Is SWAT ‘SARS by another name?: Why Nigerians are wary of another police special squad
Angry citizens want new tactical team scrapped before it takes off
WHEN Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, announced the disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police Force, he must have expected Nigerians to praise the Federal Government for a ‘prompt’ response to the demands of irate Nigerians protesting against police brutality.
The abolition of SARS – an outfit which was the poster boy of police brutality and oppression – was tops on the agenda of the #EndSARS movement and the government would have expected that the protests would cease after it acceded to the populist demand by bringing a formal ‘end’ the loathed and dreaded organisation.
But the disbandment of SARS did not stop the protests, rather, the uprising escalated when the IGP announced the establishment of another police special squad – the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team.
While announcing the formation of SWAT, the police authorities had moved to placate citizens who are still nursing grievances against SARS by assuring that personnel of the now defunct SARS would not be part of SWAT. However, what the police authorities and the Federal Government did not realise at that point was that Nigerians do not want a replacement of SARS with another police ‘special squad’.
So, the #EndSARS protests suddenly became #EndSWAT even though the proposed new police outfit was yet to formally take off. Not long after the government disclosed the name of the new special squad – SWAT – messages claiming that SWAT means ‘SARS With Another Title’ went viral in the social media. It became clear that Nigerians, who are hell-bent on getting rid of police brutality are not taking any chances.
So, rather than bringing an end to the protests, the IGP’s announcement of the formation of SWAT added fuel to the agitation which had taken on a life of its own.
As it were, the statement issued by Force Public Relations Officer, DCP Frank Mba, to announce the establishment of SWAT on October 13 did not help matters, as it noted that the new outfit was created to fill the gaps arising from the dissolution of SARS.
“The IGP has set up a new Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) Team that will fill the gaps arising from the dissolution of the defunct SARS,” the statement had said, while also disclosing that prospective members of the new team would also undergo a psychological and medical examination to ascertain their fitness and eligibility for the new assignment.
Although the statement reaffirmed the IGP’s “irrevocable commitment towards the successful and holistic implementation of the Police reforms”, and “enjoined members of the public, particularly protesting citizens, to exercise restraint and allow measures being put in place to come to fruition and engender a Police Force that would meet the yearnings and aspirations of the citizenry”, the speed at which the SWAT was set up, barely 24 hours after SARS was disbanded, appeared suspicious, suggesting that the government was only dressing the defunct outfit in new robes.
Going by the IGP’s statement, if SWAT survives the ongoing #EndSWAT protests, policemen that are selected to serve in the new unit would commence training at the different police tactical training institutions nationwide as soon as next week. Personnel from the Police Commands in the South-East and the South-South are to be trained at the Counter-Terrorism College, Nonwa-Tai, Rivers State, while those from the Police Commands from the North and the South-West will be trained at the Police Mobile Force Training College, Ende, in Nasarawa State, and the Police Mobile Force Training College, Ila-Orangun, in Osun State, respectively.
The IGP’s statement also suggested that personnel of the defunct SARS are not going to face any disciplinary consequences for the atrocities committed by the outfit, which have been well documented over the years. Former SARS operatives were only asked to report at the Force Headquarters, Abuja for debriefing, and psychological and medical examination, following which they will be redeployed into mainstream policing duties.
It appears that the statement that announced the formation of SWAT was meant to bring a hasty closure to the longstanding SARS problem and immediately move on from the unresolved issues surrounding the police outfit.
In a recent report titled ‘Time to End Impunity,’ the Amnesty International documented 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment, and extra-judicial executions by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. The report, signed by Director, Amnesty International Nigeria, Osai Ojigho, remarkably observed that police authorities are not prosecuting SARS operatives who were found to have committed criminal offences in the discharge of their duties, including murder, torture, and extortion.
“The complete failure of Nigerian authorities to bring an end to the gross human rights violations perpetrated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad or to bring any SARS officers to justice is shocking and unacceptable. Nigerians are outraged by the systemic human rights violations perpetrated by the SARS with impunity.
“The systemic use of torture and other ill-treatment by SARS officers for police investigations and the continued existence of torture chambers within the Nigerian Police Force points to an absolute disregard for international human rights laws and standards.
“No circumstances whatsoever may be invoked as a justification of torture. In many cases, the victims are the poor and vulnerable, easy targets for law enforcement officers whose responsibility it is to protect them.
“Impunity sends the message to torturers that they will get away with it. Impunity denies victims and their relatives the right to have the truth established, the right to see justice served and the right to reparations.
“The Nigerian authorities must go beyond lip service to ensure there is real reform within the Nigeria Police Force with an emphasis on SARS. These reforms must translate into holding police officers suspected of torture to account, ending torture, unlawful detention, extortion, extrajudicial execution and other human rights violations that SARS officers have been known for across Nigeria,” parts of the report said.
Had SARS stuck to the mandate it was given when it was established in 1992, many innocent Nigerians would not have died as a result of the extra-judicial activities of its operatives, and in the course of the ongoing protests that led to the outfit’s disbandment. SARS is one of the 14 units in the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department which was established to detain, investigate and prosecute people involved in crimes like armed robbery, kidnapping and other forms of crimes.
But by the time SARS was disbanded on October 11, 2020, following a widespread protest from Nigerians worldwide, it has become synonymous with extrajudicial killings, extortion, torture, framing, blackmail and even kidnapping and armed robbery.
The #EndSWAT campaign must have been largely informed by the fact that, like SARS, other special police tactical squads that were established to check the escalation of insecurity and criminal activities in the country ended up becoming part of the problem by engaging in the violation of human rights and outright crime.
During the days of military rule, the Mobile Police Force unit, popularly known as ‘MOPOL’, was referred to as ‘Kill and Go’. The nickname illustrated MOPOL’s deadly activities during the period.
Special tactical squads or units in the Nigerian Police Force include the Intelligence Response Team, Special Tactical Squad, Counter Terrorism Unit, Force Intelligence Unit and the Anti-Cult Unit but, although they all have specific mandates, in reality, their activities overlap each other’s jurisdictions. In fact, as witnessed in the case of the now defunct SARS, operatives of police special squads get involved in petty civil matters and have been known to be enlisted by individuals to settle personal scores against rivals, often with murderous consequences.
In an apparent move to defuse the nascent #EndSWAT campaign, the Nigeria Police Force on Wednesday, October 14, went on a social media platform, Twitter, to specify the mandate of SWAT, its new special squad.
The tweet by the police read, “Mandate of the new TACTICAL team is strictly restricted to: i) response to robbery attacks. ii) response to scenes of weapon-related crimes. iii) rescue operation. iv) special operations involving high profile criminals.” The tweet was signed by DCP Frank Mba, Force PRO, Abuja.
However, some replies to the NPF tweet highlighted why many Nigerians are wary of another police special squad. Replying to the NPF tweet, one Leo tweeted “#SWATMUSTENDNOW them wanna tell us another story, story story.” Another Twitter user, Area_51, replying to the police tweet, asked “You still dey disguise?”. On his part, UNCLE A.K asked the police, “Who killed Jimoh Ishaq????”. Ishag was reportedly shot dead by policemen in Ogbomoso, Osun State, during the ongoing protests against police brutality that culminated in the end of SARS, and the coming of SWAT. In yet another reply to the NPF tweet that stated the mandate of SWAT, one luwaclassiq simply tweeted “#EndSWAT.”