Nigeria: Why #EndSARS Won't Quit

Young Nigerians holding placards at an EndSARS protest in the northwestern city of Kaduna.
15 October 2020

The movement has gone from calling for the abolition of one police unit to collective protests against a system that pits the elite against the rest.

Over the last one week, thousands of people have been out in protest on the streets of major cities in Nigeria and internationally demanding an end to systemic police brutality and, more specifically, the dissolution of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The special police unit, established in 1992, has become notorious for its violations in profiling, harassing, extorting, detaining, and even killing Nigerians in the course of street patrols.

On 12 October, the federal government, confirming the statement of the Inspector General of Police the day earlier, announced the dissolution of SARS. This seemingly acceded to protesters' demands of #EndSARS and #SARSMustEnd. Nevertheless, the protests continued. On Tuesday 13 October, President Muhammadu Buhari announced further measures, including the unconditional release of all detained protesters and investigations into human rights violations by former SARS officers. Again, despite these assurances, the protests continued unabated.

One explanation for the ongoing demonstrations is rooted in the long-suffering experience of Nigerians with these kinds of assurances. In the five years since Buhari came to power, the government has promised on several occasions to disband SARS but did not follow through. Distrust of political rhetoric is intensified by the fact that the police and, in some instances, the military have continued to assault and arrest protesters even while the announcements of reforms were being made in government offices.

However, beyond this issue of distrust, there is a more subtle consideration rooted in the history of policing in Nigeria. The protests are arguably continuing because the government's concessions have not yet addressed the deeper issue, which is that the policing system is principally designed, in its origins and its ideology, to protect the political elite at the expense of ordinary citizens.

Up until a few weeks ago, the Nigerian Police was established and regulated by a 1943 colonial law. This law was itself enacted to regulate a policing system established in 1930, shaped out from "native" constabulary units. Officers of the colonial police were typically recruited from outside of the communities they policed, a typical tactic in the divide-and-rule strategy of British colonialism.

The result of this recruiting tactic was the alienation of police officers from the communities they policed. They served the colonial state and not the Nigerian people. In his novel Arrow of God, Chinua Achebe vividly describes the frustration of two policemen who had been sent by the white District Officer to arrest an influential community leader. The officers were both strangers to the community and so they had to constantly ask for directions: "But now they were convinced that unless they did something drastic they might wander around Umuaro till sunset without finding Ezeulu's house. So they slapped the next man they saw when he tried to be evasive. To drive the point home they also showed him the handcuffs. This brought the desired result."

This disconnect between the Nigeria police and Nigerian communities only intensified after independence in 1960. A new political elite had emerged and, when independence was attained, they simply stepped into the role of the colonial government. Although the composition of the Nigerian political elite has evolved over the last 60 years, it has remained ideologically consistent in drawing a line between an economically and politically privileged few who enjoy the full benefits of citizenship and the majority who are socially excluded in several ways.

In the performance of its duties, the Nigerian police has served as the gatekeeper of that line. As such, police brutality is not arbitrary or accidental. Instead, it is part of a wider systemic attempt by the political elite to keep socially and economically marginalised Nigerians under their control.

The elites vs. the rest

The use of the Nigerian police as a tool of power by the political elite manifests in two principal ways: (i) the profiling and targeting of vulnerable Nigerians for violating hegemonic norms; and (ii) the difference in the treatment of the political elite versus everyday Nigerians.

On the first point, the #EndSARS campaign on the internet has catalogued stories of police brutality through arbitrary searches and arrests. People have recounted stories of being profiled based on their age, hairstyle and dress to the extent that these indicate non-conformity with hegemonic standards of "good" (i.e. obedient) citizenship. In a country where the political elite lives in constant fear of its citizens, the process of weeding out potentially revolutionary citizens starts by monitoring compliance with "respectability" standards of appearance and weeding out non-conformists.

For the police officers tasked with this duty, being a criminal is not an issue of violating criminal laws, but rather violating unwritten hegemonic norms. There are many accounts of people who have been arrested and detained simply for "lacking respect". One of the more significant outcomes of this policing is the disproportionate targeting of young people and queer people.

Regarding the second point, the objective of social control is also achieved through discriminations against socially and economically marginalised Nigerians in the enforcement of serious crimes. Rights that are accorded to the wealthy, from the discretion to arrest and prosecute to issues of bail, are generally denied to poorer Nigerians. There are several reports by human rights organisations documenting the disproportionate use of torture as punishment or to elicit forced confessions from poorer Nigerians.

Transformation for everyone

In short, the Nigerian police has rarely contributed to the safety and wellbeing of Nigerians. Instead, it has become a significant symbol of social repression and a potential source of fatal incidents in the daily routine of the majority of Nigerians. In contrast, the political elite continues to enjoy the subservience of the police who are their visible personal guards at public events, in their homes, and on the roads.

Consequently, it is not strange that the #EndSARS protest is gradually transiting from dissatisfaction with one police unit into a collective opportunity to express pent-up frustrations with the political system and its dichotomy between the political elite and the rest. Unlike other protests before it, #EndSARS is not guided by union demands or partisan interests. Instead, it is a spontaneous yet organic outburst of collective energy, thus foiling the usual approach of the political elite to negotiate with or threaten protest leaders into standing down.

The #EndSARS protest has become a catharsis for many who, until now, may have felt isolated in their daily experiences of social oppression. From conversations online and from the placards of protesters, it is becoming apparent to Nigerians that the sustainable way forward for the country is not just legal or policy reforms for the police, but social and political transformation for everyone.

Ayo Sogunro is the author of, among others, The Wonderful Life of Senator Boniface and other Sorry Tales. He indulges in Nigerian socio-legal thoughts on his blog

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