Patrick Ugwuowo´s experience with SARS brings to the fore one of the erstwhile unit´s most popular weapons: profiling – where one´s very appearance is the crime.
One morning in mid-August 2020, my friend and I were travelling to Anambra State to attend a former colleague’s child dedication ceremony.
Ugwuaji is a southeastern community in Enugu South Local Government Area of Enugu State.
I am Patrick by the way, a surveyor for a real estate company in Enugu. I am into politics too. I have a couple of political appointments here and there. I am not living on one source of income.
Anyway, back to my car trip. Around 9am that morning, something happened on the road. It looked like a robbery scene from a movie. Our car, a Lexus 350, was double-crossed by members of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) at Ugwuaji Axis.
The SARS officers, four in all, leapt out from their vehicle, cocked their guns, and ordered my friend and I out of our car.
We felt scared and intimidated by the officers’ approach. When we tried asking what the problem was, the officers shut us down by shouting. They called us criminals.
That day, my friend and I had left our homes well-prepared for the journey. Our car’s papers were complete and up-to-date. I had my office ID card and Voter’s Card in my wallet. My friend, who was driving, also had his driver’s license.
The SARS officers asked us to pull over to the side of the road and requested to see the papers of the car. My friend obliged. The officers found no fault after their inspection. They then asked us to identify ourselves, which we did.
The SARS officers wondered how my friend and I, two young men, could afford a car and dress that well. That day, my friend and I sported new haircuts and were dressed in senator attires. (Senator attires are a type of clothing design with fitted long-sleeved tops and a pair of fitted trousers). They concluded that we were criminals.
The truth of the matter is that my real estate job is lucrative. Depending on the type of deal, I can fetch up to 5 million naira in a day. Besides, due to my side hustle in politics, I do not have a single stream of income. I am privileged to be relatively well-to-do at 29.
It was embarrassing and ridiculous that the officers decided to assault us, not for driving at high speed, or for having incomplete papers, or even for possessing drugs or ammunition, but for simply looking good and living well.
The SARS officers seized the key to our car. They then said they needed to take us to the station to ‘investigate’ our source of income.. We asked them to produce an order that entitled them to take us in for investigation, but they could not show us one. All they had, apparently, was their suspicion and their word – enforced by their intimidation.
Later, the SARS officers asked us to pay 50, 000 naira before they would let us go. When I boldly asked why we were being asked to pay money when we had not committed any offence, one of the officers got angry and tried to punch me, but I luckily managed to dodge the blow.
Seeing that the officers were armed and dangerous, my friend and I resolved to stay calm. If these officers had been crazy enough to double-cross us movie-style, then it wasn’t beyond them to kill us in the same vein.
After hours of back-and-forth negotiations, my friend and I gave the SARS officers 20, 000 naira, after which they decided to let us go.
It was now 5pm. We had missed the child dedication event we had been headed to.
But it wasn’t the only thing I missed that day. I had also planned to meet a client, only for me to fail to turn up due to the SARS hold-up. The plan had been to arrive in Anambra State for the child dedication, stay for 45 minutes and then rush back to Enugu for the meeting. I had to lie to my client that I had been caught up in traffic. That missed meeting meant loss of money for me. I was disappointed.
I believe the issue of police brutality is a cankerworm that has eaten so deep into the fabric of Nigerian culture. The police are emboldened because they work with arms and can intimidate anybody at any time they feel like. Also, it is appalling that the police who have been charged with the responsibility of making sure Nigerians are safe have turned out to be the very reason why most Nigerians don’t feel safe.
I feel the federal government does not seem to have plans to protect the citizens and as such, the citizens have decided to protect themselves by staying out of the way of security operatives.
Can you imagine a society where people aspire to be well-to-do, only to become well-to-do and be labelled as a criminal.
Sadly, young people especially have had to adjust their lifestyle out of fear of being harassed by security operatives. Even going out to have fun with friends has now become a risky activity. Young people cannot continue living in fear. There’s nothing scarier than your protector turning against you. It’s like being at home and being afraid of your own parents rather than intruders,
I am proud to have been a part of the #ENDSARS movement, helping in the mobilization of protesters, donations and advocacy. Not least as a result of my own experience, I was highly motivated to pick up a placard and march for three days in Enugu to lend my voice against the absurdity that is SARS brutality.
I am happy the unit is no more, but the battle to bring sanity is far from over.