#EndSARS, #EndEverything and the Bitter-sweet Experience of Being a Young Nigerian in Nigeria
Nigerian youths have for too long been heartbroken, marginalized and ignored by the very system they elected to keep the peace, ensure progress, protect their lives, and promote their common interests. The #EndSARS movement which really began in 2017 took a dramatic turn in 2020, for several reasons, chief of which was the irresponsiveness of the government to the sustained agitation of young people against police brutality. SARS, an acronym for “Special Anti-Robbery Squad” (the “Squad”), was originally charged with the responsibility of curbing the menace of armed robbery, which was a social quagmire in the country, in the last quarter of the 20th century. Unfortunately, in the past decade, SARS has degenerated into the very monster it was created to exterminate.
Every Nigerian youth including the authors are potential victims of SARS’ atrocities. The average young person in Nigeria has at least one friend, relative or acquaintance who has either been harassed or brutalized by the notorious Squad, or the Nigerian Police in general. There are countless video clips on the internet evidencing the brutality and acts of injustice perpetrated by armed officials in Nigeria, chiefly but not restricted to SARS officials. Usually, you are a SARS target if you use an iPhone, have laptop(s), wear dreadlocks, have piercings or tattoos, drive a nice car, or sometimes, just being young and looking well kept.
Even though Nigerians have repeatedly called out this strategy of profiling by SARS, it was the viral video of October 3, 2020, that showed how SARS officers killed a young man in Delta State, Nigeria, and fled with his car, that tipped the frustration of Nigerian youths, off the point. This singular but not unconnected incident which again sparked #Endsars protests globally and has been trending on twitter is ordinarily a call for help and solidarity by young Nigerians. However, any officious bystander could easily tell that this was more than a call for help or police reform. This was decades of hunger and deprivation, tears and pain, exhaustion, and frustration, sweat and blood, activated in young, vibrant human bodies fervently calling for a change, once and for all.
The Response (or not?) of the Nigerian Government
Following the peaceful protests, demonstrators were not only targeted and arrested, they were brutalized, shot at and in some cases, killed by the Nigerian Police Force and the Nigerian Army, under the surreptitiously unaware yet watchful eyes, of the Nigerian Government. Shortly after the protests spread across the world, the Inspector General of the Nigerian police announced the dissolution of SARS, (for the fourth time in four years). Notwithstanding, the protests continued partly due to the “historical dissolution”, distrust of the government, and because young Nigerians demanded for five actions from the government. The demands were: (i) release of arrested protesters (ii) justice and compensation for families of victims; (iii) independent body to oversee prosecution of officers (within 10 days from October 11, 2020); (iv) psychological evaluation of disbanded officers before redeployment; and (v) increase of police salaries. While some of these demands were partially met, others are yet to have any clear action plan. What is however sure, is that there is no indication that any of the demands have been fully met. (We note that the Federal Government had directed the 36 States of Nigeria to set up judicial panels to inquire into the cases of police brutality, and that a few States including Kaduna, Delta, Ekiti, Oyo and Lagos State set up judicial panels on brutality and human rights violations).
As protests continued in large numbers and for days in several parts of the country, State governments began to impose curfews. The Lagos State Government had at past noon of Tuesday, October 10, imposed a 4pm curfew. This curfew was unreasonable for many reasons, chief of which is the fact that Lagos is a deeply congested State with few roads for millions of users. A four-hour notice period was not only unconscionable, but it was also impossible. Nevertheless, at about 7pm of that fateful day, peaceful and unarmed protesters were shot at and at least a dozen killed at the Lekki Toll gate by men of the Nigerian Army. An event that has been tagged #LekkiMassacre and #BlackTuesday.
Following the production of videos showing the military shooting at the protesters at Lekki Toll Gate, the Lagos State Government denied any involvement of the military or even death. The Governor would later chew those words and admit that “forces beyond his direct control moved to make dark notes in our history”. Two whole days after the massacre, the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, would deem it fit to address the nation, and in that address, not only failed to mention the incident at the Lekki Toll Gate, sternly cautioned Nigerians from engaging in any further protests. Following this broadcast, protests were banned in several States and curfews imposed.
