SARS stands for the Special Anti Robbery Squad. The problem is that it has turned to is a unit that terrorizes people for standing out and looking just a little bit different.
As I read this, there are tears in my eyes as not many things move me to tears.
On Saturday I stood with the group of protesters and slowly inched my way towards where my friends were. I was remembering a time over 2 years ago in Buenos Aires when young people took to the streets protesting abortion and workers rights. At that time I remember thinking that such a thing would NEVER happen in Nigeria and I was wrong. I doubted the power of twitter. I saw a third of the people I know in Lagos on the streets. We happen to be a generation that is less busy due to a government that does not prioritize its citizens.
I must preface all of what I am about to say by mentioning my privilege. I am a Yoruba cisgender male and living in Lagos. I have a surname or last name that can open doors because of its perceived value. I can speak American English, Nigerian English, Pidgin English and Yoruba. My looks put me in the ajebota category but I take the bus, I ride okada long distances and I prefer eating on the road and not eateries. I can feel at home at Alara the same way I feel at home at Yakoyo. I am able to blend into many circumstances and that is the main thing I have going for me. I mention my privilege to highlight that nobody is safe.
To be someone from Lagos, Nigeria or a Lagosian means knowing the difference between LASTMA, FRSC or Road Safety, VIS or VIO, MOPOL, NDLEA, Task Force, EFCC, Civil Defense and recently there has been a new one that wears light blue. I am unsure what they are supposed to do. Regardless of your class in Lagos you must be aware of where you are, what you are wearing, the gender of the people you are with, the time of day and your mode of transportation. A combination of those things factor heavily in how you will be harassed by a Nigerian policing agency.
Growing up, I have multiple memories of seeing how negotiations with police officers change according to many factors. If you are on the island between bonny camp to around VGC, the police you meet there are more reasonable. Depending on what combination of factors you meet them with you might be able to get away with a simple greeting of “good evening o”, “oga mi well done”, “e e ku ise o” or “happy weekend” followed by a head nod, turning on your Inside light and driving away. If you happen to meet them on a day when they have decided to be on your case, all of the things I mentioned above do not suffice. You may get scared as most times 3 older men usually carrying AK47s will surround your car and tell you to stop or wind down. Be afraid but do not fear because you are still on the island. The first thing you should do is make sure your car doors are locked. If you can wind up your windows. Put anything of value under your seat and do not blow too much grammar unless you have to. If they ask you for particulars make sure you hand them a copy through your window that you have rolled down only a centimeter. If they ask for your license hand them the copy. If they ask park well and get down start to raise your voice and get ready for battle. This encounter can end any number of ways. I asked you to give copies because you may choose to speed off and leave those things with them. In some cases, you may just be asked for a bribe in any number of ways. “happy weekend”, “your boys are working”, “anything for breakfast”, “your sister is hungry o”, “you no go settle us”, “I go write ticket for you o”, “follow us to the station”, “fine boy”, “last time you never drop anytin naw”, and many others. Always remember that it is a negotiation till you get to the station. At any point before that you can get out of it if you know what to do.
The only car crash I have been in was as a result of a police officer. I was coming back home around 8pm driving a 1999 Mercedes benz. The person I was with asked to be dropped off at the bus stop so that they could get home. At this point, I was driving a lot and I knew some of the police officers and they also recognized me. I stopped at a bus stop to drop him off and as he was getting out from the car the police car stopped in front of us and the car was surrounded by 2 AK47 carrying men. He claimed that I was not allowed to stop at a bus stop. As he shouted at me, I decided I was going to drive off and risk getting shot. I was much too tired to deal with the lie I knew he was telling. I saw that no cars were coming, and sped off. Some moments later, the police car chased me and they overtook me. Knowing that I was in a vulnerable position, I slowed down and as I turned out from behind them another car came and slammed into me. The moment that happened the police car that was almost at a halt sped off. The driver of the other car asked if I was ok as he had seen what was happening from behind. As both our cars were kind of wrecked, I sent him a small transfer to fix his door that had now almost fallen off and went home. Since that day over 4 years ago I have not driven up to 30 times. I prefer okada or a bus if it is a short distance.
If you are on the mainland, throw everything I said above out of the window. Be ready to fight but be tactful. Always avoid stopping even if that means weaving into another lane to get a police officer with a softer eyeI. If you get down from your car take your keys with you. Hide anything of value you have but always be unfriendly and unlook at the same time. I wish I could say more about this but you must know that you are in savage territory. There is not much you can do except roll with the tide. If it becomes unmanageable one of the last resorts is calling someone you know will pick up and acting like you have a someone who can bail you out. Never hesitate to say the officers name out loud or even tell them you are recording and putting it online. Do all things necessary to make them fear you and then they will most likely let you go. Just never forget that they have the gun.
What I just shared is a truncated list of the things I have learned but let me now share a real story from the mainland. I was with my dad’s assistant K around mile 2 in a ford bus around 6 years ago. It is important to note that this man has been a bus conductor before and certified baba ita. The VIO stopped us for not having a reflective sticker. They asked us to park well and we did that. The man was asking for clear settlement and K not having any of it. After that they later said we also have the wrong license plate for the car we are driving. Throughout all of this we apologized and said sorry. Before this we were told that the fine was 20,000. At this time the car windows were down because the AC was not really working due to traffic. As we were looking outside the driver’s window talking to the officer another officer reached through the passengers window, turned off the car by turning the key and seized the keys. At the same time that officer unlocked the back door and sat in the car. Gun in hand, they asked K to get out of the drivers seat so they could drive the car to the station. K refused and insisted he must drive his own car. Before we left the guy inquired if we were willing to pay the 50,000 we now owed. K refused and after we got to the station a vulcanizer ran up to the car to drain the tires. K pushed him back and dared him to try it. He even threatened him and asked him to pay the 600 to pump the tires back up. This whole altercation happened around 3pm. At about 4:50, the officers called us into the office and gave us a bill to pay at the bank keeping in mind that banks close at 5, we had no car and the bank was far away. As we sat around the arresting officer forced some of the detainees to buy him food and water. At around 6 after many calls K’s mother who was around the area came and raised hell. We later ended on about 18,000 before they released the keys.
I just shared 2 out of about 30 negative stories I have with policing agencies. The most recent being at the border while on a bus to Ghana when a guy was removed from our bus for having a laptop. Some years back the police hid the body of an aboki that was shot in the estate I live in. Unlike other non African countries I have been to, the police can actually be trusted to do their work. You can call and they will come. You can run to them if you have an emergency and they will assist you. This is not the case in Nigeria. Unless you are willing to pay most times nothing at all will happen and that is the norm. You can not expect underpaid family men and women to be in the streets all day with unrealistic targets and expect things to run smoothly when things are getting more and more expensive everyday. On any given day your house can be raided and you can be jailed for being in the wrong place at the right time and forced to pay bail for crimes you never committed.
The conversation now is about Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) but nobody is safe. Nigerian police are a problem and I am glad a conversation is starting. Let’s see how far this will go.