Scores of thousands of young people took to the streets across Nigeria in October 2020, to protest police brutality. Their primary demand was for government to end the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an elite and particularly vicious unit of the Nigeria Police Force. This mass movement was thus defined as EndSARS.
It was sparked when the video of a young man who was allegedly killed by SARS operatives in Ughelli, a small city in the Niger Delta region went viral on 3rd October. There were over twenty-eight million tweets and retweets of the video and calls for protest within three days. In Ughelli and neighbouring towns there were immediate spontaneous actions by aggrieved youth.
By 8th October, hundreds of protesters set up camp in front of the Lagos State House of Assembly in Nigeria’s most populous city and its commercial hub as well as in the city centre of Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory. Within a few days, these numbers had increased to thousands and demonstrations had spread to over a hundred cities and towns across two thirds of the thirty-six states of the federation.
To douse the flames of this rebellion, the federal government announced the scrapping of SARS on 11th October, only to announce its replacement with a Special Weapons and Tactics unit (SWAT), two days later, whilst cracking down on protesters. These tactical manoeuvres of government failed. Using social media and particularly twitter which had 301 billion #EndSARS impressions during the revolt, the protesters organised and popularised their 5 key demands which included: the immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for deceased victims of police brutality with compensation for their families, and improved wages and working conditions for policemen.
The state smashed the revolt on 20th October. Combined teams of the police and army massacred not less than 38 people that day alone, according to Amnesty International. Over a hundred people were killed during the thirteen days of nationwide protest.
To understand the emergence and dynamics of the #EndSARS protests, we need to look at the history of SARS and the structural roots of policing and police brutality in the country.
SARS was established in 1992, during a long stretch of military rule, ostensibly to curb a sharp spike in incidence of armed robbery. What the official history fails to state is the connection between rising crime rates and poverty because of neoliberal policies with the introduction of a structural adjustment programme (SAP) in 1986.
A year before this in 1985, the country’s population was 83.6 million with 38% living below the poverty line. By 1992 after six years of SAP, with mass lay-offs, a wage freeze and worsening job precarity in a population that had risen to just over 100 million people, the incidence of national poverty had shot up to 43% and kept climbing to reach 69% in 1997, just two years before the military left power.
Two other important elements of the context within which SARS emerged were the rampant spread of corruption and impunity under military rule. Within a year it became clear that these were ingrained into the praxis of SARS. The Civil Liberties Organisation documented the torture of Ayotunde Adesola, a young computer science graduate by SARS in June 1993. They wanted him to make a false “confession”.
This pattern continued throughout the 1990s with innocent citizens tortured, for purposes of extortion. SARS also collaborated with other units in the federal police such as the so-called “task force on terrorism” to repress pro-democratic forces, during the dark days of the reign of General Sani Abacha. Journalists were particularly targeted for torture and at least one, Bagauda Kaltho, was killed.
The more political aspects of SARS impunity receded when civil rule was reinstated in 1999. But the pattern of brutalisation, torture and extra-judicial killings in its work took a turn for the worse. As internet use expanded at the turn of the century and unemployment remained high, an increasing number of young people saw cybercrime as probably the only means of survival in a country where social protection is virtually non-existent. SARS attention switched from fighting armed robbery to one of combating “Yahoo boys” and “419ers” as these young internet fraudsters are colloquially called.
This was, however, mainly a ruse for extortion. “Suspects” were “identified” through profiling. Youths, particularly young men would be accosted on the streets by SARS operatives because they wore dreadlocks, were tattooed, drove flashy cars, used latest iPhone models, or visibly carried a laptop on them. These attributes supposedly marked them out as deviants inclined to cybercrime or 419 “made men”.
Few “Yahoo boys” were prosecuted based on SARS arrests as they knew what the police wanted and easily paid up what is effectively protection money. Meanwhile, innocent people ended up in the torture chambers of SARS where they were made to sign “confessional” statements under duress, except their families could come up with the bribe money for their release described as bail. Many people were whilst in custody and others were broken from starvation and torture when released. Amnesty International reported on the draconian reign of SARS in 2016 and a few months before the #EndSARS protests in 2020.
Senseless extra-judicial killing on the streets also kept rising. This led to a series of #EnSARS protests, almost on a yearly basis, since 2016. None of these was anywhere near as massive as the 2020 revolt. But they were significant enough to always elicit cosmetic efforts of the federal government to SARS and general police reforms.
SARS is the crown jewel of a police force ranked as the worst in the world in 2017. But the problem is systemic, engulfing the entire police force, within the context of the history of the country with the largest number of poor people in the world, a terribly corrupt ruling class and entrenched militarisation. The roots of this murky canvas go back to the colonial era.
Between 1861 and 1914 Britain extended its colonial rule over some 300 nationalities, kingdoms, and city-states in what would become Nigeria. It used fraudulent treaties and the maxim gun to further this imperialist project, winning “protectorate” after “protectorate” until these were amalgamated on 1st January 1914. This combination of guile and force to conquer continued after conquest in the forms of indirect rule and a brutal security force.