The curfews regardless, hoodlums (many of whom are believed to be deployed by government, as seen from the signature Government plate numbers on the cars used by several of them – especially in Abuja) began to loot supposedly newly discovered warehouses containing COVID 19 palliatives, burn buildings, attack, injure and/or kill innocent people. Another significant response from the government has been the targeting, victimization, and intimidation through baseless lawsuits, of so-called “leaders” of the #EndSARS movement.
The #EndSARS movement gave way to other protests such as the #SecureNorth protests aimed at resolving the incessant killings and kidnappings that have overtime occurred in the Northern Nigeria. Recently, more than 300 schoolboys were kidnapped by local bandits, from their school in North-West Nigeria. Although, about 344 of the schoolboys were released on Thursday December 17, 2020, the #BringBackOurBoys and #Kankara boys hashtags on twitter also reveal the fact that home is clearly not safe, and the police may not be our biggest nightmare.
The perceived state of the Nigerian Police Force
According to Interpol, the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) has 350,000 officers circa covering the 36 states and the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja (Although, BBC reported that the number of police officers in Nigeria are about 250,000 as of October 2020). With an estimated population of over 200 million, the current ratio of police to citizens in Nigeria is 1 police officer to 571 citizens (using Interpol’s data). This number is negligible compared to the minimum recommendation by the United Nations of at least 1 police officer to 450 citizens. These figures clearly reflect the fact that the number of police officers in Nigeria cannot cater for its growing population. Perhaps, this explains why short-term policing measures such as the creation of special units have been adopted to cater for the shortfall.
Following the dissolution of SARS, officers of a new police unit known as NDLEA SWAT have since been deployed. This unit performs the same function as the defunct SARS, perhaps with even more “powers”. NDLEA is an acronym for the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency, a federal government agency tasked with investigating and prosecuting offenses relating to drug trafficking. SWAT (the Special Weapons and Tactics Team) on the other hand, was created hours after the disbandment of SARS to replace the latter. Some pertinent questions therefore include – what is the rationale for this new security outfit which is the combination of a drug enforcement agency and a weapon and tactics team? Why are officers of NDLEA_SWAT on our roads with guns and searching phones? And why do they relentlessly harass citizens? Nigerians have reacted to this new development, as many perceive the NDLEA SWAT team as a team of gun-wielding men who are the exact crop of people the #EndSARS protests were about.
Nigeria’s public sector has been constantly ranked as one of the most corrupt in the world. In our opinion, the NPF fits perfectly as one of the most corrupt institutions in Nigeria. Corruption in the NPF permeates across all levels, from constable to those occupying the highest positions in the force. Men and women of the NPF have often been caught on record collecting bribes from citizens and sometimes harassing those who refuse to “settle” them. The officers go as far as killing citizens because of bribes. In June 2020, a young man was killed in Adamawa State, Nigeria, for not giving a trigger-happy policeman 100 Naira (26 cents). Just recently, in December 2020, another policeman killed a tricycle driver in Rivers state for refusing to give him 100 Naira. A similar incident occurred in December 2019 in Ondo State when a truck driver was killed because of 50 Naira (13 cents) bribe. These sort of extortions and unwarranted killings formed part of the underlying reasons for the #ENDSARS protest. (Recall that one of the demands of the protesters was the increase of police salaries).
Without prejudice to all that has been said above, we recognize that men of the NPF are not adequately remunerated, at least compared to the police force in other countries. In addition to the yearning for increased salaries, the NPF must uphold its directive for the abolition of police checks and roadblocks, as most of the extortion and bribery occur in checkpoints and unnecessary roadblocks. To further stem the tide of police corruption, the NPF should collaborate with NGOs and accountability focused CSOs to create a functional check system to monitor individual performance of police officers as well as to apprehend and punish erring officers.
Firstly, we do not think that the creation of any special unit of the NPF (read NDLEA SWAT) was a good response to the #EndSARS protest. In fact, we think it was unnecessary and highly insensitive of the Nigerian government to have done so. The NPF needs to be fully reformed and this is not the same as salvaging bad eggs. As opposed to these special units, we recommend, as in advanced climes, the installment of State Police across the 36 States and the FCT. Individual State Police will be mandated to fully cooperate with one another and the Federal Police and may be overtaken by the Federal Police in cases of non-compliance, as is attainable in other climes.
