A quote by Justice Thurgood Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court caught my attention during a tour to the Newseum devoted to free speech in DC:
“If the First Amendment means anything, it means that a state has no business telling a man, sitting alone in his own house what books he may read or what films he may watch”.
The quote reminded me of my experience at a conference I attended at the Georgetown University Law Center in November 2019. The conference hosted by the Center on Privacy & Technology was titled “The Color of Surveillance: Monitoring Poor and Working People.” It centered on surveillance in the context of the poor, low-income workers, and homeless people.
However, I will be looking at surveillance from another perspective, from the context of unreasonable searches and seizures by the Nigerian Police Force/Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) on youth as against the wealthier class.
SARS and Its Operation
The duty of the Nigerian Police Force, as set out in the Nigerian Police Act 2004, is to secure lives and properties, prevent, detect crime, and apprehend offenders. The same law empowers the police officer to detain and search any person he reasonably suspects of having anything stolen or unlawfully obtained in his possession. To carry out their responsibilities effectively, the Nigerian Police Force established various units. One of such divisions is the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which has the sole responsibility of carrying out special anti-robbery operations without wearing a police uniform or badge.
Nigerian has heavily felt the impact of the activities of this squad since it came into operation. The Unit commits horrible atrocities against young masses under the guise of preventing internet fraud. These crimes include unlawful arrest, extrajudicial killings, torture, and extortion. A 2016 Amnesty International analysis shows that the youth are more affected by SARS operations. The terrible stories of exploitation of Nigerian youth by SARs steered the public outcry on the internet, which led to the social media campaign with hashtag #ENDSARS. Any youth, tech or software developer found with mobile devices such as phones, laptops, tabs, etc., are labelled as internet swindlers.
During the social media campaign of #ENDSARS, the Inspector General of Police (IGP) promised to reform the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. The IGP released a statement on January 21, 2020, stating that the Special Anti-Robbery Squad has been reformed. The Unit is no longer allowed to be involved in stop and search exercises unless there is a distress call from a victim.
Act of Suspicion
The Nigerian Police Act empowers police officers to stop and search anyone they reasonably suspect have unlawfully acquired a thing. There must be an atom of suspicion that the suspect has broken the law or is about to break the said law before engaging in the “stop and search” exercise. The police also have the discretionary power to assess or evaluate whether an act amounts to suspicion or not. The concern here is, is the reasonable standard to suspect anyone. Is the test objective? Does it lie on whether the officer acted reasonably in such a situation? is the criterion higher considering his investigative and detective skills? Or are there other tests? I do not have answers to these questions, but I think the answer lies in the circumstances or situation.
The massive youth unemployment in Nigeria is linked to the high rate of crime. A country with one of the most prominent young populations globally has more than half a per cent of its young population unemployed. With the high rate of crime, there is an understanding that serious efforts are required to address crime. On the other hand, SARS is leveraging the crime rate to harm the lives of innocent youth who are making an effort to make the country a better place.
Data and information collected during the arrest of both innocent and criminals are stored in police care to track young people’s private lives. The reality is that SARS use this information and data to harass, intimidate, criminalize, and involve in extrajudicial killings.
Surveillance is placed on the youth through physical observation – It is common for SARS to be involved in the car race with young boys in Nigeria. There is the fear of walking or driving down the street because of the possibility of being watched or labeled a criminal. The Illegal surveillance placed on the road in a bit to catch or chase moving or passing cars constitutes a nuisance on innocent people.
There is also surveillance in the form of physical searches. Without any probable cause, SARS subjects young people to unnecessary interrogation and investigations. After that, confiscate personal items even when the law is so clear on this. In 2019 Kolade Johnson, while watching football in his neighbourhood, was killed by SARS stray bullet during the melee of arresting a young boy who has tagged a criminal for wearing dreadlocks. SARS drive around town picking youth up under the guise of preventing fraud, then ask them to log into their device, check emails, messages and without any trace of any offence committed, torture and part away with their money. The different forms of torture melted on those detained have led to the death of so many young ones. Yet, most of the cases were neither investigated nor were the culprits held responsible for their actions.
Also, while the Nigerian constitution recognizes privacy as a fundamental human right, there is no data protection law. This makes the issue of data privacy challenging to implement.