AI’s indictment of SARS: Why FG’s silence is not golden

In my numerous interventions as scribe to the community where I reside, one advise that elders have consistently drummed into my ears over the years has been never to ignore whatever others had to say but to always be slow in responding. I was given this advise not because I was garrulous but for the reason that I was always impatient with people who tend to be opaque in their dealings. I could neither understand people who preach one thing only to behave in a contrary manner nor could I contain myself in the presence of people who prevaricate in their utterances.

Eventually, I learnt to embrace the ‘silence of words’ as captured in the adage which says, “silence is golden, words are silver.” Everyone knows how difficult it is to speak only when it is useful and to remain silent when it is best to say nothing. This is why people admire individuals who are capable of speaking appropriately in a given situation and doing so in a clear and succinct manner. Such individuals earn the respect of others because they are aware of the emotional impact of their words. Regrettably, Nigeria seems to be lacking such individuals among its current crop of leaders.

Perhaps, it will be appropriate to enquire whether the understanding of silence among the various arms of the Nigerian government differs from the current dictionary definition of the word. There are several definitions of the word including that of being mute, keeping quiet or not speaking. But the one I would like to adopt here is where silence is defined as “a failure to notice or acknowledge something.” By all means, the failure of the Nigerian government to notice or acknowledge a report published by Amnesty International on 21 September 2016 and entitled “In Nigeria: You have signed your death warrant” is inexplicable, to say the least.

It is curious that a government which claims to be fighting corruption will have nothing to say on the report’s allegations of horrific torture methods, including hanging, starvation, beatings, shootings and mock executions of detainees by officers in the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a police unit set up to combat violent crime. It is equally worrisome that the government has not responded in any way to the claim in the report that the main motive of systematically torturing detainees was to extract confessions and lucrative bribes. Perhaps, we should conclude that silence means consent in this case. I refuse to accept such interpretation.

Except for a lame denial by the Inspector General of Police which Nigerians have come to expect, there has been no other report of any action being taken to address the dreadful allegations in the report. The minimum requirement would have been setting up of a fact-finding committee to investigate the allegations with a view to re-organising the police unit. At worst, the financial status of the officers in the unit could be investigated to establish whether they are living above their incomes or not though it would be naïve to expect otherwise.

Even if Nigerians have largely accepted their fate of being saddled with a police force that is anything but friendly, one would expect that a government that was elected on the change mantra will hasten to reassure the people that it has plans to improve the situation. For instance, late last month, I was horrified to learn that a 75-year old woman who retired from the Nigeria Police decades ago could still peddle influence and get some officers to do her bidding in an attempt to settle scores with others who thwarted the evil intention of the woman and her cohorts in the community. The continued neglect of reforms in the Nigeria Police can only be interpreted to mean that the government is not interested in building a society that is fair and just to all.

Long before he won the presidential election in March 2015, President Muhammadu Buhari had established a reputation as someone who abhorred corruption in government. Nigerians’ experience of the man during his first stint in charge of the affairs of the country as a military dictator was sufficient to convince the majority of the people that here is a man who should be able to tame the corruption beast that had somehow got out of the cage and was threatening to devastate any and everything that stood on its path. If the president feels he can afford to ignore the damning revelations in the Amnesty International’s report, then he has provided ample evidence to back the claims of those who said he lacks the credentials of a democrat.

By focusing so much on the misdemeanours of past political appointees, the government appears to have neglected the minnows in the civil service and stands accused of paying lip-service to reforms in an important institution like the Nigeria Police. One is not surprised today that the president’s performance on the job has incidentally given rise to two diametrically opposing groups known as ‘hailers’ and ‘wailers.’ To the hailers, Buhari can never do anything wrong as long as he is tackling corruption in high places. Interestingly, the continuing economic downturn in the country is decimating the ranks of hailers. On the other hand, wailers are ever ready to condemn any initiative introduced by the government as biased or ill-intentioned. The ranks of wailers continue to swell by the day.

The Amnesty International report was detailed and exhaustive. It was also not short on recommendations. Giving his verdict, Damian Ugwu, Amnesty International’s Nigeria researcher, said, “A police unit created to protect the people has instead become a danger to society, torturing its victims with complete impunity while fomenting a toxic climate of fear and corruption. Our research has uncovered a pattern of ruthless human rights violations where victims are arrested and tortured until they either make a ‘confession’ or pay officers a bribe to be released.”

As Ugwu said in the report, “Police torture is a stain on Nigerian society that must be addressed with clear orders to law enforcement officers not to inflict torture or other ill-treatment on detainees under any circumstances. There is also an urgent need for robust legislation that ensures all acts of torture are offences under Nigeria’s criminal law. All victims have a right to reparations, and steps must be taken to ensure that nobody profits from abusing detainees.”

It is distasteful enough that torture is being employed to extract confessions from detainees, what is worse and totally unacceptable is that the officers have also turned it into a business. Meanwhile, majority of those who languish in SARS detention are people who cannot afford to pay bribes or hire a lawyer. The Federal Government must declare in unmistakable terms that it will no longer condone the actions of these officers who act with impunity. It must begin to take steps to end permanently the incursion of this unit into civil matters, particularly contractual or business disputes. The government must intervene by strengthening the judicial system so that the citizenry would have no need to resort to self-help using state instruments.

The Nigerian government has been silent in words and in action on a matter that strikes directly at the heart of the fight against corruption. Nigerians await action on the Amnesty International report not just from the executive arm but also from the legislative and judicial arms of the government. Although some aspects of the report may have been exaggerated, it should not be allowed to gather dust in some archive because it provides a glorious starting point for the government to reform the Nigeria Police.