It has almost become a cycle – every two weeks or so, the hashtag #EndSARS trends, and this has been going on for almost three years when social media users started to highlight the human right abuses of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police Force.
The squad which was created as an elite squad to combat armed robbery and violent crime has instead become more associated with harassing young people, indiscriminate arrests and extortion of money, and in many cases, killing people.
Despite the huge public outcry over their activities, attempts at reform has been cosmetic: it has ranged from announcing that members of the squad will wear uniforms for identification to ordering that the squad will be under the operational control of the commissioners of police in the 36 states.
For example, Vice President Yemi Osibanjo as the Acting President in August 2018 ordered a review of the activities of SARS but nothing came out of it. Also, the Inspector-General of Police has at least four times over the last two years issued orders intended to change the way SARS operates, also with no discernible result, without counting the latest order by the nation’s number one cop.
Instead, all that has happened is rising public discontent, evident by social media protests and as at the time of writing this, widespread physical protests in numerous cities, particularly in Southern Nigeria.
This then begs the question: why is SARS such a difficult arm of the police to end or even just reform?
The answer to this question is another question: can we really reform SARS to the exclusion of the larger police force?
In order to make any reforms on SARS work, we have to focus on reforming the whole police force, because the squad is a product of the institution that Nigerians rate as the most corrupt institution in the country. It will be foolhardy to think that SARS can be excluded and reformed alone.
Now, how can we reform the police:
A reform of the police will be holistic: it will need to be from funding to conditions of service, recruitment to training and retraining, proper equipment and understanding the law. It cannot be focused on only one aspect or the other to the exclusion of others.
But perhaps most importantly is the conversation Nigeria has avoided with regards to policing for decades: the need for a decentralized police force (starting with a state policing structure) as it is very unlikely this federal police structure will ever work.
It is not that a decentralized police force will automatically make the perennial problems plaguing the Nigerian Police go away. But it will make it easier to rebuild a police structure that works for the protection of people.
It is admirable that Nigerians, especially young people are very vocal about the need to dismantle SARS. It is very important that we keep up the pressure, especially considering the traction it is getting – such as having the dreaded police unit debated in both chambers of the National Assembly on the same day.
However, by focusing or expecting SARS to be banned and thinking we have won, it will be akin to focusing on the monkeys stealing the fruits rather than the termites eating the roots.