About a year or so ago, I saw a documentary on Nigeria (on YouTube, I think) in which a man, a Keke driver, spoke of being shot in the face by a policeman for not having enough money on him to dash the cop who demanded it of him.
He was on his way back from Mass with his family -wife and children- when they were stopped by this trigger-happy policeman who demanded a certain sum of money from him. His inability to deliver cost him his wife (who was shot and killed) and his jaw. The most shocking thing about this is not that it happened, but that whenever I share this story with fellow Nigerians, someone always has another horrendous Naija police encounter one:
- Moral Bankruptcy And The Rising Cases Of Rape
- #EndSARS: Smugglers Operate Freely As Price Of Foreign Rice Drops In Ogun
The young man who was taken from his home by the police and who has not been seen since then
The young woman who was raped in police custody
Someone still awaiting trial in Kirikiri after three years of being picked up on his way to buy supplies for his restaurant.
Ubiquitous stories of ordinary citizens for whom the police who ought to protect them are the very ones that they fear. I’ve often felt like our relationship with Naija police is akin to arming your gateman and having him turn against you. And so, because of that, for a long time, it seemed as if the broken police system was sacred ground that no one could touch or attempt to fix. An ineluctable part of our Nigerianess, like jollof rice. When you get to a police checkpoint, you reach into your glove compartment for naira notes to avoid being delayed. It’s so ingrained that it’s become automatic and I do not know a single ordinary citizen for whom this isn’t the normal way of driving through Nigeria. It is so commonplace that when we talk of police corruption, this barely registers on the radar. Years ago, I knew a man who kept a bunch of bread labels, bound together like money in his car. At every checkpoint, he’d pull from the stack, fold the ‘money’ into the unsuspecting cops’ hands and drive off before being discovered. When SARS started picking up young women, accusing them of being prostitutes, disappearing young men , accusing them of being robbers for wearing dreadlocks and having tattoos, and we read their stories as Twitter threads, it seemed to me as if nothing could be done beyond tweet in anger and frustration. Because we do not pay attention to history, we all bought into the myth of Nigerians being complacent and Nigerian youths caring for nothing but soccer and Big Brother Nigeria. Our president very famously, in 2018, was quoted as saying of Nigerian youth, “…a lot of them haven’t been to school and they are claiming that Nigeria is an oil producing country, therefore, they should sit and do nothing, and get housing, healthcare, education free.” Like, how “dare” they demand free healthcare and education from a government which has some of the highest compensated public officials in the world. I am gratified That same president is still in power to see the kind of force those “lazy youths” have unleashed with the #EndSars protests. Like my Igbo people say, the mouth that speaks ill (of one) will eventually speak well (of one). Onu kwulu njo ga-emesia kwe mma.
With days of peaceful protests attracting world attention, an incompetent government did the only thing they could: they turned on their citizens. They accused the protesters of being thugs and criminals ( as if protesters who had been sharing food and water – even with the police, organizing their own security details in certain places, making clear and articulate demands, providing legal aid to illegally detained protesters- would suddenly break into a prison in Benin City and free criminals or suddenly abandon the cause and start looting). When the protests continued, the government sent soldiers in to shoot protesters at Lekki Tollgate. Thanks to technology and social media, the revolution and the massacre were livestreamed. The world watched, incredulous, on DJ Switch’s Instagram account as soldiers opened fire on innocent protesters at Lekki Toll Gate. When the Governor of Lagos State went on record to state a different narrative, there was the viral video recorded by DJ Switch to counteract it.
Despite all the conflicting information making the rounds, regardless of whose version you choose to believe, there are facts that are irrefutable: lives have been lost, the Nigeria Police Force as a whole (and not just SARS) operates with arrogant impunity, the federal government has exhibited a level of callous incompetence that should see them kicked out of power. When President Buhari broke his silence and spoke on Thursday, it was a defiant speech that did not even acknowledge the shooting of protesters, let alone (honor) the dead. Tufia!
Through all this, it has been heartening to see Nigerian youth stand up and demand better for themselves, holding the government’s feet to the fire, to read reports of groups comprised of and led by young Nigerians doing amazing stuff- from LifeBank supplying blood to where it is needed (or at least trying as much as they can to) to Feminist Coalition fundraising (even leveraging bitcoin) and garnering support from around the world so that protesters get the help they need. And I have celebrated every small gain. This is what patriotism looks like: fighting for a better country. Not long, fancy speeches, just walking the walk and talking the talk.
However this develops, a change, a stirring, a rumbling has already begun. And this stirring, instigated by the atrocities of SARS and the apparent impunity with which our police system operates, is being spearheaded this time by “lazy” Nigerian youths.