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Sorrow, Tears, and Blood

In Nigeria, a long history of police brutality and sectional tension

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a Nigerian police unit, was formed in Lagos State in 1992. This was a period when the country was reeling from massive inflation, triggered by the devaluation of the naira, part of the IMF-inspired structural adjustment program pushed through some years prior by the country’s military leader, General Ibrahim Babangida. The economic upheaval had brought waves of migrants from the provinces into Lagos, easy targets for crime, and there had been a major uptick in armed robbery, which SARS was meant to combat. In time, SARS branches were set up in all thirty-six states as well as the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja.

The unit quickly won a reputation for overreach and violence. Discarding due process, SARS officers picked up and detained suspected criminals without warrants and often tortured or even killed them. It was not disbanded when Nigeria returned to democracy in 1999, after three decades of near-continuous military rule. And why should it have been? The civilian “elections” held that year were blatantly rigged in favor of Olusegun Obasanjo, a former dictator who had ruled from 1976 to 1979. The force’s remit had gradually expanded to include suspected murderers, kidnappers, and assassins. Yet their main target was always young people between eighteen and thirty-five, especially well-dressed young men in flashy cars, or those with laptops and iPhones, who they invariably branded as internet scammers—“Yahoo boys” in local parlance. Also of interest were those sporting dreadlocks, ripped jeans, and tattoos, to say nothing of presumed homosexuals. Nigeria is a gerontocracy that, in the interests of hallowed “tradition,” recoiled at such abominations.

When it came to the inalienable rights of the Nigerian people, SARS officers proved just as careless as the soldiers in the military regimes of the 1980s and 1990s. Theoretically, citizens in the new democracy could hold them to account. In acknowledgment of growing public outrage, expressed most vociferously on social media, the government convened a committee in 2009 to put in place a mechanism toward fulfilling the conditions set out in the United Nations Convention against Torture, which it became a signatory of that year, apparently unaware that torture was not then proscribed in the country’s criminal and penal codes, a holdover of the colonial era. This was rectified in 2017, which happened to be the year that protests erupted on social media, as activists promoted the hashtag #EndSARS.

The young protesters had come of age in a democracy, however compromised.

In typical fashion, the public relations officer for the police, Jimoh Moshood, branded the largely young, tech-savvy protesters as “criminals.” In 2017, the retired police commissioner Olusola Amore acknowledged the persistence of “bad eggs” in the force—even though the inspector general of police Ibrahim Idris had convened a three-day program to address the matter the year before: Enhancing the Capacity of SARS Officers on Human Rights and Police-Citizens Relations. Also in typical fashion, that was where the matter ended. Since 2016, Amnesty International has documented at least eighty-two cases of torture, ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions at the hands of SARS officers; as before, no officer was ever charged, much less prosecuted. In October of last year, another more sustained and more focused protest erupted.

The Beginning of the #End

The trigger was the October 3 shooting of a young man by SARS officers in front of a hotel in the town of Ughelli in Delta State. A witness uploaded a video of the crime on Twitter, which quickly began trending; that man was himself arrested, which only caused more anger. Two days later, another video resurfaced online showing the killing of a twenty-year-old up-and-coming musician known as Sleek, in Port Harcourt in neighboring Rivers State the prior month. Three days later protesters again took to the streets, not just in Ughelli and Port Harcourt, but in a number of cities across southern Nigeria, including Lagos, Ogbomosho, and Ibadan, as well as Abuja in central Nigeria. This time their demands went beyond abolishing SARS. The protesters demanded that the entire police force be restructured, to which end they presented the government with a five-point agenda: the immediate release of all detained protesters; justice for all deceased victims of police violence and appropriate compensation for their families; an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reported cases of police misconduct within ten days; the psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS operatives before they are redeployed; and adequate police pay for protecting lives and property.

This last is especially pertinent. Nigeria’s police—and, for that matter, all the country’s estimated 89,000 public servants—are not so much employed by the state as conferred with a title and urged to extort their salaries from civilians. Nobody imagines that the highest-ranking inspector can live on N87,135 ($229) a month, itself more than double what the lowest-ranking constable is paid. The same is true of the bureaucrats who stand—or, rather, sit—between you and your passport, driving license, and tax clearance. For their part, the police are merely unfortunate in being the frontline enforcers of a venal system. As for their recourse to violence, that only underscores their original raison d’être as native enforcers, a power relation that has not been reformed since independence.

