I was at work one day when we received a report about SARS harassing and extorting money from some guy. Apparently, he was returning late at night from watching a football match with a friend, when he was accosted by the ‘gentlemen’ of SARS. He tried to make a call to his wife but he was slapped and his phone was seized. According to him, they threatened to shoot him and claim he was an armed robber if he doesn’t co-operate. They then proceeded to drag him to the nearest working cash machine and compelled him to withdraw about N200,000 before he was allowed to leave
These are the kind of horror stories Nigerians have been recounting on Twitter about the operations of the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigerian Police Force, following a twitter post by the Police Public Complaints Unit encouraging Nigerians to lay complaints about SARS activities.The #EndSARS hashtag on twitter has received over 100k tweets and retweets, with politicians, celebrities and activists joining in.
There is also currently a petition on scrapping SARS addressed to the national assembly. It has been signed by at least 12,000 people at the time of this article.
Techies seem to be among the hardest hit. Carrying a laptop is viewed by SARS as evidence of being a ‘Yahooboy’, the Nigerian street lingo, for Internet fraudsters and Cybercriminals. There have been reports by developers, coders, bloggers and others within the Nigerian tech community, of how they were harassed and extorted simply for having a Macbook or an iphone in their possession. Phones and mails have been searched without any warrant.
SARS was originally set up with a mandate to specially tackle armed robbery cases. However, these days they seem to have allegedly ventured into all sorts of illegal activities from extortion of innocent citizens to planting of incriminating evidence. Organisations like Amnesty International have for years alleged that SARS has been involved in torture and sometimes extrajudicial killing of Nigerian citizens, an allegation SARs has vehemently denied. Even with the #EndSARS campaign, Police officials have denied any wrong doing. Abayomi Shogunle, the head of the Police Public complaints Unit, referred to the claims by Nigerians on twitter as mere ‘frightening dreams.’
What does the law say?
Generally, the Police are not at liberty to search your phones or emails without first obtaining a search warrant from a court. Such a search flouts data protection and privacy laws internationally as obtained in other jurisdictions like the UK or the EU. In some other countries, citizens have obtained judgement against the police saying it is illegal to search citizens’ laptops or mobile phones without a previously obtained court order. However, Nigeria is currently lacking a data protection law to address these issues. Organisations like Paradigm Initiative have chronicled some of these abuses and are at the forefront of advocating for a data protection law. They have also put together a Digital Rights and Freedom Bill, which is currently at the 2nd reading stage before the House of Representatives, to tackle some of these issues.
Can techies build a solution to the SARS problem?
I have personally held the opinion for a while that the tech community can be of help in solving the SARS problem in Nigeria. While it is not just a problem that engulfs the tech community (there have been reports of SARS harassing people just because of a tattoo or keeping a beard), we can be instrumental in looking for a solution. Though i cannot be strictly called a techie, as a tech enthusiast and sympathiser, i think we can develop a way of reporting or directly highlighting these abuses in a safe way either to CSOs who operate in this space or to the higher Police authorities. Victor Asemota, Founder SwiftaCorp, also has a few bright ideas
Another way will be to engage the Police authorities in collaboration with digital rights organisations like Paradigm Initiative, lawyers and CSOs to train and retrain their men on what is acceptable or not. For a lot of Nigerians, it is either these options or to once and for all #EndSARS
Adaora Okoli is Founder and Publisher of TechultureNG
What role do you think techies can reasonably play in a solution to the SARS issues? Join the conversation and drop a comment below