Indirect rule meant that local chieftains became “native authorities” of colonial governance. This was most successful in the northern region where established Emirs were propped up and least successful in the south-eastern and southern regions which had traditions of republican clan rule and city-state dynamics, respectively.
Military force was used sparing where there were centralised political structures as these were useful for grafting indirect rule. In the more egalitarian nationalities, where resistance to colonialism was also more entrenched in grassroots resentment, the colonisers were more brutal, erasing the relatively horizontalist political structures and setting up warrant chieftaincies as artificial proxies for indirect rule.
The police were at the heart of this pacification of the peoples. Setting up constabularies was always one of the first steps after conquest of each “protectorate”, starting with the Lagos constabulary established within months of annexation. The colonialists also played the “tribal” card from the onset, staffing the police in different regions with non-locals.
The colonial army emerged from the police in 1898 as the West African Frontier Force (WAFF). And the police constituted battalions within the WAFF during external battles across West and Central Africa in the two World Wars.
The police were created as a force for furthering colonial conquest and establishing colonial law. Impunity and brutality were ingrained in its DNA from the very beginning. In 1864 for example, Chief Hunkain Abujoko, was killed without trial, allegedly for robbery and violence. And his entire village was then burned down.
The different constabularies were merged in 1930 to create the Nigeria Police Force which was strictly in the hands of the colonialists. But native authority police wielding sticks answerable to the Emirs and Chiefs continued to function, to enable the smooth running of indirect rule.
The police remained, “an instrument of intimidation and oppression in the hands of the ruling elite” after independence, as Amusa Balogun notes. But, unlike the situation during colonialism where political power was concentrated in one imperial “party” i.e., the British colonisers, there were now different sections of the ruling class in contention for power. And each of them wielded influence mainly in one region.
The parties in control of federal power eventually wielded control of the police and used this to suppress opposition. Police brutality was mainly associated with fallouts of political infighting within the ruling elite (and, not surprisingly, the suppression of popular mass movements and revolts such as the students-led anti-Anglo-Nigerian defence pact in 1961, and the Tiv – a minority nationality in the Northern Region – revolt in 1964). The 1962 and 1965 crises in the Western Region, which was controlled by Action Group, an opposition party at the federal level, puts this in sharp relief. These events contributed significantly to the first coup d’état in 1966.
After the first military interregnum which ended in 1979, this logic of politically associated police brutality continued in a most heinous manner. By then the Mobile Police (MOPOL) had been instituted as an elite anti-riot unit of the force. Notoriously known as “kill-and-go” it was at the heart of the rigging machine of the ruling party when it sought re-election in 1983. This also paved the way for a military coup on 31st December 1983.
Up to this period, police killings and torture were either in suppression of “riots” and revolts, or at the behest of the ruling party to suppress the opposition or popular protests of massive rigging of elections. When Dele Udo, an Olympian sprinter was killed by a policeman during an altercation in 1981, this was considered an aberration. But extra-judicial killings and torture by the police have become commonplace since the 1990s with SARS being emblematic of this general macabre situation.
Two intertwined phenomena largely account for this: impact of military dictatorship and the turn to neoliberalism. The second military interregnum (1984 to 1999) witnessed militarisation of the social psyche, a culture of corruption and de-prioritization of the police within funding for security and law enforcement forces. Neoliberalism, starting with SAP disembedded the economic in social relations, generally and definitively in police-citizenry as well as intra-police relations. Checkpoints became sites for extorting transporters and “returns” were made to police officers in higher echelons by the rank-and-file obtaining this. And to get deployed into such “juicy” units as SARS, policemen often bribed their superiors.
Lasting efforts to curb police brutality must thus address the essence of these phenomena. This would include genuine commitment to stamping out corruption in the body polity, enhancing transparency and accountability of public servants (including police but as well politicians and civil servants) to the populace from the local government areas to governance at the national level, and reversal of the neoliberal hegemony.
Institutionally, the Police Service Commission (and particularly the Police Community Relations Committees established in 1984, which are incorporationist mechanisms of patronage) need to be overhauled, as part of thoroughgoing reforms. Their composition needs to include trade unions, civil society organisations, students’ unions, community development associations and professional bodies. And the processes of their constitution and work must be clearly democratic. These representatives must emerge with mandate from their constituencies and report back to them on a regular basis to ensure probity of the police force.
And finally, justice must be swiftly meted out against police officers and the police force, on cases of infringement of citizens’ human rights and extra-judicial murders. The current norm where people are tortured or killed, and nothing happens emboldens continued police brutality.
by Baba Aye
Note: This article was translated into German and first published by Inkota, in its Südlink magazine, as part of a compendium of police violence in the global south, and the structural dimensions of these.