Few weeks ago, Nigerian youths took to major cities across the country to protest against the unprofessional misconduct of the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit of the Nigeria Police. The protest which started on a peaceful note soon metamorphosed into something else as some hoodlums took advantage of it to commit arson and mindless looting of public and private properties.
The issue of police brutality is not a Nigerian issue. From America to Europe, Asia and other parts of the globe, citizens have taken to the streets to protest against police brutality. While it has become a global challenge, the Nigerian case got messier as SARS members deployed to curb robbery allegedly became even deadlier robbers themselves than the robbers they were to protect citizens and property against.
This sad development led to the mass protest, which if it had been properly coordinated, would have gone down in history as one of the most successful protests in Nigeria. Though it ended badly, the genuine concerns of the protesters are gradually being addressed by the Federal Government and it is only fair to recognize the efforts of all sides that have contributed to this success.
While the youths and the promoters of the street protest may have seemingly stolen the show, posterity would not forgive Nigerians if the efforts of the person who really started showing more concern about police brutality in Nigeria in the past five years is completely ignored.
The names of celebrities, social media influencers may be reverberating in the media as a result of their role in the ongoing police reform in the country, but before their street match, there was another powerful voice that have done as much or even more in calling attention to the excesses of the defunct SARS and police brutality generally in Nigeria.
That one person that has done so much, whose effort is being under reported is Prof. Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, the Vice President. His efforts had not only been under reported, but under appreciated by Nigerians because in all honesty, before the #EndSARS protest, there was a silent, yet consistent and coordinated voice demanding police reform in the country.
As Acting President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo in August 14, 2018 took the bold step of ordering the then Inspector General of Police, Ibrahim Idris to overhaul the defunct SARS. This order was informed by several reports of human rights violation by men of the unit.
He also directed him to carryout an independent investigation into all the issues of human rights violation by SARS. The IGP responded by renaming the unit to Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (F-SARS). He also followed this up by appointing a new head for the unit as well as set up human rights desk officers to check cases of human rights abuses.
This was one of the major steps towards reforming the police and addressing the excesses of the controversial defunct Police unit. Some officers of the unit were investigated and those culpable of crime of human rights abuses were punished.
Similarly, the VP while speaking at the 59th Independence Anniversary Lecture at the Island Club, Lagos in 2019, advocated for the decentralization of the police as one of the ways of reforming the force.
In his words, he said “Building stronger states means ensuring the devolution of more power to the states, enabling them to control more of their resources and make more of their own administrative decisions such as the creation of local governments, the establishment of state and community police forces as well as state correctional facilities…”
During the recent umbrage occasioned by the #EndSARS protest, the VP against all odds, came out in an unusual manner of a Nigeria leader to apologize to Nigerians and took responsibility for the actions and inactions of the misbehaving police officers. In all his statements at the time, the number two citizen didn’t sound defensive but remorseful and made a clear commitment on what government would do to reform the force.
Since assumption of office, Prof. Osinbajo has in different fora, advocated for police reform. His effort, although unnoticed, has yielded some positive results which deserved nothing but commendation. As VP, some Nigerians had expected him to implement some of his recommendations, but the constitution in a presidential system, does not favour such disposition. He can only make recommendations for the President who has the final approving authority to decide.
As Nigeria and other countries around the globe continue to work towards eradicating all forms of police brutality, it is only reasonable for Nigerians of good conscience to join the Prof. Osinbajo’s advocacy for a better, disciplined and professional police force.