The October protests lasted a fortnight. They were remarkable for the discipline with which the overwhelmingly young men and women conducted themselves, even in the face of provocation by a state just itching for a showdown. On October 10, one protester, Isiaka Jimoh, was shot dead by police in Ogbomosho in Oyo State. The following day, protesters attacked the palace of the traditional ruler, Oba Jimoh Oyewumi, causing considerable damage. (Though the ruler no longer has any official power, he still exercises sway over the political process.) In the chaos, police killed three more protesters—Ganiyu Moshood, Taiwo Adeoyo, and Pelumi Olatunji. Subsequently, the state governor, Seyi Makinde, gave each of the families of the deceased N1 million but offered the traditional ruler N100 million, his property presumably being more valuable than their lives, as many noted at the time, though the ruler ultimately accepted only N10 million. Three days later on October 14, protesters in both Lagos and Abuja were attacked by hoodlums with cutlasses and sticks, leading to speculation that security forces might have enlisted vigilantes.

One group, the Feminist Coalition, quickly found itself at the heart of the protests. It is the brainchild of two women—Damilola Odufuwa and Odunayo Eweniyi—who had come together in July of last year to float a progressive group that organized “around the social, economic and political equality for Nigerian women in a more sustainable way.” They had little prior experience in organizing but the #EndSARS protests appealed to them because they believed that “without structure, the protests could turn violent and women would be the most affected.” They proved remarkably successful in raising funds from Nigerians at home and abroad for hospital and legal bills as well as other forms of relief. They eventually reached over $388,000, all of which was accounted for in the interests of the transparency absent in the public sphere. Organizing aside, the biggest takeaway was the sense of a generation with a profound grasp of their rights as citizens, which in turn gave them their discipline and focus. The young protesters had come of age in a democracy, however compromised; military rule was something they heard their parents talk about.

On October 11, the government announced it was scrapping SARS “with immediate effect” after three days. But this was just a ruse to cut the ground from under the protesters, misunderstanding the depth of the anger. Soon, they announced its replacement, the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) force, named that way perhaps because someone in Aso Rock Presidential Villa, the seat of power, was enamored of the American acronym—which spoke all-too-loudly of the government’s historic contempt for “the people.” This fig leaf offered, it was time for the protests to end, and the army issued a warning to “all subversive elements and troublemakers” that it stood “ready to fully support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order and deal with any situation decisively.” On October 20, they opened fire in Lagos.

“They just came with guns blazing,” recalled Obianuju Catherine Udeh, who goes by the moniker DJ Switch, in a much-viewed CNN interview. Switch is a thirty-seven-year-old DJ and musician with a massive following on social media; she had not been previously outspoken in her political views, identifying instead as “a tech junkie” who loves “innovation and creativity.” Yet she found herself drawn to the unfolding protests, as she noted in another interview: “I remember taking a picture on one of the days to say to my fans: if you have the opportunity to come out, do it, if you can’t, just do it online, but whatever you do, you must speak up, because this affects all of us.”

DJ Switch survived the shooting, which she live-streamed, by escaping the scene, gathering bullet shells on her way as evidence. In a social media post, she claimed about fifteen people were killed and that the soldiers carted away the corpses to hide the evidence. Also, that the soldiers were followed by former SARS officers in their familiar uniform, who continued with the shootings. (A similar operation was unleashed on protesters at Alausa, the seat of the state government, reportedly killing at least two.) After her livestreaming of the massacre and a follow-up video went viral, DJ Switch’s manager reportedly received a phone call from a government official “spitting fire and brimstone.” Fearing for her life, she fled the country and later turned up in Canada, where she addressed the parliament. At a press conference in Abuja the following month, the information minister Lai Mohammed denied that security personnel used live ammunition, calling it a “massacre without bodies.” He dismissed Switch as “a fraud” and “a front for divisive and destructive forces.” Confronted with the live-stream, he was forced to backtrack even as he tried to downplay the numbers.

