable deductions in salary, stress, and the difficulty of getting their pensions paid to their families if they are killed during an operation.
“It gets really bad, it gets really messy. Sometimes, it is the colleagues that will be contributing money for the upkeep of the children and the wife. And so, the conversation was, do you want to continue suffering like this and robbing for a living?” he said.
“We are not trying to justify their actions, we are simply saying, let us understand them from their perspectives, let them understand us from our perspectives, and let us build a bridge between that gap and begin to relate.”
He also advocated for community policing, which he said will help with intelligence-gathering and getting people to familiarise with their security agents. He said Nigeria must address the process of recruitment into the force, which allows for the employment of political thugs and untrained people.
“Some of them have mental health issues. There are cases where a police officer will start shooting, that they have to go and disarm him before he hurts somebody else. So we have seen a lot. Because of that, we raised a national alert that this must stop, the impunity must end,” he said.
“We are not leaving this chance. Our commitment to this is not to win the affection of the people because we want to carry ballot boxes or because I want to see myself in agbada contesting for a political position. No, it is simply because of the future we hope to leave behind for our children.
“We are trying as much as possible to ensure that the police officers don’t endanger the lives of our youth any longer because we want a civil and sane society that works for the people, and we want a police that is democratised, that works for the people, and that is accountable to the people.”
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