The Nation’s South south Regional Editor, Shola O’neil, was recently at the receiving end of extreme brutality at the hands of some men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad popularly known as SARS. He shares his near-death experience.
I had heard so much about the bestiality and madness of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force, but nothing prepared me for the harrowing encounter with the mad team of SARS I met in Edo State on Monday, June 3.
I had crossed paths with dozens of policemen at checkpoints and several other SARS teams on that day, but these men who operated around Okada Junction in Ovia Northwest Local Government Area, outdid all the craziness I had encountered – by miles – both in coarseness, savagery and ferociousness.
It was supposed to be a routine stop-and-check. It happened between Okada Junction and Ogbemudia Farms on the Ore-Benin highway. It was about 2:15pm, and the sun was shining brightly. It was a beautiful Monday afternoon. They commandeered the car I rode in to ‘park there’, besides a red Mercedes Benz C-Class hatchback, which front number plate was hidden.
The first indicator that it was not going to be another ‘open your booth’ and ‘bring your particular (or party cola)’ emerged when one of the men, a brutish burly young man, dresses in black jean and top with SARS inscribed on the back, asked the driver of the vehicle why a parcel in the car looked like hard drug.
“This thing (parcel) be like SK (Skunk Weed),” he said as he picked up a laptop on the floor of the front seat, and then ordered everyone in the Toyota Corolla car to disembark.
Turning to the owner of the laptop, a young man in his early to mid-20s, he asked for the (computer) receipt and demanded to know what the man does for a living. He (names withheld) said he was a student of Afe Babalola University, and on his way to Warri, Delta State.
Rather than be placated, the response seemed to anger the ‘officer’, who looked to be the youngest member of the team. “Do you think you can intimidate me with any school?” he countered. “You are telling me you are a student, as if you are the first student. I am also educated, I have my OND, and education is education; school is school. I can read and write, that is what education is all about.”
“Besides,” he continued, his voice a few decibels louder, “where is Afe Babalolo University located? Wherever it is, you cannot use that to intimidate policemen on duty,” Officer OND thundered, much to the surprise of the young man, who meekly replied that the school is in Ado-Ekiti. The other passengers exchanged worried looks.
Turning to the student again as he tried to open the screen of the laptop, the raging officer asked what the young man had in his mouth (braces). When the student told him what it was, Officer OND asked him why he would have steel in his mouth.
He shifted to the lone female passenger in the car, and ordered her to unsling her waist-bag and hand it over to him. She quietly obliged him, her hands shaking. Officer OND went about his job with inexplicable menace and anger, as he flipped threw out the lady’s stuffs: sanitary pad, tissue papers before seizing her mobile phone.
It was then my turn. He asked for my phone, which I handed to him. “Open it”, he ordered. I quickly obliged him, and handed it back to him.
He snatched the phone from me and started walking away as he went through my call log, chats, emails messages and other applications. I suggested that I would feel a lot better if he searched the phone in my presence. My position was informed by past personal and stories of third parties encounters with men of the force, who would plant evidence on people in order to extort huge sums of money from them.
The ‘highly educated’ OND officer could not stomach my temerity; he turned round swiftly and asked who I was to tell him how to do his job: “Who are you to tell me how to do my job or anything?” He thundered, as he unleashed a rash of slaps on my face before I could even answer.
I was dazed, literarily! The violence was unexpected. He poured invectives on my family and me as he unleashed further blows. I could only ask what I said to warrant such attacks, as I tried (mostly in vain) to evade the rain of blinding blows. His railing and insults attracted his colleagues and other people at the scene.
I have met policemen with different mentalities and temperaments at checkpoints across the country, and my experience is that there is usually at least one sane and reasonable one among any team. But this was different; every one of them seemed crazy, in their own peculiar ways.
The first one that came picked up a tree branch lying nearby and let it fly on my head. “You de fight police officer?” he thundered. The impact brought darkness over me; flashes of stars flew over my head. He continued to scream at me as he clubbed me. Passengers at the scene tried to explain to the new entrant that that wasn’t what happened, but he didn’t care.
Passengers tried to extricate me from the rain of blow and clubs, still Officer OND and his colleague were not in the mood to let go, despite the pleas. He drew his weapon – AK-47 rifles with double magazines taped together – and ordered them to make way so he could fire. His eyes were bloodier than crimson. Bile rose from my stomach into my mouth; I tasted my own fear. My mind told me to run, but I could not will my body to; I was too stunned (or scared) to move.
The loud click as Officer OND removed the gun’s safety catch, forced the peacemakers to abandon me, for their own safety. I was alone and face to face with death. Everything started moving around me – slowly, my tormenter was mouthing more profanities; I see his lips move, but I could not hear a thing.
I heard the lady with the waist bag sobbing and muttering ‘Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! I stared into the muzzle of the gun, helplessly, my heart racing.
As if from nowhere, a very calm gentleman dressed in cargo shorts and white t-shirt materialised between me and the messenger of death. I had seen him disembark from his car minutes earlier, following orders from the officers.
