[By Sopuruchi Onwuka]
The lingering anger against the special police units has grown into wider political protests as young people point at painful experiences in the hands of the Special Ati-Robbery Squad (SARS) as just an index of wider spectrum of bad governance in the country.
The protests assumed serious dimension since weekend when major expressways in the country were blocked to ground movement of goods and services, while activities at the nation’s major airports were scaled down due to access limitation from link roads.
From major highways to internal highways across cities in the country, the protests have grounded movement, stalled business activities and caused some state governments to shut down schools that were smarting from protracted closures imposed to contain spread of the coronavirus disease.
Since Monday when shut down of roads devolved from interstate highways to local roads, schools, markets and offices were forced to close down in Lagos State.
Protests also led to attacks on correctional facilities in Edo State where protesters allege that victims of police brutality are detained; a disturbing turn that forced the Edo State government to imposed day time curfew in the state.
The curfew in Edo State, a major transit route that connects the Eastern and Western parts of the country, compounded the plight of commuters who are trapped in the road blockades for days.
Some commuters that left Onitsha on Sunday morning were yet to arrive Lagos by Tuesday morning; and those that managed to arrive outskirts of Lagos Sunday evening were yet to reach destinations inside Lagos on Tuesday morning as major intra-state roads are still on traffic impasse on account of the protests.
While government is under pressure from civil society groups, religious organizations and the media to accept the unrest as legitimate expression of discontent in the service of the Nigerian Police, there are subtle attempts at intimidating the young protesters with the use of un-uniformed armed forces.
The youths who mounted night vigils and peaceful protests in Abuja to demand end of police brutality, massive corruption in government, pervasive poverty in the land and growing unemployment were attacked by gunmen on Monday.
Similar attacks have resulted in the death of some 15 protesters across the country, according to Amnesty International.
Yet the protesters have remained undaunted, defiant and peaceful; stoked by painful experiences of police brutality, organized robbery and reported cases of rape by men of the SARS. Anger also rises against reluctance of government to punish criminal elements in the force, and outright refusal of the police to investigate and identify owner of bank account numbers used to extort money on the highways from traveling youths.
The EndSARS protesters provided uncountable testimonies of rape, unlawful arrests and detention, use of POS by SARS to siphon money from victims’ accounts, forced transfer of huge amounts of money to bank accounts provided by police personnel, whimsical execution of young men who refused to part with money, and random arrest of youths on trumped allegations in order to extort money from their families.
The sordid testimonies which are shared on protest grounds and social media channels expose deep rot in the police force; the major motive for the mass demand for the outfit to be totally dismantled.
Early in the protests, evidences provided online by victims including names of police officers, the stations, cases of financial extortions earned the protest sympathy of the nation’s celebrities and political critics including Senator Deno Melaye, Senator ban Morris Bruce, Senator Shehu Sani and a host of others.
Governors of Lagos State, Jide Snawo-Olu; Rivers State, Nysom Wike; Bayelsa State, Duoye Diri; and Abia State, Okwzie Ikpeazu; all identified with the protesting youths and called for investigations into the allegations with a view of bringing the culprits to book.
Vice President Yomi Osinbajo also condemned to brutality, crime and extortions that sparked off the protests.
The chorus of condemnations across the land compelled government to disband SARS and replaced it with SWAT, pirated from the American Police. The new SWAT personnel, according to police command headquarters, would begin training Monday
Despite promises and actual efforts by President Muhammadu Buhari at reforming the crime bursting unit of the police, including a new Act that comes with far reaching recommendations for reorientation, re-appellation and enhanced remuneration, the huge outpouring of anger against any incarnation of SARS has grown unabated.
The protesters also expanded their list of demand from police reforms to end of corruption, end of bad governance, end of official nepotism and end of poverty. The political and economic demands form a new vista that introduces performance appraisal on the incumbent government of the All Progressive Congress (APC) whose popularity has been waning among the populace even without any active opposition.
The Oracle Today reports that the top echelon of the Nigerian police, including the SARS structure, is populated by northerners; while the oppressive activities and most victims of the unit are more pronounced in the south of the country.
Security expert based in the United States, Mr Owen Hercules, who spoke on AIT live programme, blames President Buhari for nepotism in the force. He pointed out that all police chiefs since 2015 when President Buhari took over are carefully selected from the northern part of the country.
The geopolitical divide between the oppressor and the victim has also played out in social response to the EndSARS protests in the northern parts of the country.
While strident voices from the south support the protests to scrap the notorious unit, northern governors press for retention of the discredited police unit despite glaring evidences of deviation into organized crime.
The governors from the core northern states in the northwest, northeast and northcenter zones of the country had sent a delegation to President Buhari who is also from the north, demanding retention of the infamous anti-robbery unit of the police force.
The governors are alleged to have also sponsored machete wielding northern youths to attack demonstrators who sought to march to Presidential Villa. The thugs are said to have been mobilized by political groups and police to break up the rallies in major northern cities.
Fears are high that the attacks on young protesters might introduce violence in the protests which have lingered peacefully across the country for nearly a fortnight.
After the Abuja attack on protesters, the police announced that its offices in Benin, Edo State, where APC recently lost election, were attacked and “the protesters carted away arms and ammunition from the armoury and freed the suspects in custody before setting some of the facilities ablaze.”
The president’s ear to voices from his northern enclave has added rage to the protests, leading to calls for his resignation.
Several recent placards now read: “End Buhari.”
The Buhari administration has been contending with anger from Nigerian youths across several spectra of the society. From Indigenous Peoples of Biafra (IPOB) from the southeast, the RevolutionNow group from Southwest, the northwest Islamic sect led by El-Zakyzaky, and now the pan-national EndSARS protests, younger Nigerians who are mostly unemployed and who have their future at stake call for better governance.