Most Nigerians following the news must have seen the Department of State Services (DSS) involved in investigations, arrests and 'questionings'. To the unsuspecting Nigerian, this DSS remit knows no bounds. The most high-profile incident was the Gestapo-like arrest of allegedly corrupt judges. Since then, they have been involved in foiling illegal arms smuggling, questioning prominent individuals over inciteful statements, and even 'enforcing' foreign exchange policy. Most comically, they can also be found 'welcoming' people back to the country.
That being said, the recent trend raises two issues. Firstly, the lack of transparency around the DSS' mandate may delegitimise their authority to pro-democracy Nigerians. Secondly, the sheer range of security functions the DSS has served poses the question: why are citizens funding agency budgets for the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC), the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission (ICPC), Defence Intelligence Agency, National Intelligence Agency, and of course, the Nigerian Police Force?
Under the Babangida and Abacha regimes, the DSS regularly intimidated pro-democracy advocates, journalists, and civil society groups. There were allegations that the group was behind many of the high-profile disappearances between 1985 and 1991. One may naively have expected that under a civilian administration, there would be a change in operating style. Others may even go further and claim that only under President Buhari's civilian administration have they acted without recourse to the rule of law. But Nigeria never ceases to amaze. As early as 2012, they were accused of intimidating the opposition under the Jonathan administration.
Who are the DSS?
The DSS, also known as the State Security Services (SSS), is one of three successor bodies to the defunct National Security Organisation (NSO), dissolved by Ibrahim Babangida in 1986. It was established by the National Security Agencies Decree (now Act), which also created the Defence Intelligence Agency and the National Intelligence Agency. Section 1(3) of its enabling Act states that the DSS is charged with responsibility for (i) the prevention and detection of any crime against internal security (ii) the protection and preservation of all non-military classified matters concerning internal security, and (iii) such other responsibilities affecting internal security within Nigeria as the National Assembly or the President deem necessary.
Crucially, internal security is not legally defined. A common sense understanding of internal security could imply maintaining peace and safety within the country. However, this view empowers the DSS to act brazenly in many circumstances, justified by a loose understanding of 'internal security'. This may be where to focus attention as we ask whether the DSS has become the President’s handyman, conscriptable for any job he demands.
Internal Security: The Masterkey?
Naturally, one might think the DSS mandate should be curtailed where there are distinct bodies tasked with dealing with that element of internal security. Take corruption for example. Aside from questioning the link between corruption and internal security, there are questions over who should be responsible for executing the government's anti-corruption drive. The idea behind specialisation should be to develop a body whose experience lends itself to a seamless anti-corruption drive. However, when all the different security agencies pursue competing agendas, pure efficiency is lost. The EFCC and ICPC are specialised bodies created by statute with the mandate to fight corruption. But this has not prevented the DSS from pursuing its corruption investigations and arrests. In its justification of the judges raid, the DSS statement read:
"The searches have uncovered huge raw cash of various denominations, local and foreign currencies, with real estate worth several millions of naira and documents affirming unholy acts by these judges.
We have been monitoring the expensive and luxurious lifestyle of some of the judges as well as complaints from the concerned public over judgment obtained fraudulently and on the basis (of) amounts of money paid."
First, the reference to the 'concerned public' is ironic. Second, one could validly ask if this should fall within the DSS' remit. It is worth noting that the EFCC Act requires the EFCC coordinates the various institutions involved in the fight against corruption, although the reality remains different. Besides, the multiplicity of bodies pursuing anti-corruption without proper coordination weakens the anti-corruption fight. There is a real risk that these organisations pore over the same facts, tamper with evidence and file contradictory court claims – all with zero convictions to show. As a matter of fact, this is not a risk; it is the reality. At a time when the government has declared corruption as public enemy number one, the DSS seems to be reading from a different script.
That being said, some acknowledgement is due. The DSS have shown ruthless efficiency in tackling matters which other agencies drag their feet on. This has justified the view that while other security institutions are so corrupt that they require outright restructuring to function competently, the DSS can quickly execute Presidential orders. This trade-off is set against the obvious downside that the DSS can, at the whim of the Presidency, be abused and used to bully government critics.
Is the DSS sustainable?
In a democratic regime, it is unnerving for the DSS to retain the broad scope of its powers. It was created at a time when repression was not merely a byproduct of the government in power, but a necessity to retain control in a military regime. A Presidential handyman was, therefore, a useful tool for crushing dissent. However, in a civilian administration, more controls are necessary to encourage participatory democracy. At the very least, the people should get to choose if they want to retain such vestiges of military authority. An all-powerful DSS only leads to intimidation, fear, and the potential for abuse, despite legal technicalities.
While we know a case for reform of the DSS should be on the table, we cannot be too expectant. As far as today goes, the DSS remains the Presidential handyman.