Following the massacre at Lekki Toll Gate, as it came to be known, the Feminist Coalition called off the #EndSARS protests to avoid more bloodshed. But by then, a great army of unemployed, under-employed—and, in some cases, unemployable—young men known as “area boys” who had earlier been encouraged to provoke the protesters into violence had already caused a great deal of property damage. (In October, multiple police stations were wholly or partially razed by fire in Lagos State alone.) Protesters aligned with the National Youth Council stormed the offices of the National Assembly on October 20 with a list of demands, including that the government fire all military service chiefs. Meanwhile, members of the House of Representatives awarded themselves N8.5 million monthly in salaries and “expenses”—the figure for Senators is around N14 million—in a country where the monthly minimum wage is N30,000.

Federalism and its Discontents

#EndSARS protests had appeared all across southern Nigeria, seemingly uniting the youth against the despotic government that cares little for them. Yet the situation was very different in the North, which remained largely silent through October. In fact, there were a few seemingly spontaneous demonstrations in favor of the SARS replacement, SWAT, in Dutse, Kano, and Maiduguri. According to Ukkasha Hamza Rahuma, leader of the Northern Youth Assembly of Nigeria, it was imperative for everyone to “join hands to support the reforming of SARS for optimum performance where no human right will be violated.” The political analyst Mayowa Adebola puts this down to a disparity in police behavior. “Check the records for the brutality, for the murdering,” he told the German Deutsche Welle. “It is all in the south, it does not get to the core north.” This is a complaint that goes back many years. The police have “made promotions purely a question of ethnic patronage,” a columnist wrote in the National Concord in 1998. “At the expense of standards by way of seniority, records and high performance.” A provision of the constitution called the “Federal Character Principle” was supposed to ensure equal political representation in a diverse nation—over 250 ethnicities and some 500 languages—but it favors the largest ethnic group, the so-called Hausa–Fulani, who largely live in the North. These indigenes rise rapidly through the ranks, while police officers of other ethnicities tend to remain in the rank-and-file, despite any amount of training.

The unequal participation in the protests between the predominantly Muslim North and predominantly Christian South points to a deeper historical divide.

A more sympathetic explanation for the #EndSARS divide was offered by the human rights lawyer Audu Bulama Bukarti, who has worked extensively in the North. He argues that SARS officers are just as “vicious and corrupt” in the region, but that they apply different techniques of coercion on the local population, who are on the whole less well-educated and more deferential. Bukarti also notes that the deteriorating security situation in the North, exemplified by the Boko Haram insurgency, has given the civilian population different priorities. “They feel their biggest assailants are Boko Haram and the so-called bandits that kill and abduct dozens literally daily,” Bukarti wrote in an October 2020 article for African Arguments. “Instead of dissipating time and energy protesting against SARS, which is a lesser evil, they reckon that it is better to use their resources on pressuring the government to tackle insecurity.” Hashtags including #SecureNorthNow, #EndBokoHaramNow, and #EndBanditryNow were briefly trending in the North.

Whatever its reasons, the unequal participation in the protests between the predominantly Muslim North and predominantly Christian South points to a deeper historical divide. Though Nigeria is today a democratic federation, the North exercises an outsize political power, and even cites a divine right to rule—“It is the Almighty that has destined it so,” as a communiqué from the Northern Elders Forum put it, in the countdown to the 2015 elections. Their sense of superiority dates back at least to the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Fulani ethnic group invaded what is now northern Nigeria, defeated the Hausa kingdoms, and established the largest Islamic caliphate in sub-Saharan Africa. They found eager collaborators among the oppressed masses of the Hausa empire, particularly slaves, who performed all forms of menial labor—hunting, fishing, and farming—and were even used as currency. (For instance, when one of the Hausa “elite” wanted to travel he would take as many slaves as he needed to sell along the way to complete his journey.)

The Fulani believed themselves to be establishing a more equitable society, based on the Islamic principle that the purpose of the state is to establish the proper conditions for the good life of its citizens, who were free to revolt if circumstances changed. In time, the Fulani conquered half of Yorubaland. (Today, the Yoruba population is divided roughly equally among Muslims and Christians.) They were only halted in their quest to dip the Holy Book in the Atlantic Ocean in the far South by the British, who defeated them militarily in 1903 and co-opted them into the colonial administration in return for allegiance to the Crown.

