Every Nigerian has a terrible police story. The disbanded rogue Special Armed Robbery Squad (SARS) was only one of its elements, and it is fitting that it was buried by the #ENDSARS initiative of Nigeria youth last week.
But what is at work in Nigeria is bigger than one movement and one moment of anger and commitment. What is at work is the turmoil of time.
- #EndSARS: Military should steer clear of peaceful protests – ActionAid
- #EndSARS turns bloody as Osun governor comes under attack
Remember: it is 30 months ago that Nigeria ruler Muhammadu Buhari spoke at the Commonwealth Business Forum in London, denouncing the youth of his country as lazy and indolent. The youth, he falsely claimed, wanted “to sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free.”
The turmoil of this moment is that the youth demand that Buhari and the ruling class account for their privilege. The key word is account. Time has come to collect.
Although it may now seem like another lifetime, it is only three weeks ago that Nigeria celebrated its 60th birthday: 60 years after 1960.
Coincidence? I do not think so.
It began innocently enough: a business-as-usual although terribly written anniversary speech in which Buhari appeared to be confused as to what he was saying. Still, he declared Nigerians to be “bound by destiny to be the largest and greatest black nation on earth.”
And he identified the present to be appropriate to “reflect how we got here to enable us work TOGETHER to get to where we aspire to be as a strong indivisible nation, united in hope and equal in opportunity.”
Only days later, he was being compelled, and by people who did not wield a single gun or buy a single bullet, to capitulate and terminate SARS, and to accept the first few demands of the protesters.
For 60 years Nigerians have suffered terribly at the hands of the police, which has always put serving the rich and the powerful over its responsibility for law and order. They extorted, looted, raped, harassed and killed at will. The new EndSARS website is curating these stories.
Before SARS became the byword for brutality, its focus was on armed robbery. Sadly, the crime-fighter became the criminal, and crime blossomed. But SARS did not invent police impunity: that was the work of the Mobile Police Force (MOPOL), which became known as “Kill and Go.” Nobody asked them to account.
Again, the keyword is: account (aka reporting). I do not know what the future holds, but reporting must be the first order of business for political activists otherwise you could EndSARS only to StartWORSE.
Until now, the most prominent thread running through Nigerian public life is the resistance of accountability:
- The President pronounced transparency only when it refers to others; he never proudly refers to any…he has achieved.
- Senators want nobody peering into their finances, knowing full well that they are looting the public purse.
In governance terms, however, Ministries and agencies are worse:
- The EFCC has an annual reporting burden it does not discharge, and neither the executive branch nor the legislative (to which it is supposed to report), ever queries.
- The Police reports to nobody, and nobody asks.
In the simplest form, this is why nothing works: apart from what you need to “compensate” your boss and his wife, you can appropriate whatever comes to your office and get away with it. You can buy a home for him in the United States or pay his children’s school fees in the United Kingdom, setting him free to claim to be holier than Pope Francis. And you remain free to loot subsequent budgets!
For the Nigeria Police, this is question of life and death for any citizen at any time, and it is the foundation of the grief and pain throughout the country. When they shoot your twin brother to death in Lokoja, or burn down your family home in Biu, or make your mother a paraplegic in Port Harcourt, it is the end of the story: they account to nobody.
Last week, as I curated material on EndSARS, the anguish was palpable thoughout the country. But it was also emanating from several cities in Ireland, England, the United States, France, Canada, Switzerland, Germany, and Ghana. And it occurred to me that that the future, if it is to arrive, must begin with the past.
Part of that past is not only the police, it is also their enablers: the civilians who nurtured the beast or used it to destroy friends, enemies, communities and the common interest. Some members of the older generations, including parents of today’s activists, are guilty of a variety of crimes.
It is also fascinating to review the Nigeria Police concerning its establishment, particularly Section 214 of the constitution which puts it in place.
The following, according to the Police Acts and Regulations, include its duties:
- The prevention and detection of crime;
- The apprehension of offenders;
- The preservation of law and order;
- The protection of life and property;
- The due enforcement of laws and regulations with which they are directly charged.
Note the eloquent silence about its management and reporting. And that is partly why the current Inspector General of Police rushed out last week, within hours of his ‘dissolution’ of SARS, to replace it with another animal he called SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics). Members of this new body were to commence training as soon as this morning.
The problem is that the IGP is responsible to nobody, and often manipulates everyone. For instance: how many “offenders” were apprehended in 2018 or 2019? How many people were arrested, for what offences, and how many were prosecuted? How many were arrested by SARS or the regular police, and how many did they kill?
The IGP cannot say because he is not required to. The commissioners in each state cannot answer and they do not care to.
This is the reason policemen not only extort money but take lives as often as they please. Because as a rule in public life in Nigeria, the first objective of the powerful is to eliminate or neglect the reporting requirement.
EndSARS must EndTHIS, and thereby begin the process of protecting the future against the present. SWAT cannot be different from SARS unless there is a clear reporting standard which requires each unit to account at the end of each shift, with full statistics on its engagement with civilians declaring arrests, fatalities, and usage of bullets.
In principle, that will enable commissioners to report to Force Headquarters with basic figures, and in detail at the end of each month. At the end of the year, the IGP then accounts to the legislature. They must be held accountable.
And so, Nigerian youth, I wish you well and thank you for waking up. But you must understand that the government and its enablers hate you and what you are doing. Your success means their failure, and if means they can remain in power, they do not really mind the police killing or maiming you.
In the words of the old book, “This is our chance.”
[This column welcomes rebuttals from interested government officials.]