Home Opinion Money-making raids: SARS men illegal operations frustrating helpless Nigerians

Money-making raids: SARS men illegal operations frustrating helpless Nigerians

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Osaretin Erins would not forget memories of Thursday, September 5, 2019, in a hurry. A poultry farmer and businessman, the 35-year-old man had gone to a roasted meat (suya) joint in the Abule-Egba area of Lagos along the Lagos-Abeokuta Expressway around 10pm in company with his friend, Raymond, a corps member.

After treating themselves to some wraps of suya, they dashed into a Hyundai Sonata driven by Erins, eager to get home and devour the meat. Shockingly, they would soon realise they were in for a nightmare as some armed policemen wearing vests with the inscription ‘FSARS’ and ‘Anti-Cultism’ blocked their way with a yellow commercial bus.

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In a commando style , the policemen ordered them out of the car.

“I thought they were armed robbers because they did not look like policemen,” Erins, who narrated his ordeal to our correspondent, said.

They demanded to know their offence but all they got in reply were repeated hot slaps. The men collected their phones and ordered them into the two vehicles respectively, taking them round the metropolis with constant threats to kill and frame them for cultism and cybercrime. “Weird!” Erins exclaimed.

Their final destination was an Automated Teller Machine point in Idimu -several kilometres away from the point of ambush. The policemen had named their “ransom,” as Erins put it and it was N500,000 for him and his friend. After much pleading, it was reduced to N200,000. No further bargain!

“We were afraid that they might take us to a police station and fabricate lies against us. They didn’t allow us to call our parents. After a while, they agreed to collect N200,000. They took us to an FCMB ATM point. One of them monitored me as I made several N15,000 withdrawals until the N200,000 was complete. I withdrew N100,000 before 12am and withdrew another N100,000 after midnight. They freed us around 1am.

“They forced me to empty my account balance. This is Nigeria where police have turned to midnight thieves. It is really heartbreaking considering the fact that we are law-abiding citizens. Nigeria is heading towards a state of anarchy and turmoil if all these continue by FSARS and police. I am really heartbroken,” he lamented.

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The money was from sales Erins realised from tens of crates of eggs he supplied to customers as well as the proceeds of his rental service outfit for weeks. Sadly in one night, he lost all at gunpoint to those who are supposed to protect him.

“My parents didn’t know I went out to buy suya that evening so they didn’t bother to call me throughout the time I was being held captive. They thought I was in my room. They were surprised when I returned home around 2am.

“When people were saying end SARS, the government said criminals would be everywhere. I am telling you categorically that those people are actually those aiding criminality,” he added, scornfully.

On June 3, President Muhammadu Buhari and the Chairman, Presidential Panel on the Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, Mr Tony Ojukwu, exchanged warm smiles in the Villa as the latter submitted a bulky report on the unlawful operations of SARS operatives that had attracted public outcry. Beyond the air of authority, the smile is symbolic. It beamed hope in the minds of millions of Nigerians that years of flagrant abuse of human rights by the anti-robbery officers would soon reach an end.

Buhari’s statement that day was also assuring. He stated that he had directed the Inspector-General of Police and the Ministry of Solicitor General of the Federal/Permernent Secretary, Justice, to meet with the National Human Rights Commission “to work out the modalities for the implementation of the report within three months from today (June 3).”

That timeline elapsed on September 3 without any feedback to Nigerians about the implementation. Rather, the sad, odd tales surrounding the conduct of the operatives thrive on as more innocent Nigerians fall victims to SARS extortion and harassment.

A day before Erins’ ordeal, a rapper, Ikechukwu Onunaku, got a sour pill of SARS’ high-handedness. The operatives, in their usual practice, flagged him down in the Lekki Phase 1 area of the state, pulled him out of an Uber taxi he was in and bundled him into a police Hilux van.

According to him, the operatives drove him to Lagos Island and forced him to withdraw all the money in his account after threatening to implicate him if he proved stubborn.

He recalled, “I was kidnapped by SARS last night (Wednesday) two minutes away from my house, taken to Lagos Island and made to exhaust my ATM allowance or I would be killed and no one would know.

“Not by armed robbers but when you are robbed and they are armed fully, five AK-47s, blows to the head and bundled into a vehicle; isn’t it the same thing? And then after, you will now tell me our government is working or things are in place.

