Nigerian Special Police Force still struggles with abuse reports

Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) Muhammed Adamu has forbidden several special units of the country’s police forces to carry out duties such as stop-and-search, mounting of roadblocks, traffic checks. This includes the “Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad”, a unit that has become notorious over the past years, after scores of reports of misconduct, torture and extortion.

Africanews asked Human Rights specialised lawyer and Amnesty International Nigeria office Director Osai Ojigho what this new order by the Nigerian IGP means.

Africanews**: Nigeria’s inspector general of police has banned the “Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad” from carrying out routine searches. It’s a decision that comes in a context of growing anger towards the unit. What exactly are they accused of? What have you found evidence of in your investigations ?**

Osai Ojigho: The special anti-robbery squad is a special unit of the Nigerian police. For several years, they’ve been accused of committing a lot of atrocities, notably extrajudicial executions, torture, extortion… They’ve targeted young people, and especially young men. In the last few years, Amnesty International has issued several reports about the existence of this specialised unit within the police force in Nigeria

In our report in 2016 (which we updated with the latest report “Time To End Impunity” in June 2020) we documented cases of torture, inhuman and degrading treatments.

These are methods that have been used by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad under the pretext of investigating crimes in areas across the country.

We already know that torture is a crime under Nigerian Law and is a human rights abuse

But beyond that, torture is being used by some of the officers in this unit as a means to extort money or confessions from suspects.

Apart from that there’s been cases of people that have been arrested and have disappeared. Their families have not been able to trace them after they’ve been picked up by this units. And even though there’s evidence, there are witnesses, no one has been able to successfully prosecute them for the disappearances that have left families wondering what happened to the loved ones.

So many atrocities have been perpetrated by officers of this unit, and it appears like the police hierarchy can’t do anything to stop them.

Africanews: Has any of the SARS members been reprimanded for the acts you speak of?

Osai Ojigho: There’s been a few cases of officers being disciplined within the police. But when we say “disciplined”, it means that there has been a complaint and then they are moved elsewhere.

And that is not a proper discipline.

We need some proper discipline, meaning someone actually facing the consequences of their actions. For them to be investigated and, if found guilty, discharged from the force, and then face a criminal prosecution for the business they have committed. It’s a disciplinary matter.

The punishment could be demotion, It could also be a matter of community service within that area.

But we’re not seeing the punishment commensurate with the crimes these officers have been accused of.

Africanews: What do you make of the declarations of Inspector General Muhammed Adamu ?

Osai Ojigho: It’s important that they make a directive because they shouldn’t have been in the rules in the first place. They’re not supposed to do stop-and-search, they’re supposed to be the body that uses covert and intelligence in order to track down suspected criminals.

But we think that this current directive is not something new. Earlier this year in February 2020 the IG also submitted this directive that the SARS are not supposed to be on the streets, they are supposed to be wearing their uniforms so that people can identify them when they’re making an arrest.

The same thing happened in 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2015! So it’s not the first time that the IG has made this statement. We are not so excited about it. It’s a first step, but it would make more sense if they actually identify those who have committed crimes, even in the recent videos that have been circulating last week, and ensured that those officers are identified, investigated and that they face a proper trial. And that the victims have a opportunity to present their defence in a court of law.

Africanews: How did they come to have that much power when it comes to policing?

Osai Ojigho: There has been a rising case of insecurity and robbery in certain parts of NIgeria, and so there was a Demand for a specialised force that can move quickly, that are able to be bold and audacious enough to go after armed Robbers that are heavily armed.

But over the years, some now look at the SARS as a means through which they could exercise power, in order to enforce certain behaviours within the communities. Increasingly, many people started joining the SARS.

Amongst police officers, many wished to join the SARS unit because they saw it as a way of getting promoted and as a way of making money.

Because for many of the robberies that have occurred, often, when large sums or valuables are collected, they’re not necessarily taken care of. There’s a bit of corruption in the system. So it became very attractive for people who are trying to make money quickly, as well as to gain power and promotion within the police force.

Africanews: Has the fight against Islamic Extremist groups in the North created a situation where the “Federal Special Anti Robbery Squad” could have benefited from ?

Osai Ojigho: Not really. In the Northeast, the challenge of the insurgency is a battle that the Nigerian military is facing. SARS are not deployed, they are kept within the normal policing duties in city centres.

Africanews: You mentioned of course the Federal Special Anti Robbery squad in these actions. But is it just a SARS problem? Or are other governmental agencies also engaging in this type of behaviour?

Osai Ojigho: Torture as a tool is definitely used by security agents. It’s a big problem in Nigeria. SARS, specialised police unit like the anti-kidnapping, and other specialised tactical units of the police forces also used tortured, same for the normal police force.

The military, the various other paramilitary organisations…. and that is why the Nigerian government was pushed and there’s a lot of advocacy by Amnesty International and other groups for Anti torture laws to come into place.

That happened in December 2017, but since that law was passed nearly 3 years ago, not a single officer has been charged under that law for committing torture.

So we are really calling on the government to take this issue seriously because if the Nigerian justice system is going to improve and bring justice for the victims and their families, then those who perpetrate torture need to actually face the law.

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