Deep Sighs after SARS

by Matthew Ayibakuro

Since the #ENDSARS protests began, I have had a tab open on my computer to put down my reflections on the movement. Like many young people in Nigeria, I have had several regrettable experiences with SARS and the Nigeria Police Force generally. The memory of each experience only brought me deep sighs. I tried writing about the time officers of SARS stopped me on the road a couple of days after burying my mother last year. They claimed a paper issued to me by the Nigeria Police Force was fake and demanded N50,000 to let me go.

I could not call the Command of the Force that issued the paper because they had put up the roadblock at the one point on the East West Road where there was no cellular network. Being in a state of mourning, I could not muster the strength to fight, so I begged and explained. It was all to no avail though. The intermittent tears in my eyes meant nothing either. After over two hours, I got some bars on my phone and made a call to a senior – and reasonable senior police officer – before I was allowed to continue my trip. Deep sighs.

I tried to write about the time they stopped me on the road and asked for the receipt for my laptop. This was not SARS officers though. There were just another group of ineffective mobile police officers. They wanted a hard copy of the receipt. They would not let me look for a soft copy on the laptop. They claimed I was a criminal and said my ID Card stating that I was a lecturer was fake. The beard on my face excluding me from the academic class, apparently, and my explanations nugatory. This time I had the strength to fight, so I did. We shouted and argued for over an hour. It was to no avail though, and after exhausting my legal vocabulary, I had to make another call.

In Nigeria, you have to always have disposable cash or a number to call, or in some cases, both. Those are the only valuable currencies to engage with the Nigeria Police Force; not your human rights or your complaints or the crime you have to report. Deep sighs. As the memories haunted me and I read about the experiences of others and the protests on the streets, all I had were deep sighs.

This morning, as I sit at my table to put down these words after reading the news about the dissolution of SARS by the Inspector-General of Police, I can feel my sighs getting even deeper. I feel no elation whatsoever. No sigh of relief either, just a bitter sense of accomplishment. Yes, the main demand of the protests has been accomplished and for that the youths of Nigeria, and all those around the world who demonstrated solidarity, should be proud, but now what?

It feels as if, by disbanding the outfit, the Inspector-General has forcefully put out a fire before it had reached its crescendo and consumed the many inequities that bedevil the Nigerian youth. On the surface, this protest might have been about ending SARS, but the degree of frustration seen on the streets of Nigerian cities over the last week or so tells a deeper story. It is a story of perennial police brutality; of insensitive governance; of corrupt and ineffective leadership; of poor infrastructure; of unemployment and a lack of opportunity; of a broken educational system; of endless deep sighs.

Even as the youths return to the depressing realities of their Nigerian-hood, those in public universities would be reminded of the grim fact that they have no idea when they would return to school as a result of yet another strike by university lecturers demanding for better funding for the broken tertiary education system in the country. There are deep sighs everywhere you look in Nigeria.

That is why many young people across the country would be waking up to the “is that it?” feeling this morning after the disbandment of SARS. Is this really it? Do we now all just take this crumb of victory and go home or is this an opportunity to demand for responsible governance in Nigeria?

As for the dissolution of SARS, I am certain we have not heard the last of it. The public statement released by the Inspector-General’s office leaves many questions unanswered: Will the guilty officers of SARS be prosecuted and held accountable for their actions? How far back would the enquiry into the actions of the guilty officers go and would there be a formal enquiry at all? Would the disbanded members of SARS and all other officers of the Nigeria Police Force be made to undergo compulsory training on respect for human rights? Are Nigerians finally going to see its police force reformed? How strategic and inclusive would the reform process be?

Knowing Nigeria, it would be foolhardy to expect optimistic answers to these questions. Our only optimism is that the youths of Nigeria took a stand through peaceful protests and won, albeit a pyrrhic victory, considering the lives lost to SARS operatives and during the protests. It is a victory that leaves a deep sigh, for the disbandment of SARS and the many battles ahead.

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