“Let me tell you now straight up, I don’t care who you are if you are rolling solo in this town and SARS get you, day or night; if they get your phone, it’s over for you. They don’t have names or numbers on their uniforms.

“….I could have been shot and left in the dark space on that dark road. No ID, no phone. Who would identify me? Who would be looking for me for days? After all, my people saw me enter Uber and heading home…we are not safe. End of story.”

Painfully, there are many cases of horrible treatment some policemen, especially SARS officers, meted out to members of the public almost on a daily basis across the country.

The men usually look for young people who drive good cars and have records of cash transaction alerts on their phones. Rather than investigate, if there is a need at all, they are in a hurry to name their price —most times in hundreds of thousands.

A software developer, Tony Astro, was torn between fear and bewilderment on September 20, two weeks after the implementation modalities of reforming SARS were supposed to be ready as President Buhari promised.

That day, around 4 pm, Astro was on a motorcycle operated by one of the bike-hailing services en route to Abiola Gardens, Ojota, to Ketu.

On their way, two men reportedly in “police-like” uniform flagged down the motorcycle and instructed him to disembark.

His plight started after the officers checked his phone for some information, perhaps including bank alerts. Next, they tagged him an Internet fraudster (popularly known as yahoo boy) and discontinued the journey.

“They said I was going with them to the station. And I was like, what station? Next thing, they pointed guns at my leg, telling me to enter another bike they stopped and go with them to their station. I entered and one of the men asked for N1m and he’d let me go.

“And I was like, N1m? Where would I get that from? I told him I was not what he thought. I’m a software developer at a particular company. He said everything na yahoo yahoo still. He physically harassed me on the bike still. To every onlooker on the street, I was a criminal or some sort,” Astro narrated on his Twitter handle, @toniastro.

Upon their arrival at Area H Command, Ogudu, where they reportedly took him to, his bag containing a laptop, chargers and jotters were seized. Amidst slaps and kicks, Astro said the policemen reduced the sum to N500,000

He went on, “Two policemen were there, making a total of six. The next thing was slaps and punches, here and there. All I could hear was, ‘Confess you’re an Internet fraudster or not?’ I kept saying I was not a fraudster and that I was a software developer for a company.

“These guys took off my hoodie and dragged me to the cell, locked me up with no proof that I was what they claimed me to be. I asked that I make calls, and they said that I would write a statement. One of them came to me and asked that I pay N500,000.

“And I was like N500,000? From where? I said my student ID card was in my wallet, you could check it and see. They said they would not check any ID card. They went through my emails and WhatsApp conversations and found nothing.

After all the drama, they reportedly asked him to go to the nearest ATM point and withdraw N15, 000 from his account balance before his belongings would be released.

“It still feels like a dream. I was physically harassed for no reason and paying someone or a group of people for no reason out of the money I worked for,” he added.

In a chat with Saturday PUNCH during the week, Astro explained that he left another commuter arrested by the team at the station because the man had yet to raise money for his bail.

“I was disappointed. Even though I have heard people sharing their experiences with policemen, I didn’t expect it would be that bad. They just wasted my time for no specific reason. I posted my experience on Twitter because of others who might encounter a similar thing. Policemen really need to be re-orientated. They do more harm than good. I feel a lot better now,” he said.

Although the spokesman for the police command in the state, DSP Bala Elkana, said four policemen had been arrested for the crime and were being interrogated, the victim doubted the process.

Elkana also promised that the command would investigate the cases if they were formally reported.

An artiste, Nwamama Omeje, would remember September 14 for a long time while he concentrates on his music career. He and two other colleagues with whom he jointly shares the stage name Wazobia Boys went for a show in Constain, Ijora area.

He had dropped off his partners at Eleganza bus stop and was heading home when some policemen stopped him.

He revealed, “After they searched me and found nothing, one of them said I would not leave until I drop something for them. I was like what am I dropping something for? We argued and along the line, a gun was smashed on my head. The truth is that I didn’t know what I did wrong.

“While trying to know my offence, I received another hit of the gun which I blocked with my hand. Even while bleeding, I was dragged into the Hilux van like a criminal. They were about taking me and some other people they have arrested to their station at Ikeja. Most of the people were released because they finally dropped money for them and even those who were not with cash used the ATM.

