The increase in the pump price of fuel, in 2020, a fall-out of the deregulation of the down stream sector, did not compel the youths of Nigeria to troop out onto the streets. The additional hike in electricity tariffs was not enough to ignite their anger either. The government of the day explained to the people that the additional burden of higher prices was part of the sacrifice they had to make as citizens. The impact of COVID-19 was hobbling the country: loss of revenue, inflation, a weak national currency, foreign exchange crisis. The people showed understanding. The strongest point about the average Nigerian is that he or she is resilient, long-suffering, yet ever ready to give up a little comfort for the country’s sake. Nigerian leaders do not show as much readiness or patriotism in the same manner. Nonetheless, Nigerians continue to endure, but the lesson of the #EndSARS crisis that has now engulfed the country is that it is not good to take the people’s patience for granted.
Last week, it took an encounter between a young man and the notorious Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS) in Ughelli, Delta State, for the people to cry out and show their outrage over unending cases of police brutality. A young man by name Ochuko, was first said to have been killed by the men of the FSARS. It was later established that he did not die. He was brutalized. His vehicle was seized by the police. He ended up in hospital. The Minister of State for Labour and Employment, Festus Keyamo, SAN who was born in Ughelli intervened and tried to explain. He said the victim was alive and that in fact, the outfit involved in the encounter was not SARS, but Operation Delta Safe. These were policemen all the same. The youths of Ughelli therefore turned their anger on the police. Whether it was Operation Delta Safe or SARS did not matter, the truth is that the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad established in 1992 has over the years become synonymous with impunity and brutality.
CSP Simeon Danladi Midenda (assisted by DSP Taiwo Lakanu) who helped to set up the unit as a default strategy at the time, is on record as having said that the unit, one of 14 in the Nigeria Police Crime and Intelligence Division, has “deviated from the original concept.” The exact nature of that deviation is that over the years, Nigerians concluded that FSARS had transformed from being a crime-fighting unit of the Nigeria Police into a criminal unit, granted automatic immunity by official status and the guns that they wield. Rather than fight armed robbery, SARS officials spent more time terrorizing Nigerians. The many stories that have been written about this unit of the Nigeria Police convey a picture of how Nigeria itself has deteriorated and how institutions of state can be easily used to condone and promote impunity. In 1971, Nigerian policemen killed Kunle Adepeju, a promising Nigerian student at the University of Ibadan, who was not even involved in a protest about the inefficiency and incompetence of a University catering manager.
In April 1978, the police killed Nigerian students for daring to query the then Olusegun Obasanjo military regime. The government had increased the cost of meal on campuses by 50k per day. The students revolted. The Nigeria Police, this same one, joined by soldiers who were called out to quell the protests, littered every campus from Zaria to Lagos with corpses. In 1981, they killed Dele Udoh, a 24-year old, award winning athlete. He was gunned down for having the temerity to argue with a policeman. With the emergence of a unit of the Nigeria Police Force called Nigerian Mobile Police (MOPOL) Nigerians were finally confronted with the spectre of police brutality in full force. It was a para-military police unit. It would eventually distinguish itself internationally and bring laurels to Nigeria in UN, AU, ECOWAS international peace-keeping operations. But locally, the MOPOL, as it was called, was known for its human rights abuses. Under Inspector-General of Police, Sunday Adewusi (1981- 1983), the MOPOL became so notorious, so evil, that it was called the “Kill and Go Police”.
After dismissing the civilian Shehu Shagari administration in 1983, the military rulers that came after had to whittle down the influence of the MOPOL. It had become a threat not just to society but also the military. MOPOL may have been bad but SARS is worse. Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad inherited the “Kill and Go” label and turned it into a shameless brand. Nobody is spared. You only need to drive a good car, wear dreadlocks, look like you had just returned from an overseas trip, speak with a foreign accent, or look like the son or daughter or wife of a rich man, or make the mistake of being seen with an expensive phone or tablet, and you automatically become a target. Walking too confidently on the streets of Nigeria is now regarded as a crime by SARS policemen and yet, the Nigerian Constitution guarantees the freedom of movement. SARS officials pry into people’s bags, enter their houses and look into soup pots and refrigerators, and ask for a share of family assets or else, they will “kill and go” and as they often say, “nothing will happen.” And indeed, often, and always, nothing happens, and if anything happens at all, such policemen are protected by the police and subsequently rewarded with promotion and better postings. They are not answerable to anybody in the state to which they are deployed. They operate as a Federal Force! This is exactly the problem. A Police system that is supposed to protect the safety of lives and property but which operates like an enemy of the people, and the state lacks the will to do what is right, is a threat to everyone.
It has been argued that we should never have expected, and should not expect much from the Modern Nigeria Police. It was established by the colonial authorities as a force of domination, division, suppression, and control, and so the argument goes, we should expect the Modern Nigeria Police Force to remain true to its antecedents. The weakness of that argument is that it props up colonial determinism. It has been 60 years after independence. We can’t keep blaming the past. My take, in fact is that the colonial police master is much better than the post-colonial police masters we now have. Present day internal colonialists are far less human than the British colonialists. There are many Nigerians who will readily argue that colonialism had its good sides, highlighted ironically by the wickedness of a generation that inherited independence and subverted it.
