Oct 25, 2020 Editorial
Kaieteur News – Almost 20 years ago, the acronym SARS conjured up a terrifying global pandemic, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, an airborne virus that originated in China, one that could be transferred through cough droplets and which had the potential to spread via the international air transport system. Some of us can be forgiven as looking back at that era, 2003, as a quieter, cleaner, much saner, healthier time. We, after all, only had that and the ongoing War on Terror to deal with globally.
The new king pandemic is the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), far more terrifying, exponentially more viral than its predecessor, and now, as of the past week, SARS has stood for something else in global media, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad of the Nigerian Police Force. Created in 1992 in response to a serious rise in crime in the oil-producing country, in ten years the unit was itself fingered to be involved in criminal activity. When in 2002, its operations spread from the financial centre of the county, Lagos, the squad’s criminal activities naturally metastasized.
This is not a story that would be unfamiliar to Guyanese. The infamous Tactical Services Squad, known then as the Black Clothes Police, invoked fear, if not outright terror, in this society up until the execution of its head, Superintendent Leon Fraser in 2003, a crime that today has not been solved. Launched as a special crime-fighting force, the TSS quickly, like SARS, became the very thing it was created to combat. Its ‘replacement’, the Tactical Services Unit, was no better. Consider the following excerpt from one of our articles from 2011:
“According to a usually reliable source, [Assistant Commissioner Steve] Merai during his verbal exchanges with the Commissioner, revealed that certain elements of the Tactical Services Unit (TSU), namely the ‘Black Clothes’ anti-crime squads are linked to certain drug blocks in the city and its environs. The Assistant Commissioner, who is currently the Commander of the Force’s Berbice (B) Division, explained to the Commissioner that he was in receipt of information that some of the squads are engaged in busting certain drug dealers and using the proceeds to enrich drug blocks that they are in association with… Merai explained at the meeting that the TSU patrol units operate in designated sections of the city where they provide protection for certain drug blocks that operate with impunity. This newspaper was told that the Assistant Commissioner pointed out that many persons who are affected by these operatives are afraid to come forward out of fear for their lives.”
Today, Nigeria is in uproar, tired of the impunity with which SARS has carried out its frankly criminal conduct across multiple political administrations, all of which have promised to disband the unit. In the uprising, several citizens have been shot dead by the police and dozens otherwise injured. While the mainstream news sites have been vague about the shootings so far, citizen reporting and underground news organizations show the brutality with which protestors, coming together under the banner of a movement called #EndSARS, have been treated.
We no longer have a rogue unit at present in the Guyana but our own history and Nigeria’s present provide a critical cautionary tale for our own future. SARS is one of the symptoms of what ails Nigeria today, not the disease. After 50 years of oil, and 50 years of corruption, equating to over US $400 billion stolen by successive governments, over 95 million Nigerians, roughly half of the population, remain in extreme poverty. This is the sort of poverty that breeds the sort of crime that politicians use to justify the creating of special anti-crime units which become predators on poor people (and not on corruption-enriched politicians) leaving the country in a perpetual cycle of criminalized under-development while an elite political oligarchy continue to siphon off its wealth. In brief, Guyanese need to pay keen attention to both the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria as well as the surrounding socio-economic and political context – if we do not take it for a warning of what might come, we should at least accept it as a mirror of our possible future.
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