Independence in 1960 ushered in a different era. The new country was divided into three regions—East, North, and West—under a federal parliament, with each region being given considerable autonomy, as exists, for instance, in the United States, where each state jealously guards its powers. All this was swept away with the two back-to-back military coups in 1966, at the end of which General Yakubu Gowon took power, and immediately strengthened the power of the federal government. The ensuing civil war—during which Biafra tried to secede from the union—consolidated the center’s grip, an arrangement that has played into the hands of the North, with its numerical advantage. Tellingly, only three southerners have been substantive heads of state since independence in 1960, and then mostly on sufferance. As for the South, it is fractured along ethnic lines with the Igbo and Yoruba, the two largest groups, unable to find common cause in their own self-interests. They would rather collaborate with the North than with each other, such is the level of distrust between them.

They would rather collaborate with the North than with each other.

Matters might have changed with the return to democracy in 1999. But the new Constitution was mostly written by the departing military, who left almost all power at the center. (Still, Nigeria calls itself a federal republic.) All this was done to ensure that the North retains its supposed numerical superiority. In any case, the same year, twelve northern states began imposing Sharia law, in open defiance of the secular provisions of the new constitution. I happened to travel around the North in 2002, by which time Sharia was in full swing. At the time, two women, Safiya Hussaini and Amina Lawal, had been sentenced to death by stoning for becoming pregnant in the absence of their estranged husbands. (In the event, the women were spared.) As the Islamic judge pointed out in another case that went the same way, a man could only be found guilty on the testimony of four other men who saw “the penis inside the woman’s vagina.” Underage girls accused of premarital sex were also publicly flogged, including Bariya Ibrahim Magazu, who was sentenced to 180 lashes (later reduced to one hundred) after she accused three men of rape and before her appeal was heard. (The men themselves went free.) Meanwhile, in all the nine states in the “core north” that I visited, I saw evidence of Saudi money flowing in, specifically to the colleges of Islamic Legal Studies, pride of place going to the one in Sokoto, the seat of the caliphate, which received a grant of N520 million.

No Fulani politician benefitted more from these changes than Muhammadu Buhari, a former military dictator who ruled Nigeria from 1983 to 1985. When it was politically convenient, he came out as an Islamic fundamentalist, which he probably had been all along: “I will continue to show openly and inside me the total commitment to the Sharia movement that is sweeping all over Nigeria,” he said in 2001. He also professed himself willing to “die for the cause of Islam.” Six years later, he ran for president, and took his defeat badly, even threatening to render Nigeria ungovernable if the results were not overturned.

By the time of the next elections in 2011 Buhari was emboldened enough to call upon his followers in the North to police polling centers. More specifically, he suggested they “lynch anybody that tries to tinker with the votes.” His call was duly heeded. According to the Christian Association of Nigeria, at least 170 Christians were killed, many more injured and thousands displaced during the elections. It says much about religious tensions in the country—which has both more Muslims and more Christians than any other on the continent—that the incumbent, Goodluck Jonathan, from the predominantly Christian South, ruled out charging Buhari with incitement. A similar farce played out with the 2015 elections, in the lead-up to which Buhari swore that, “by the grace of God, the dog and the baboon would all be soaked in blood” should he lose once more. Fortunately for the animals at least, he won, and even earned the trust of major public intellectuals. Wole Soyinka, who had earlier compared Buhari to a slavedriver, was now convinced that he was a genuine “born-again” democrat. But then history has never been our strong point, and the subject was effectively expunged from the school curriculum for almost a decade before the government announced in 2019 that some history would be allowed.

Buhari was helped in large measure by Jonathan’s hapless response to the 2014 kidnapping of 276 mostly Christian schoolgirls in the town of Chibok in Borno State, in the far northeast, by Boko Haram. It took the Commander-in-Chief nearly three weeks to admit that anything had even happened, by which time the girls had been parceled out among the insurgents, who were camped out in Sambisa Forest, part of a neglected national park that is more than three times the size of Israel, which was now apparently off-limits to our men and women in uniform. It was reasoned that Buhari, a no-nonsense army general who had fought in the civil war, would know what to do with these barbaric terrorists once he returned to power. Except that it turned out he didn’t, which is perhaps unsurprising, given his own professed love for Sharia. Seven years later, Boko Haram continues to wax stronger. The murder of seventy-six farmers in Borno State in November last year suggests that they now operate without let or hindrance. It seems that the farmers had “betrayed” one of their own to the military, as they had been instructed to do, and this was their reprisal; the military was unable to come to their help.

