The following is just one more convincing evidence to end SARS, the notorious unit of the Nigerian Police Force whose name ‘Special Anti-Robbery Squad’ amounts to nothing but official deception that gives state license to a vicious bullying and torture gang.
It’s a narration by Immanuel Ibe-Anyanwu, a Lagos-based writer, freelance journalist and interior design business owner, as published on his Facebook page on Tuesday. The post is, first, a testimony being a follow-up on one he posted on Monday from the toilet of a Zenith Bank branch where he hid for hours from SARS officers waiting for a handsome bribe for no offense.
Secondly, and equally important, this is the story about the uselessness of SARS and why every Nigerian should push for its absolute disbandment, since far-reaching reforms have eluded it.
“It was past 2pm yesterday and I was at Zenith Bank Okota Branch to submit a document prepared on my company letterhead. I was asked to edit a part of it and resubmit. Because I wanted to conclude the transaction same yesterday, I had to go look for a business center around to type in the edit. Across the bank was one and, as I walked towards it, a young, scruffy-looking man accosted me, saying he was a police officer. His superiors wanted to see me inside a bus waiting around, he said. He was slightly bearded and on mufti, so I was skeptical. I asked for his ID card and he unhooked it from his waist and showed me. The prints were tiny and blurred, so I reached out to collect it and read properly. “So you want to snatch my ID card”, he shouted.
He took from me the PLANEX-branded envelope containing plain letterheads and other documents, and walked towards the bus, asking me to come along. Right away I made a call to my brother, Ekene Okoro, and briefed him. By the time I got to the bus, the story had changed: that I snatched his ID card from him. They were about 7 armed men, and one of them started interrogating me. Why did I choose to use this branch of Zenith Bank instead of the one close to my office in Ikoyi? Where is the other director of PLANEX? Why was the document I was to edit not stamped with my company stamp? Dismissing all my answers, he said they would take me to my office in Ikoyi to confirm. That he knew people on that street and had just spoken to them, and they couldn’t identify me. Speak to my office landlady, I said. He ignored me.
At that point I stepped aside and called the Lagos PPRO and narrated my experience. He asked me to pass on the phone to them and they took the phone from me, cut the call, and seized the phone. I became scared and started inviting passers-by into the argument and people gathered. One man intervened and begged them a lot and they calmed down, though insisting that they would still take me away anyway. Then they asked to search my car, parked outside the bank premises and I let them. Finding nothing, they took my ID card and demanded my car key and car documents. I had to corner their leader to a side and beg him, telling him he was like a father to me and should appeal to his men. His men were almost going violent but he kept calming them down. He told me to go arrange some money and I told him I needed the phone to transfer money from the corporate account to my ATM account. I needed the car key too to get the ATM card. On my way to the ATM, the one who arrested me asked me how much I was going to withdraw. I told him N5,000 and he flared up.
At the ATM I called back the PPRO. “Don’t give them any money”, he said, promising to send down a band of policemen. I withdrew some money and ran into the banking hall instead, went straight to the bank toilet and hid. Then made an update on Facebook. My phone battery was on 2% and I needed to save it, in case the rescue came. I sat there in the toilet for close to two hours. By past 4pm, I feared the bank would soon close and called the PPRO again, who assured me his men were on the way. He asked me to put the CSO of the Branch on the line for him, since his men were being held up on the way. They spoke and he asked the CSO to put the bank mobile police unit on the line too for him to instruct them on what to do. But before the bank’s policeman could come speak to the PPRO on phone, the phone battery had gone flat.
I narrated everything to him, the Bank policeman. But he was skeptical, saying if I did nothing, SARS would not be after me. I learnt from the CSO that the SARS people actually came inside the bank to look for me while I was in the toilet, purporting to want to give me back my documents. The bank policeman now said I should leave the bank, that the bank was not the place for people to hide. So he eased me out of the bank and, outside where my car was parked, I noticed the number plates had been taken away. The SARS bus was no longer around so I assumed they had left.
I got into my car and plugged my phone desperate to reach people. As soon as I started the car and moved, the SARS bus came from nowhere and double-crossed me. I turned swiftly facing the bank gate and blocking it, hooting crazily to draw attention and for the bank security to let me in. The bank security, on the order of their skeptical policeman, refused me entry, leaving me out for SARS to devour. It is a branch I have frequented for over 10 years, visiting there almost weekly. SARS people jumped out of their bus and started banging on my car windows. One attempted to puncture the tyre but that superior asked him not to. My phone was still yet to come on, heightening my fear. It was the longest moment of my life, as I was surrounded by 7 armed policemen who had patiently waited for me for over 2 hours. They ordered me to wind down but I wouldn’t and a crowd began to gather. They stepped aside, speaking to the bank policeman. The bank policeman later came to me and asked me to wind down, that he had spoken to them, and that I should leave even outside the bank premises where all this was happening. The management had asked him to chase me away, he said, adding that the bank was not the place for me. Shouting through shut windows, I pleaded with him to let my phone come on so help could reach me. He threatened to use force on me if I didn’t leave that very minute. I steered out of the gate and parked in the outside parking lot, still locked up in the car.
And hunched over my steering and said a short prayer. I am useful to my country’s economy, to its civic space—legitimately, therefore this should not be happening.
They came back to me again, SARS, asking me to wind down, and I pretended to be making a phone call. One was impatient and wanted to smash the glass. Their superior who had been soft all along got angry and dumped the number plates and documents on my bonnet and stormed out. The others followed him, entered their bus, and they drove ahead and waited. I was scared that they were still waiting along the same road I was to take, so I remained in the car. The bank policeman came back again, fuming, banging on the car and urging me to leave. I had to take the opposite direction amid a slow-moving traffic, driving insanely cutting through the traffic until I found a free road which was in the opposite direction to my house. I fled, literally.
At that point my phone had come on. The PPRO and his deputy called respectively. They had been trying to reach me. Their men who were on the way also called me saying they had been unable to reach me since and were now around. For the next hour they all kept calling checking up on me. Even the Lagos SARS commandant called, apologetic. They all rose to the challenge and began to look for the erring officers. The response on social media had been overwhelming, from colleagues, friends and family. I was in shock. Still in shock: I have read stories of SARS tracing people home in the night and killing them and a part of me is worried. Later at night I learnt the SARS team had been identified and would be arrested today. Does that eclipse the possibility of a retaliation?
It is not a country to die for, I know. But I recognize that one is not protected by silence. Nor is there protection in the incubus of fear, in a cowardly surrender to the prosperity of evil. Giving them the money they asked for could perhaps have been an alternative to the current anxiety, but ransom guarantees nothing, except temporary relief. In my evolution as a journalist, writer and, above all, a human being for whom slavery is not, I would be ashamed of myself funding evil to walk free. Yet I’m neither courageous nor smart. I am, in the main, merely lucky. Lucky for social media, for the goodwill and love of family, friends and strangers alike, for all of you who stood for me. Lucky for the higher echelon of the Nigerian police—the PPRO, his deputy, the commissioner, Lagos SARS commandant—professionals who, without any meaningful leads, fished out the erring officers in hours. I am grateful to all of you, even as I remain fearless in my advocacy for a decent nation-space.”
There are stories nearly everyday on social media of deaths of citizens at the hands of torturous SARS officers. Decency demands that we ascribe truth to those who narrate on behalf of the dead. But should we be cynical in doubting, how many stories of lucky survivors (which are just as many) would it require to convince everyone that SARS does not provide security, engender peace of mind or respect Nigerians?
SARS is a clear and present danger. End It.