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Nigeria Faces Tough Choices Over Move to Transmute SARS to SWAT

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The Nigerian Government faces tough choices after disbanding the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) whose activities triggered ongoing protests and replacing it with a newly announced Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT).

There are an estimated 8,000 heavily armed SARS operatives, who are often a law unto themselves and have a tenuous chain of command with the Inspector General (IGP) in Abuja, Nigeria’s capital.

“How do you actually end SARS? This is a lot harder than people think and will involve an incredible amount of work,” said Feyi Fawehinmi, accountant and writer based in the United Kingdom U.K.

“SARS is the textbook definition of a rogue unit. It ought to be painfully clear to anyone watching this drama that the IGP has zero control over them. He doesn’t even know how many of his men are in SARS.”

President Muhammadu Buhari announced on Sunday he’s disbanded the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has been accused by rights groups of widespread abuses.

The IGP through a statement issued on Tuesday by spokesman Frank Mba, said SWAT Team will fill the gaps arising from the dissolution of the defunct SARS.

He noted that “Prospective members of this new team will also undergo psychological and medical examination to ascertain their fitness and eligibility for the new assignment. They are to commence training at the different Police tactical training institutions nationwide, next week.”

Signs that the Police top brass in Abuja have lost control of the SARS monster however abound.

Following repeated social media outrage and accompanying protests, the federal government has on multiple occasions either placed some sort of ban or restriction to the activities of SARS, including a “reorganisation” in 2016 that renamed the organisation, the Federal Special AntiRobbery Squad (F-SARS).

On 23 December 2017, Ibrahim Idris, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) at the time, placed a ban on SARS operatives from conducting stop and search operations. The ban was reinstated on 5 September 2018 following a resumption of illicit activities by the tactical unit.

On 26 February 2020, Mohammed Adamu, the current IGP disbanded SARS satellite offices across the country.

“This followed an apparent refusal to obey the previous bans and public outrage after video evidence emerged of SARS operatives accosting a young man at Ughelli, Delta State, who had been allegedly killed by SARS officers on 4 October 2020,” SBM Intelligence an Africa focused geopolitical research and consulting firm said in a report released in October.

Between January and October 2020 about 166 people were killed in brutality incidents involving the Nigerian Armed Forces, the Nigeria Police Force, the Nigeria Security and Civil Defence Corps, and the Nigeria Customer Service, according to SBM Intelligence data.

Analysts say a lack of a system of consequences is responsible for the almost systematic killing and extortion of Nigerians run by police departments such as F-SARS, the ant cultism unit, and the Zonal Intervention Squad (ZIS).

Options to reform SARS and turn them into a more disciplined SWAT include the IGP setting up a handpicked team of officers he trusts to physically disarm SARS operatives (given their indiscipline), and offer them an olive branch that anyone who voluntarily leaves the unit will not lose his job, according to Fawehinmi.

“The problems with this are obvious. It will cost the IGP an incredible amount of goodwill. The specter of police having a shootout with police is better imagined than seen,” Fawehinmi said.

Another not too palatable option would be for the Nigerian President to send in the Army to physically disband SARS by force. With the military already stretched due to full blown operations against Boko Haram in the North East of the country and minor skirmishes with bandits, Kidnappers and militants elsewhere, this is also not a pleasant option.

Nigerian Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo, previously ordered the reorganisation of F-SARS, to no effect. It has become a well-worn cycle where the wider police force, or specifically a member of the F-SARS unit, kills an innocent civilian spurring social media and offline outrage followed by “disciplinary action” on the police officer.

The poor remuneration and welfare of the average police officer has also been identified as a catalyst for the corruption and extra-judicial killings occurring in the Police Force.

Fawehinmi the U.K based analyst notes that there is a lot of money at stake in the economics of police brutality.

“All those laptops they steal, the dollars and Bitcoin they collect and the naira they extort comes to a lot. There’s a calculation that puts SARS monthly loot at circa $7 million,” Fawehinmi said.

A major move to address this came with the passing into law of the Nigeria Police Trust Fund which will be funded by 0.005 percent of the net profit of each business in the country.

The law itself is already facing many challenges. MoneyCentral estimates that earnings that will accrue to the Trust Fund from private companies will provide very little relief when compared to the funding needs of the Nigerian Police.

For Instance, one of Nigeria’s most profitable lenders Guaranty Trust Bank (GTB), contributed a mere N4.02 million (through no fault of its own) to the fund in the first half (H1) of 2020, while the same bank made a contribution of N913 million to the NITDF or National Information Technology Development Fund in the same period.

The NITDF levy is assessed at a rate of 1 percent of a company’s Profit before Tax as stated in the audited accounts, compared to 0.005 for the Police Trust Fund.

The Fund is also being opposed by some of Nigeria’s powerful 36 State Governors, who feel it shortchanges them of revenue allocations from the Centre.

The opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) Governors’ Forum yesterday called on President  Muhammadu Buhari and the National Assembly to repeal Section 4(1) of the Nigeria Police Trust Fund (Establishment) Act, 2019. The section authorises the President to deduct 0.5 percent of the total revenue accruing to the Federation Account for the benefit of the Nigeria Police Trust Fund.

But the governors argue that the deduction is “unconstitutional” because the beneficiaries of the Federation Account are the Federal, States and Local Governments only.

Transmuting SARS to SWAT will be a huge logistics nightmare for Nigerian authorities.

SARS is present in all 36 states of the Federation and the FCT. One estimate puts the average number of officers per state at 200, making a total of 7,400. Prior to January 2019, SARS had a federal chain of command. However, control of the unit was moved to Commissioners of Police, who however report to the IGP.

In addition, Nigeria is a severely under-policed country; its 301,737 police officers give a ratio of approximately 1 police officer to 666 Nigerians, far below the United Nations recommendation of 1 to 450. Even with the country being under-policed, at least half of the police are thought to be providing security for politicians and very important personalities or VIPs.

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