#EndSARS: A brief history of police brutality in Nigeria

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#EndSARS: A brief history of police brutality in Nigeria

Sanya Osha

25 Nov 2020

7min min read
  • Democracy

he recent anti-SARS protests that convulsed the ever so fragile Nigerian nation are certainly not an isolated incident. Instead they should be viewed as part of an ignominious continuum beginning in the colonial era.

Throughout the mass protests, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari behaved like a feudal potentate, aloof, demonstrably unconcerned and dangerously clueless. His cluelessness in affairs of leadership first became evident during his previous reign as a military ruler of the country between 1983 and 1985. He was unceremoniously deposed from power by his own military commanders in bloodless coup. If he was unable to discern that his own commanders were plotting against him, how was he expected to know how a country of 200 million people was feeling about an entrenched culture of impunity, lawlessness and official neglect? It is difficult not to believe that Buhari returned to power as a civilian president in 2015 to prove a personal point. He had simply wanted to ensure that General Ibrahim Badamasi Babangida, who had ousted him from power, did not have the last laugh. In spite of that humiliating routing, Buhari, against all odds, managed to return triumphantly to the seat of government. But apart from this vain objective in mind, he seems to have virtually nothing to offer the country in terms of fresh ideas. His return has been characterised as an unbridled quest for power and its blind retention; in other words, the acquisition of power as a pure act of revenge. So rather than leadership being a selfless act of service, it becomes a drive born out of violence.

The roots of resistance

Toyin Falola, Africa’s most prolific historian, in his impressive book, Colonialism and Violence in Nigeria, traces the origin of police brutality in its various sordid manifestations. Violence, he argues, “is connected with the larger issues of power, resistance, terrorism, and nationalism”. The colonial state established a police force as a means of solely enforcing its will and not to protect its subjects, or the natives, as the case may be. The colonial state was also deemed to be above the law. It had a monopoly of deadly arms and force which it could apply at will and the power to crush and criminalise dissent and dissenters. Any form of resistance to its violence was regarded as illegitimate and deserving of retribution.

Before the military coups and counter-coups that litter Nigeria’s checkered political history, colonial rule had planted the seeds of incessant violence and factionalisation in the arbitrary territories that now make up modern Nigeria. Although the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the bugbear that caused so much heartbreak, havoc and bloodshed was initially formed in 1992, the antecedents of police brutality date much further back.

We are only beginning to observe the sheer horror of militarism and its innate culture of impunity that Nigeria has endured. To begin with, Generals Olusegun Obasanjo (military ruler between 1976 and 1979, who was elected as democratic president in 1999) and Buhari both returned to power in civilian garb after stints as paramount military rulers. Generals Babangida, Sani Abacha and Abdulsalam Abubakar all made away with billions of dollars from the national fiscus with virtually no consequence. The rot of militarism has brought the nation to its knees in institutional terms. Values and morals have been grossly perverted and it shouldn’t be much of a surprise that a dreadful monster such as SARS was birthed from the womb of putrescence and corruption. But as Nigerians seem to suffer from a form of amnesia, it’s quite easy to gloss over all of this or fail to connect the dots.

In spite of this monopoly of force, the colonial state did encounter resistance. Nigerian demonstrators and dissidents targeted court buildings, court officials and isolated police personnel to register their resistance. Apart from songs, carnivalesque humour and rituals aimed at the colonial authorities, the protesters of the colonial era engaged in acts of arson and vandalism aimed at symbols of colonial power. The colonial authorities, on the other hand, were doubly brutal in extracting revenge by systematically burning and destroying entire villages and farmlands. They also engaged in prolonged acts of attrition to dispel resistance.

The main sources of conflict between the colonial authorities and the locals revolved around the injustices of the colonial intrusion into local territories. Once the violence of colonial penetration was launched, other forms of violence and exploitation commenced in the form of arbitrary taxation, unfair labour practices and utter political domination. The colonial state failed to view any of its acts of suppression, violation and violence as unlawful. However, any act of resistance to its will was deemed as terrorism. A major historic act of resistance to colonial power occurred with the Aba Women’s Riots of 1929, which marked a key turning point in Anglo-Nigerian relations and ultimately led to the reformation of local government organisation in the Southern Protectorate of Nigeria.

Such local acts of resistance, although not regarded as full-blown anti-colonial nationalism, nonetheless paved the way for it at the height of colonial domination. The colonial state enforced its power using various means. In the eastern parts of Nigeria, it established what were called warrant chiefs to collects taxes and administer justice in their communities. In other words, they were the selected representatives of the colonial state. Such chosen wards of colonial authority, needless to add, enjoyed a number of perks which made many of them over-zealous in their duties. But in times of conflict, they were also usually the first targets of local agitators and protesters. Their properties were destroyed and some lost their lives.