Secondly, we think that the priorities of the Nigerian government are misplaced. The remuneration of public workers is a perfect example. According to a BBC report, a senator in Nigeria is entitled to monthly expenses of 13.5 million Naira ($37,500) in addition to their monthly salaries of roughly 750,000 Naira ($2,000). In the same country, the minimum wage is 30,000 ($79) (a sizeable number of employees in Nigeria do not even earn up to the minimum wage), while police officers earn an average of 53,000 Naira ($141) monthly. In fact, the lowest earning police officers i.e., police recruits earn below 10,000 Naira monthly ($26). To achieve a responsible and actively engaged police force, a transparent system of financial contributions to the Police purse should be established and funds deposited in a designated account with appropriate oversight in place. Funding streams should be decentralized so that the Police Force receive funding from a variety of revenue streams, including local public funds, federal grants, fines and fees, forfeitures, and private donations.
Unless the Nigerian government begins to adequately compensate public servants, public service corruption will continue to linger. Ironically, majority of lawmakers in Nigeria are old, retired state governors or politicians who receive monthly pensions from their last jobs and have relatives in the Nigerian government. This method of recycling old politicians at the expense of the citizenry and to the detriment of the country’s wellbeing needs to be reevaluated. In essence, those charged with policy reforms must be credible and have the best interests of the Nigerian state at heart. Will we ever get there?
Additionally, the police Act should be further amended to reflect encouragement of better data collection about what police (including all its departments/units) do and how they do it. For instance, it is not easy to tell how often Nigerian police use force, why force was used, whether it was justified, or under what circumstances it is effective. No one knows how many high-speed pursuits have been conducted or why they were initiated; how many fleeing drivers have been caught, or the number of collisions, injuries, or deaths that resulted. Neither the police, nor anyone else, can tell us, accurately, how many people have been injured when taken into custody, how many people have been arrested only to be later released without charges, or how many cases local prosecutors have refused to file for lack of evidence, constitutional violations, or police misconduct. A data collection system will help to monitor and keep the Police in check.
Furthermore, the Nigerian government should commit significantly more resources to supporting police training, working conditions, office facilities and relevant technology. Majority of law enforcement training emphasizes technical and tactical aspects of policing, without focused trainings on religious/personal bias, mental illness, gender-specific reaction, problem-solving, or cultural/demography competency. In this regard, the Police training curriculum of the Police must be revised and updated to reflect modern day realities and to include fresh areas of training and specialty, such as crime scene management, forensic science, human rights, professional ethics and skills, cyber space technology and public order policing.
Policy reform in any aspect of the society, now requires proof-based approach that emphasizes who did what, when and why. In America, following the Black Lives Matter Protests, policymakers responded by proposing a wide range of policies against State-sanctioned brutality on black people. Measures, including increased punishment for officers who breach the fundamental rights of citizens, holding to stricter standards, superiors who have oversight on these officers and establishing State panels for expeditious trials of erring officers should be adopted pronto, in Nigeria. Ultimately, fairness, accountability, equity, and transparency should be the guiding light for police reform in Nigeria.
Beyond Police Brutality
What unsuspecting observers may have missed however, is that the #EndSARS movement, although started as a regular protest, did not end as one. It resurrected in so many young people, a long mummified political hope in their dear country. For a generation that has not significantly benefitted from its government, nor have any “good ole days” to refer to on reflection, #EndSARS was an awakening that called for the end of government impunity, corruption, injustice, and bad governance. It was a demand for increase in the life expectancy and decrease in flippant killing of average Nigerian youths. Today, we call to mind, victims of the #LekkiMassacre, some of whom were children, partners, employees, and future leaders, who prayed, hoped, fought bravely, and sang the national anthem to their graves. The protests may be paused, but the heavens will fall, till there’s justice in Nigeria. #EndSARS!
by Victor Ojeah & Misthura Otubu