Nationwide demonstrations were held yesterday for and against proscription of the Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) over which opinion is divided.
The security outfit has been accused of corruption, high-handedness and extra-judicial killings, sparking a wave of clamour for its abolition and calls for physical protest.
Marchers who yesterday took to the streets, however, intensified controversy on the significance of the squad for policing.
In Rivers State, the All Progressives Congress (APC) chairman, Davis Ikanya, told Commissioner of Police Zaki Ahmed that the party decided to join the pro-SARS rally because many of its members had lost their lives.
“We are concerned about the call to scrap SARS. In 2015, over 300 of our members were killed or beheaded. From 2015 till date, we have lost more than 400. One day alone, in Ogba/Egbema/Ndoni, we lost persons including my Ward 4 chairman, his pregnant wife, daughter and son,” he said.
Rivers State Governor Nyesom Wike is of the opposition Peoples Democratic Party (PDP). Last week, he had backed calls for banning of the outfit, alleging it was an APC tool designed to rig the 2019 general elections.
Ikanya said politicians opposed to SARS in the state were simply afraid they could lose political power if free and fair polls were held in 2019.
Hundreds took to the streets of Port Harcourt armed with placards. Some read: ‘SARS is fighting enemies to save Rivers’ people’, ‘Say no to end SARS’, ‘Without SARS, criminals will cripple Rivers State.’
The protesters marched from Port Harcourt Polo Club to the police headquarters along Moscow Road, singing that only criminals and their sponsors would seek end to SARS.
The Executive Director, Maritime Operations, Nigeria Ports Authority (NTA), Sokonte Davis, noted that prior to the advent of SARS, there were cases of beheading across the state, insisting only criminally minded persons are opposed to the squad.
Former Labour Party governorship candidate, Tonye Princewill, on his part, stressed the need to reform SARS, following complaints by the public, but kicked against outright abolition. He added that precarious security situation in the state necessitated increased deployment of the operatives.
According to the 2015 APC deputy governorship candidate, Honourable Asita, some of the protesters had been victims of kidnapping, robbery, attempted assassinations and had lost family members due to the activities of criminals. He warned that if SARS was scrapped, life in River could become hellish.
The Rivers State Commissioner of Police, Zaki Ahmed, said contrary to the negative campaign against SARS, the unit had since January arrested over 1000 suspected armed robbers, 500 of whom were already facing prosecution. He added that over 200 weapons including AK47 rifles were recovered. Thanking the campaigners for their support, he promised that operatives involved in human rights abuses would be sanctioned.
Hundreds of counter protesters meanwhile stormed the PDP secretariat in Port Harcourt, singing anti-SARS song and demanding the immediate sacking and prosecution of the state squad commander, Akin Fakorede.
Some of their placards read: ‘Sack Akin Fakorede now’, ‘Stop killings by SARS’, ‘President Buhari call SARS to order’, ‘End the killings by SARS’, and ‘End SARS brutality now’.
President-General of the Grassroots Development Initiative, Mr. Bright Amaehwule, berated the squad for turning itself into an APC machine for perpetrating crimes against Nigerians. He added that the counter pro-SARS rally was confirmation the squad’s brutality in the state was sponsored by the APC.
The Publicity Secretary of Rivers PDP, Mr. Samuel Nwanosike, said: “SARS, as presently constituted, is no longer a security outfit. It has been turned against the people. Hence, Nigerians from all walks of life want it disbanded. In Rivers State, we demand the sack and prosecution of the SARS commander, Akin Fakorede. He has committed crimes against our people. We will continue to resist the impunity of SARS. Rivers people will never be intimidated by a gang of criminals.”
Also, former chairman of Obio/Akpor Local Government Area, Mr. Collins Onunwo, vowed Rivers’ people would not allow the unit to be used for rigging the 2019 polls.
In Awka, Anambra State, placard-carrying protesters in the hundreds disrupted traffic for several hours.
The convener of the demonstration, Okafor Emeka, who is also special assistant to the governor on political matters, said the relative peace in the state was a result of aggressive policing by the squad, and attempt to scrap the unit would open the floodgates of criminality.
Emeka handed a protest letter to Commissioner of Police Garba Umar for onward transmission to the Inspector General of Police.
Chairman of the Police Community Relations Committee, Chief Francis Ezenwankwo, said persons calling for banning of the unit have selfish and ulterior motives and should have a rethink. He added that while the officers may have shortcomings, the squad should rather be reformed for better service delivery.
In Abuja, over 1000 pro-SARS campaigners began to march at about 10 a.m. from the Eagle Square, disrupting vehicular flow in the process.
It was organised by a coalition of civil society organisation under the aegis of Concerned Men and Women Association of Nigeria. Participants were drawn from the Police Community Relations Committee (PCRC), Eminent Persons Forum, market men, women and others.
Carrying placards, they trooped to police headquarters and presented a letter to the Inspector General, who was represented by his deputy in charge of operations, Habila Joshak.
The national coordinator of Concerned Men and Women Association of Nigeria, Hajia Hadiza Ishaku, stressed: “There is no perfect human institution or person. That is why reforming SARS is the best way to go.”
She added: “SARS has, over the years, performed excellently well. It has assisted in arresting some notorious criminals in different parts of the country and allowed market men and women to continue to do their businesses and other activities very well nationwide.”
Responding, Ishaku said: “I invite anyone whose right has been abused, whatever it is, come out, whether it is in Lagos, whether it is in Rivers, whether it is in Abuja, whether it is in Anambra, whether it is in Imo, East, South, North and West. We want such individuals to come up and make complaints and we will pursue them. We also want human rights organisations and those that protect rights and privileges of individuals to also follow up and see the outcome of these complaints.”
He added: “I am also happy you are telling the Inspector General of Police that you want to support the re-organisation of SARS due to complaints of abuse of rights, abuse of process and going beyond procedure and the rules and regulations of the conduct of internal security. I want to inform you that the Inspector General of Police has already given directive that SARS must be re-organised to meet the expectations of the community.”
In Lagos, pro-SARS supporters gathered at the National Stadium.
Alhaji Baba Talba, a spokesman who represented one of the groups of the protesters, said: “Lagos without SARS is a free-for-all for armed robbers. The only outfit armed robbers fear in the police is SARS. People should stop calling for its dissolution. Rather, they should call for its re-organisation and the re-orientation of its personnel.”
Hundreds of end-SARS advocates on the other hand held a peaceful rally at the Gani Fawehinmi Park, Ojota, organised by: convener #EndSARS, Segun Awonsonya; convener, Concerned Nigerians, Deji Adeyanju; coordinator, Coalition in Defence of Nigerian Democracy, Ariyo Atoye; Adebayo Raphael of the OurMumuDonDo Movement; and Abdul Mahmud and Bako Usman of Campaign for Democracy.
Holding placards, the protesters said they were appalled by alleged brutality and extra-judicial executions by SARS operatives. They argued that the unit had outlived its usefulness and had become a menace.
Coincidentally, a three-day retreat to discuss human rights violation by SARS and Police Mobile Force personnel and the way out of it has held.
It was organised by the Nigeria Police and Prisoner Rehabilitation and welfare Action (PRAWA), supported by German development agency, GIZ.
The IGP, Ibrahim Idris, represented by DIG Emanuel Inyang, said: “The Nigeria Police will henceforth be guided by the international core value of policing with integrity, ensuring that the rule of law prevails.”