Too many panels and committees have been set up to reform the Nigeria Police: why has that not worked? For more than 40 years, civil society groups in Nigeria and the International Community have been drawing attention to human rights abuses by the Nigeria Police: why has nobody listened? Every Inspector General of Police since the 1990s has talked about Police Reform, Police decentralization, Police restructuring, but that has also not worked. The current #EndSARS protest is a response to years of inaction and the deafness of the Nigerian state. The argument is not about a colonial heritage. It is about the failure of leadership. This is worsened by the fact that the protesters do not trust the Nigerian government anymore. There is nothing new about police brutality and the violation of human rights by the Nigerian State, but the people have seen that it may never end. For the past four years, there have been similar protests and demands. This is not the first time Government will restructure the notorious SARS or direct that checkpoints should be disbanded. In 2017, 2018, 2019, the police hierarchy gave the same directives. The police simply went about their duties and punished the people even more. It is tragic to have a Police system that the people do not trust.
After the aforementioned Ughelli incident, the Inspector General of Police – Mohammed Adamu announced that SARS officials had been ordered off the streets, checkpoints banned and that every SARS official must wear a uniform. The public laughed. They dismissed the directive as “an audio directive.” AUDIO used in that context in Nigeria’s street talk means mere sound, nothing of substance, it can be heard but there is nothing to it because it is deceptive and dishonest. The people have been proven right. When a people begin to call those who are supposed to protect them liars and hypocrites, something has gone crazy in that society, and a bomb is ticking. Indeed, within 24 hours after the IGP’s mollifying directives, SARS officials were seen again on the streets, acting like emperors as usual. The people then resolved that “Enough is Enough”. In Ughelli, Lagos, Osogbo, Abuja, and elsewhere, they confronted the SARS officials. The Police fought back. Nigeria now looks like a scene out of William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus. “Na on top that matter we dey since oh” as the people say.
The people standing up to the Nigeria Police are to be exact, the youths of Nigeria. The #EndSARS campaign is an expression of youth power. What we have seen is a whole generation speaking up. Their protest goes beyond police brutality. It is an outflow of pent up anger about how Nigeria has been mismanaged over the years. It is a protest about the failure of the state, the reign of impunity and the abuse of uniform, not just by the police, but Customs, Immigration, Civil Defence, Road Safety officials, and anyone who wears an official uniform and thinks he or she has been empowered to humiliate and oppress less privileged Nigerians. But the Phoenix has risen. Before now, many young Nigerians kept calling on the older generation of activists to speak up for them about contemporary issues. The majority actually thought the duty of liberating Nigeria should be carried out by the same set of old actors. This time, new heroes and heroines have shown up from the most unlikely quarters. Their protest goes beyond police brutality. It demonstrates the power of technology and the nature of a modern revolution and its potency. The Arab Spring was triggered off in December 2010, by an act of self-immolation by a Tunisian youth in protest over police corruption and brutality. In Nigeria, a Revolutionary Spring has been afoot for days. Well, almost.
Nigerian youths took over not just the streets of Nigeria, they possessed the international social media space. They ignited the fire of patriotism at home and in Diaspora. There have been protests by Nigerians across the world- in Paris, London, Johannesburg, Monrovia, Dublin and elsewhere. On Twitter, a dedicated team called out international celebrities and governments to help defend the rights of Nigerians to live in peace in their country. Within 24 hours, the #EndSARS campaign became the Number one trending topic on social media worldwide. Governments and embassies joined the protest, calling on the Nigerian government to address the grievances of its angry citizens. I saw Drake, Cardi B, John Boyega, Trey Songz, Chance the Rapper, Estelle, global cultural figures asking questions about Nigeria. It was in the government’s interest to respond. The IGP has now announced a complete disbandment of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, but two days later, nobody trusted him. Nigerian youths shouted “AU-DI-O”. They have remained on the streets. They have asked that the President of Nigeria Muhammadu Buhari must address the nation. He has now done so. It was in his interest to do so. Every step that has been taken by the Nigerian government in the last three days is not because the government listens, but a response to a desperate situation. #EndSARS was beginning to graduate to an #EndNigeria campaign. Even the Vice President and one of his daughters joined the campaign. One of the President’s daughters, Zahra Buhari also tweeted on the side of the people. The children of both billionaires and the poor are united. One of them, DJ Cuppy, has said she had to defy other people’s counsel but as a young Nigerian she felt obliged to speak up.
The #EndSARS campaign has produced new heroes. We have seen an expression of youth anger and patriotism that we never expected was possible. Omoyele Sowore, the activist who ignited the fire that now burns, must be pleased. The other hero is Aisha Yesufu, the foster daughter of the North, who has emerged as a symbol of the protest. There is Rinu, the young lady who acted as spokesperson at the Lagos State House of Assembly. And Segun Awosanya, the #EndSARS architect and spirit. Deji Adeyanju. Dipo Awojide. Reno Omokri. There are others: those who lived, those who died, the living ancestors, and members of Corporate Nigeria who stood up to be counted. The Nollywood and Creative Industry team gave verve to the protest: Falz the Bad Guy, Wizkid, Davido, Tiwa Savage, Paul Okoye, Rema, Don Jazzy, Mike Edwards, Genevieve Nnaji, Toke Makinwa, too many to mention… and the BBNaija queen – Tacha showing that far beyond beauty and brains, conscience matters… Notably, there is no single hero. The youths of Nigeria led themselves. They blocked politicians from hijacking the protest, and therein lies the strength of this unfolding Nigerian story. We have not yet seen the end of it. It is a much bigger story: the story of how a strategic police unit that used to be known as the “Scorpions” ended up as a group of “Monkeys”, looking for “Bananas”, so badly they became involved in land matters, snatched ATM cards, and became “AsSARSins.”
By Reuben Abati