“I was in the van with the police until we got to Victoria Island. As they were still arresting some other people, I ran into a fan of mine, one Mr Ben, who recognised me. He talked to the policemen and after their discussion, I was released.”

Even though Omeje was able to wriggle out his way without giving a bribe, the injury the policemen inflicted on him brought a huge loss on him.

“I had three shows the following day (Sunday) but I had to cancel them because of the injury. I was in pains. I asked my manager to return the money. One of the events was a birthday party, I disappointed my clients and they were angry,” he added.

Three months after a 29-year-old bank worker, Adeyemi Ilesanmi, reported some SARS officers to the police authorities, justice has yet to come to him.

On June 10, the policemen accosted Ilesanmi close to the entrance to the United States Embassy on Victoria Island, Lagos where he went for an interview.

They allegedly detained him and threatened to make him miss his appointment if he did not ‘cooperate’ with them.

The Ondo State indigene said he parted with N35,000, which he was compelled to transfer to an account given by the SARS men so that he would not miss the interview.

He said, “I am based in Akure, Ondo State, and I travelled to Lagos for the purpose of the visa interview which was slated for June 10. I spent the night in Obalende and as early as 6.30 am, I took a tricycle to Victoria Island. As soon as I alighted from the tricycle, I was apprehended by the SARS men.

“They were three in number and one of them asked me who I was. I identified myself by showing them my work identity card. I also explained to them that I had an appointment at the US Embassy in the next 27 minutes.

“One of them said they were not interested in my explanation and that they wanted to check what I had with me. I obliged them but asked not to be delayed. He checked the date and time on my appointment letter and said he was going to hold on to it and make me miss my appointment if I didn’t cooperate.

“I was dragged into their van and driven to the nearest police post. I kept on reminding them that I had a visa interview and that they shouldn’t make me miss my appointment because I did not have anything incriminating on me. At some point, I had to start begging them and they said they would not release my documents until I settle them with N200,000.

“Eventually, one of them called me aside and said he knew how important the appointment was to me and that I should not jeopardise my chance at the embassy. He asked how much I had and I told him N2,000.”

He explained that the officers rejected the N2,000, which made him to call someone who transferred some money into his account.

He added, “I was forced to make a transfer of N35,000 into an account before my documents were released to me. I got to the embassy late but was still able to meet up. I had to pay so that I wouldn’t miss the interview.”

Ilesanmi told our correspondent on Wednesday that Police Complaints Response Unit linked him up with one Inspector Albert, an investigating officer handling the case. Unfortunately, there was no positive result since then, he remarked.

He stated, “I have been following up on the case. I have called the IPO several times. I have stopped calling him because I am tired. Two months ago, Inspector Albert told me on the phone that he was in charge of the case. He said he was calling from X-Squad in Abuja. I was surprised that a case that happened in Lagos is being treated in Abuja.

“The last time we spoke, he said he and two other policemen came to Lagos for investigation. He said he would ask me to come any time. That was around July; since then he has not called me and he doesn’t pick my calls.”

Efforts to get the police comment on the implementation of the reform proved abortive as calls to the mobile of Force Public Relations Officer, DCP Frank Mba, rang out. He had also yet to reply to a text message sent to him as of press time.

An official of the NHRC, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak with the press, directed our correspondent to the Presidency.

However, Saturday PUNCH could not get the Presidency’s reaction as the media team was said to be in South Africa on an official assignment.

Meanwhile, the National President, Committee for the Defence of Human Rights, Malachy Ugwummadu, stated that there was the need for government to be committed to SARS reform.

He said SARS harassment was inconsistent with the Section 34 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, 1999 (as amended), which upholds the right of every Nigerian to “dignity of human person.”

He said, “The hood does not make the monk. Reforming SARS does not stop at policy direction or a mere avower of the government, insisting that a certain behavioural pattern should end. What is more important is the mechanism and resolve to stop such negative trend. SARS has become notorious. They have turned their weapons against the citizens.

“The President should not allow another killing and harassment to occur before he set in motion the machinery to finally put an end to criminal behaviour on the part of SARS. Reform must be implemented. There are many other reports that preceded this one. It is a question of harmonising the entire report, identify the core areas of challenge and put in motion by way of direct supervision not only by Police Service Commission but also by the implementation committee.”


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