Daily Trust: There is controversy over the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigeria Police (SARS), mostly on the conduct of operatives. Some people have even called for its scrap. How do you think the matter should be handled?
Mike Okiro: This issue of SARS is dogged by what I call ‘policy somersault’. A government official, or a government makes a policy and another government comes and changes the policy or abandons it. This is what is causing it.
SARS started with me as the Deputy Commissioner of Police Operations in Ikeja, Lagos, when the infamous armed robber called Shina Rambo was having a field day in 1991. His modus operandi was to snatch cars and begin a shooting spree in a convoy of gunmen. He was so brazen that he even shot at policemen at checkpoints. There was no way to stop him. So, I and the then commissioner, Ademola, came up with the Special Anti-Robbery Squad.
The idea was that they would be in mufti, and armed, simply for the very important element of surprise. They would take cover, and communicating with walkie-talkies, hit the armed robbers. They did that two or three times, and the robbery attacks went down, drastically, and at a point stopped altogether. Soon SARS started spreading, from Lagos to other states. And I began to notice that at every roadblock, you will see armed policemen, but in mufti. Now, how do you differentiate between a policeman and an armed robber?
The initial idea of the operatives wearing mufti, like I said, is for the element of surprise. So I’d say the original idea of SARS has been bastardised. The squad was feared before, and I mean by criminals. When there was a robbery in a bank, SARS would move there because they were trained. They also knew themselves because there was nothing like cross-firing. Every command had SARS standing by.
But by the time it spread to other states, it seemed like anyone would be carrying arms, dressed in mufti, with a T-shirt with SARS emblazoned on it. Anybody can wear such an outfit. They even go into cases of bounced cheques and shady business transactions. SARS business is not to investigate, but to hit. It’s a Special Anti-Robbery Squad, not an investigative one.
DT: There’s a call that started from social media, and spilled over to actual protests to scrap SARS. What is your take?
Okiro: We cannot throw away the bathwater with the baby. It cannot be scrapped, rather there is the need to get back to its original concept, to hit robbers and come back. Sometimes robbers take position, waiting for police patrol vehicles to come, not knowing that SARS are passing in a private vehicle.
SARS needs to be restructured and not scrapped completely. The police is meant to fight crime, they should be allowed to do their jobs in the most effective way. If they are deviating from the concept, they should be called back on the right track. Ending SARS is like the police stopping their fight against robbers.
DT: Another issue that seems to have refused to go away is that of kidnapping, especially on the Abuja-Kaduna highway. Do you think, with an effective SARS, kidnappings can be curbed?
Okiro: Yes, I believe it can. This takes me back to when I was Commissioner of Police in Lagos, when robberies were carried out in road traffic, and robbers with guns or knives went car-to-car. I couldn’t cover the whole length and breadth of Lagos roads, it wasn’t possible. We went back to the drawing board and got some vehicles with policemen dressed in veils, but armed. After we countered the robberies several times, they stopped. Like I said, earlier, the efficiency of SARS relies on the element of surprise. However, I repeat: It should not be involved in investigations.
DT: How do you feel about the non-passage of the Nigeria Police Force Reform Trust Fund Bill?
Okiro: I feel sad, as the passage of the bill is supposed to prepare the police more and then create an avenue for its funding. The federal government is not capable of funding the police completely, because if the revenue is lean, ou have to cut your coat according to your cloth. The federal government cannot give all it has to the police, as there are other areas that need attention.
But right now the police is not properly funded. Initially, that bill was supposed to create an avenue through which there would be direct funding. If the police force cannot even take care of itself, how can it take care of other people? So, there’s a need for funding, and that can be addressed and solved by the Police Force Reform Trust Fund Bill.
DT: What is your position on the recruitment of more policemen to tackle the various security challenges in the country?
Okiro: Yes, the Nigeria police force lacks funding. But in modern times, you don’t talk of manpower so much, but equipment. Whether it is farming, industry or building, a machine can do what ten people can do in a day. It’s the same thing in policing, if you have equipment. Unfortunately, the Nigerian police doesn’t have such an opportunity. They use manpower and it is inadequate.
For five years there’s been no recruitment, and the police lost almost 40,000 people due to retirement, death and so on, before we got the marching order to recruit 10,000 every year, which we did last year. Between last year to date, we have lost about 9,000 people. So if you look at it, we lost about 40,000, recruited 10 and lost another 9,000. So now the manpower is not there, nor the equipment.
DT: If you were to choose one single thing that you would change completely to ensure a more robust and reformed Police Force, what would it be?
Okiro: A lot of things are lacking. However, corruption is a pain in the side of the police force. One question people never ask, is can you have an honest, corruption-free police force in a corrupt society? The point I am making is that, the issue of corruption is one we should fight because it is a crime and the police are recruited to fight crime. Therefore, they cannot be found to be committing crime when they are supposed to fight it. I’d love to change that unfortunate dynamic. The kind of society we have influences the kind of police we have. But things have to change.
DT: What do you miss the most about your days of active service as a police officer?
Okiro: Oh, the telephone calls. When I was in service, my phone rang for twenty-four hours. And I always answered. But now, when I want to sleep, I can even switch off.