By Ubong Udoeyo

In 1992, the Nigerian police force created the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) to combat violent crimes such as armed robbery, kidnapping, murder, and hired assassination. In each state, SARS operates under the criminal investigations department of the state’s police command. Alas, SARS developed a reputation for corruptly extorting money from the targets of its investigations. To offer one example, a local software engineer alleged that heavily-armed SARS officers stopped him and ordered that he withdraw one million Naira (approx. $2,607.56 USD) for his release. Such allegations are not unusual, as demonstrated by an online Twitter campaign, labeled #EndSARS, in which numerous Nigerians recounted their personal experiences with SARS. These allegations were serious enough that the Inspector General of Police (IGP) recently released an order to dissolve SARS altogether.

One might reasonably suppose that this dissolution order will result in the elimination of SARS and the corrupt practices that pervaded its department. However, such conclusion would be incorrect, or at least premature, for a couple of reasons. First, the dissolution may turn out to be little more than a publicity gambit that does not have lasting effect. This most recent order is actually the fourth IGP order in four years that has sought to restrict, reorganize, or ban SARS’ operations. In the previous three directives the restrictions were not implemented, and the current order may not be either. Second, even if SARS is dissolved, the root causes of the corruption that pervaded its units are not unique to SARS. If left unaddressed, those same underlying causes can be expected to give rise to similar sorts of extortive corruption in other police units.

So, what factors contributed to the widespread corrupt practices within SARS? Part of the problem may be general systematic inadequacies—factors that contribute to corruption throughout the Nigerian government—but we can also identify three specific factors that made SARS particularly prone to extortive corruption.

First, SARS officers had broad, largely unchecked discretion to decide whether to release a suspect on bail, and to set the bail amount. This enabled officers to levy exorbitant fees for relatively minor crimes, creating a risk that officers would unlawfully retain a substantial percentage of these fees. The system also contributed to a public perception that SARS officers have the authority to collect payment as a condition for discharge, which in turn empowered officers to demand money from citizens as a prerequisite for release when stopped in public. To address this problem, the Nigerian government should reallocate the power to set and collect bail from police authorities to judges and should ensure that any attempts by officers to procure fees of any kind can be reported. Placing the power to collect bail in the hands of judges would counter the perception that a police officer has the unilateral power to demand funds as a prerequisite for discharge. Additionally, it allows an independent body, without direct connection to the detainee, to determine the appropriate bail amount. Consequently, individuals who encounter police officers demanding bribes for release may be more likely to file reports alleging extortion. While there is a concern that reallocating bail procurement to judges would overload the judicial system, this problem could be addressed by creating a judicial unit dedicated to bail determinations.

Second, the ambiguity of SARS’ jurisdiction contributed to the extortion problem. Although officials insisted that SARS investigates only violent crimes, a report by Amnesty international found that SARS officers also investigate civil cases, including contractual and business disputes. The blurring of SARS’ functions enabled wealthy individuals and politicians to use SARS officers to intimidate rivals. For example, affluent individuals could pay bribes to their local SARS police officers for the purpose of securing or resolving a contractual matter with another party. Consequently, the IGP should ensure that all units within the Nigerian Police Force adhere to their delineated roles. Any involvement by officers in matters not assigned to their department should be investigated and immediately stemmed.

Third, the system for citizens to file complaints against SARS officers was ineffective. An individual or organization seeking to report corrupt practices within a particular SARS department could file a report with the appropriate authorities at the station, or through the Police Service Commission (PSC). Subsequently, the PSC investigates and sends its findings and recommendations to the IGP for implementation. While the procedure sounds efficient, many Nigerians complained that their reports were not investigated. According to the CLEEN Foundation, a Nigerian NGO, the Nigerian police lacks an effective database on complaints and discipline management. It is therefore unclear whether filed reports are actually logged into the system, and whether PSC follows through with investigating such reports. As a result, further transparency of the investigative process is needed, as is a tracking system that provides routine updates of the investigative timeline of a filed report.

Although SARS has allegedly been dissolved, reforming police forces in Nigeria requires attention to these factors. Without a suitable bail system, clearly defined jurisdictional mandates for police units, and adequately structured complaint mechanisms, the risks that police units – especially special units endowed with unusual powers – will corruptly abuse their authority will remain unacceptably high.