“You cannot do this”, he told the policeman. “You can’t just shoot an unarmed man like this in presence of everybody, including this lady,” the man pleaded in a voice laced with authority. Time stood still. After what seemed like eternity, the trigger-happy cop relaxed his grip on the weapon; his right index finger hovered around the trigger for fleeting seconds, then he slowly withdrew it. His puckered lips were still twitching as he slowly returned the safety catch.
Amidst the drama, another member of the team drew his weapon and warned onlookers not to attempt to record the madness. “Make anybody video make I see, if he nor go see fire! I know say una de like video, but try it and see!”
Nobody dared. Besides, it was pointless because they already took the mobile phones of everybody, and no one would risk their lives to confront the lunatics at that point.
But the intervention of the gentleman brought about some calm and attracted the attention of a tall lanky member of the team. Although raggedly dressed like the others, he appeared to have control over the others. They stepped back as soon as he stepped in. Up till that moment, he had watched the whole drama with a sardonic smile on his face.
Meanwhile, another member of the team smeared his palms in engine oil, slowly walked towards me and wiped it on my chest, just to, in his words, “prove to you (me) that you cannot argue with SARS men on the road”.
It was the least of my torments. I was helpless and totally humiliated as he left greasy stains on my brown T-shirt.
Another one, a ghoulish dark and scrawny fellow, joined the fray. Though not as big as his colleagues, he was no less dreadful; his face was dark and menacingly sallow.
The oddly cop spoke in smattering English laced with heavy Bini accent; his breath stank and he was dreadful. He slapped me, grabbed and pulled my face towards his mouth. As his lips parted, they revealed tobacco (?) blackened incisors. I tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let go, but kept shouting: “I just wan bite him nose; na him nose I wan bite comot so that he go de fear SARS.”
For the umpteenth time the peacemaker, who came in silver colour Toyota Corolla, was my saviour, as he gently stepped in again and asked the biter to let go.
All my electronic devices and those of other passengers were confiscated. They took my MacBook and the student’s HP laptop and deposited everything in their Benz. I was asked to return to the back seat of the corolla and wait for further directives.
As I sat with other passengers in the car waiting, Officer OND came back to me and said: “You get luck say day never dark, if not I for fire you and throw you for corner of road and nothing will happen. It is not the first time and it won’t be the last. Go and thank your stars.” His tone left no one in doubt that it wasn’t a vain threat.
Ten minutes later the driver signalled for me to come face a panel. There were three of them inside the Benz: the head of the team, the nose-biter and club-wielder. First they asked me to unlock my phone and my laptop. They painstakingly went through files on my computer and phone, but found nothing incriminating; all they saw were half-written articles.
As they slowly realised that I was a journalist, the team leader asked for my ID card. When he saw it, he said: “Why didn’t you say that you are a journalist when all these started?” I wanted to tell him that his team didn’t give me the chance to speak, and to ask if there are different sets of rules for journalists, but my nerve wasn’t up to it and I wasn’t prepared to face another bout of pummelling. Also, the peacemaker had left. So I simply told him that the officer neither asked nor gave me the chance to say anything.
The ‘OC’ shook his head ruefully and said ‘this is a misunderstanding”. He then started speaking to me in Bini, after realising where I was from. Ironically, Usen, my father’s hometown, was just a few kilometers from where would have been the scene of my shabby death.
“Police and journalists are colleagues and are supposed to work together,” he said. “This is an unfortunate incident and it was caused by misunderstanding.”
He then personally handed to me all the items taken from the car, including those of other passengers, before stretching his hand for a handshake of peace. I had no choice; I shook the devil’s hand.
As I left the scene with my bloodied nose, swollen head, bloodshot eyes and broken bones, I recoiled. I replayed the drama, and I thought of how easily they could have shot me and labelled me “armed robber killed in shootout with policemen.”
I thought of the countless times I had in the course of job covered similar parades, and wondered if I had helped the police to cover-up extra-judicial killings of innocent Nigerians.
After several days, I was able to contact the Edo State Police Commissioner, Mr Dan Mallam on Thursday, who unlike his men on the highway, was very civil and calm, as I narrated my ordeal. He listened patiently to the three-minute telephone chat. He sounded genuinely angered and apologised.
“Let me tender my unreserved apology for this sad incident,” he said after a brief pause, “It is quite unfortunate that in spite of our best efforts, there are some unscrupulous elements that are determined to bring disgrace to the force.”
“I want to assure you that we will unearth the identities of all those involved and you will see what we will do to them.”
“We have told them that no SARS officer has right to check telephones and computers on the highway or anywhere; it is against the directive of the Presidential Committee on SARS Reform and the directive of the Inspector General of Police,” CP Mallam added.
His words were soothing, but the numbing pain in my head, the blood in my eyes and the swell on my left eyes persist. I am taking medications for the pains, the swellings are going down, and blood is clearing from my eyes. I still have nightmares of the experience; still battle flashes of the trauma, and the scar on my psyche will not heal – not in a very long time.
Sadly, none of the men had any form of identification on their outfits; even the registration number on the vehicle they used was redacted. But the CP assured me that would not hinder the force from fishing them out.