The colonial state also employed the famous divide-and-rule strategy among the numerous ethnicities of Nigeria. For instance, the Hausa-Fulani were used to attack the Ijebus of south western Nigeria. Some ethnicities were co-opted by the British with promises of profitable trade and the benefits of Western education and Christianity in order to do the bidding of the colonial authorities even if it meant undermining the broader anti-colonial objective. Any ploy was employed in entrenching the institutions and policies of colonialism with the active participation of locals being a key ingredient in this regard. Miniscule wars were constantly waged throughout the length and breadth of Nigeria to maintain colonial power and even its local representatives were deemed to be expendable in order to extend that power. Such an implacable colonial mindset led to black-on-black violence in which locals turned against those seen to be working for the colonial authorities.

SARS' brutality

The Nigerian Police Force grew out of this acrimonious context, in which violence, suppression, duplicity and impunity merged in the bid to maintain colonial power. It was never a force created to protect locals and foster harmonious community relations. Instead, it had been formed as an occupation force for a narrow and specific reason: to maintain the power of the state even if the state is illegitimate.

Unfortunately, this operational outlook has hardly changed and certainly did not at the dawn of independence. So rather than viewing citizens as deserving of protection, the Nigeria Police Force views them primarily as adversaries, as established in the mandates of the colonial state. This lack of transformation in its outlook is almost extraordinary in its grotesqueness.

And it became an outlook the infamous SARS took to an even more brutal level. Young men merely walking on the streets were stopped, frisked and dispossessed of their phones to view the contents. SARS operatives invariably demanded bribes and those who failed to comply were beaten and humiliated in public. Women, even the elderly among them, were not exempt from the terror of SARS in the form of beatings and torture.

Archaic forms of torture such as tabay, in which victims are kept bond with thongs in unnatural positions for indefinite spells, returned with special force. Reportedly, wherever there was a SARS divisional office there was also a torture cell. Almost everyone had a SARS horror story to tell and it all got too much when the dam burst in a deluge of national protests in October 2020. A 2016 report on world policing placed the Nigeria Police Force last on a list of 127 countries.

Dele Farotimi, a civil rights attorney who has reliable knowledge on the minds that worked to ensure the #EndSARS protests occurred, says in an interview on Arise News: “What the young people were asking for was essentially citizenship, their rights to be respected and what the Nigerian state has done is not unlike what it has always done when confronted with the demand for citizenship by any part of the citizenry.”

The feelings of disenfranchisement suffered by the Nigerian youth can be traced back to the treatment the colonial authorities meted out to ‘natives’, depriving them of dignity and a sense of belonging in the land of their birth. Apparently, Nigerian youth still feel dispossessed with more than 14 million- according to the National Bureau of Statistics - of them currently unemployed and with very few, if any, prospects of securing jobs. And so it is inevitable that they would resort to protests to highlight their bleak lives and unfavourable circumstances. Of course, it would be typical of the state to respond via violence and repression.

And indeed, the Nigerian state did respond with force and violence. Amnesty International reports that at least 50 people were killed by the Nigerian army at the Lekki Peninsula toll gate. Many more were injured. The same army blatantly attempted to conceal evidence of the carnage by hurling off the dead on the scene. Apart from Lekki, other parts of Lagos such as Ikokun and the historic slave port of Badagry also experienced state terrorism. In the south eastern parts of Nigeria similar acts of state terrorism occurred during which at least 150 people died. However, in the age of social media, these acts are harder to conceal with global superstars such as Beyonce, Kanye West and Lil Baby all voicing their concern about the plight of protesters fighting against police brutality. Farotimi, who calls the Nigerian political leadership a “criminal, reprobate bunch of rulers”, says nothing would come out of the investigations instituted by the government to probe the causes of the protests. In his view, there is absolutely no desire or will to ascertain the causes and all efforts to that effect are merely a smokescreen.

There seems to be a great deal of duplicity on the part of the Nigerian authorities in relation to the anti-SARS protests. They allegedly sponsored agents provocateurs to disrupt the protests, intimidate and brutalise demonstrators and deliberately barred victims and survivors from narrating their experiences to the media. All of this is so as to control the narratives on the anti-SARS affair. The government is now attempting to punish the promoters of the protests through underhanded means. Once again, the Nigerian state is acting like a colonial apparatus against its own citizens in seeking to assault and suppress them with impunity. The erstwhile colonial overlords are no longer in power but the modus operandi of the state and its law enforcement agencies remain the same, and the anti-SARS protests have made that clear for all to see.

Works cited

  • Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas, Where Vultures Feast: Shell, Human Rights and Oil, London: Verso, 2001
  • Toyin Falola, Violence and Colonialism in Nigeria, Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: People carry placards in continuation of ongoing demonstrations to call for the scrapping of the controversial Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) at Ikeja, on October 9, 2020. PIus Utomi Ekpei/AFP via Getty Images)