Matters in the North are further complicated by the phenomenon of the so-called Fulani herdsmen, cattle pastoralists driven south in search of grazing land by the encroaching Sahara. In recent years and armed with AK47s sourced from the wars in the Sahel (principally Libya), they’ve become increasingly violent: in 2016 alone, they were responsible for an estimated 2,500 deaths, substantially more than Boko Haram. In some parts, notably the “buffer” zone between North and South, they depopulate entire villages and claim them as their own, seemingly with the connivance of Buhari, our erstwhile savior, who merely repeats his feeble call for dialogue.

In effect, the North has held the Nigerian state hostage since independence. Not that the Fulani leaders of the region have put this political advantage to help its constituents. The opposite, in fact. Controlled by the rigidly conservative, fabulously wealthy tiny elite, welfare and job-creation have been essentially nonexistent in the North, which displays levels of misery comparable to the Middle East—in 2016, 87 percent of the country’s poor lived in the region. Fulani leaders frown on “Western” education for all but their own children, who study in posh boarding schools abroad. The resulting difference in literacy rates between the North and the South is stark, with Yobe State, the lowest at just over seven percent, to Imo State, the highest at ninety-six percent (as of 2016). Yet the former, with almost half the latter’s population, received slightly more from the federation account specifically for education that year on account of being “educationally disadvantaged.” Today, Nigeria has the world’s highest number of out-of-school children, estimated at 8.7 million, ready foot soldiers for Boko Haram.

Hostages of Democracy

The “trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership,” Chinua Achebe wrote in a 1983 pamphlet, a line our public intellectuals never tire of repeating. But what of the voters who put these despots in power and tolerate them long after their sell-by date? It would be wrong to blame Buhari, who is merely a symptom of our seeming inability to take collective responsibility for our predicament, which is why those in power can and do act with impunity.

The obvious way forward is to hold a truly sovereign national conference to chart how best to live together or even go our separate ways if need be. Not that the Western powers that carved up the continent would approve of this. What the white man has joined together . . . Tellingly, both the United States and Soviet Union, along with the UK, stood firmly behind Nigeria’s “territorial integrity” when Biafra tried to secede—this during the Cold War. As is, we remain hostage to the severe minority that has purloined all our resources in collaboration with their foreign enablers—five of the richest Nigerians have a combined worth of $29.9 billion—whose tax-free havens they enjoy. Following widespread agitation in favor of regional autonomy, Obasanjo convened a National Political Reform Conference in 2005. “We should not discuss in fear and we should never fear to discuss,” he announced, but quickly added: “Our disagreement must not lead to disintegration.” He and the thirty-six state governors then proceeded to handpick the four hundred delegates who were to discuss our future, after which Obasanjo himself would have the final say on which of the conference recommendations (if any) would actually be implemented. Soyinka, who was nominated without his consent, called it “a distraction.” A similar charade was repeated in 2014.

That our politicians are shameless is hardly to be gainsaid; that they are inviting anarchy—not revolution, as Buhari once imagined—is also not to be doubted, more so from the demographic represented by #EndSARS, people between twenty and thirty-five, who number just over forty-six million strong, or over one-fifth of the population. Those coming behind are more than twice that number, yet no provision has been made for them, not even a decent education for the most part. There is a reckoning coming, of which #EndSARS was a peaceful precursor and so easily ignored. The trigger will be the next charade called a national election, which is scheduled less than two years from now. As I write, the different factions of what is effectively the same party—let us call it the “You Chop I Chop” party—are already squabbling over their entitled slice of the diminishing national cake, tied as it is to the proceeds of the crude oil that we were pleased to squander this past half-century.

Amongst all this, we lax lyrical about family values, what with our insistence on “proper home training.” But sentiment, the last refuge of a scoundrel, is a soporific against the hard graft of nation-building. Over the span of sixty years, we have turned “the giant of Africa” into a nightmare for the vast majority of its inhabitants and into a laughingstock of the world. We have also failed in our responsibility to the continent; as Nelson Mandela is said to have remarked in exasperation: “The world will not respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The black people of the world need Nigeria to be great as a source of pride and confidence.”