On the 1st of October 2020, the people of Nigeria celebrated 60 years of independence from the British Empire. Just 19 days later, they were brutally massacred by their own state police force. In the wake of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, the #EndSARS movement serves as a reminder to the world that police brutality is not a uniquely American problem.
The Lekki toll gate massacre will remain a heart-wrenching stain on the ever-bloodied parchment that is Nigeria’s history. Whilst protesting against a notoriously oppressive unit of the Nigeria Police Force known as SARS, young people were shot down one by one by the very security forces that were supposed to protect them. To understand how this situation came to be, it is necessary to look at the history of SARS, from its inception up until the fateful night of the 20th October 2020. Only then it will be possible to consider the next steps in this decades-long struggle for peace in Nigeria.
A brief history of SARS
Over 20 years after the Nigerian civil war, violent crime was on the rise. To put an end to this disorder, police officer Simeon Danladi Midenda united three existing anti-robbery units to form the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, or SARS, in 1992. Unlike other civilian police units, SARS operated undercover, wearing plain clothes and driving ordinary cars to catch the most prominent criminals. By 2002, SARS had been replicated across all 36 states in Nigeria.
Although SARS was created to tackle violent crime, the officers soon began to partake in the practice themselves. Bribery, torture, unlawful detention, and extra-judicial killings became common practice in the country. In recent years, their main targets have been young people who dress fashionably, drive nice cars, and carry iPhones. Whilst acting under the outdated stereotype that such characteristics have an inherent connection to criminality, the SARS officers simultaneously turn a blind eye to their own abhorrent conduct.
Protests against SARS have been occurring since 2017. However, the protests triggered by the alleged shooting of a young man from Delta State in October 2020 were the most high-profile yet. What made this set of protests different from the last? For one, the movement was promoted heavily on social media using the hashtag #EndSARS, which enabled the message to be spread across the country and the world with relative ease. Secondly, the protests were decentralized. Although there were key players in the organization of the movement, such as the Feminist Coalition, no single person or body took up the formal role of leader. In this way, the government could not terrorize specific individuals into backing down and leaving their followers with no sense of direction.
As the largest protest in Nigerian history gained momentum, officials began to worry about the prospect of real change. The protesters, young and angry at the state’s failure to offer them a better future, were not ready to give up. Desperate to maintain the status quo, security forces unleashed terror on the peaceful protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos, firing live bullets at the citizens whilst they fearlessly sang the national anthem. Then, reminiscent of the Trumpian propaganda tactics in the US, several top state officials tried to denounce the allegations of the shootings as “fake news”. However, in an age where such events can be live-streamed for the whole world to see in real-time, it was simply too much to ask people to deny what they had witnessed with their own eyes.
The myth of accountability
In light of these events, it is ironic that Chapter IV of the 1999 Nigerian Constitution supposedly guarantees civil and political rights to all Nigerian citizens, regardless of age, sex, or religious belief. For example, section 33 protects the “right to life…save in execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offense of which he has been found guilty in Nigeria” (the death penalty still operates in Nigeria). Section 34 states that everyone is “entitled to respect for the dignity of his person”. Moreover, section 35 states that “no person shall be deprived of such liberty save…in accordance with a procedure permitted by law”. The closer we examine the actions of SARS, the more evident it is that they are trampling on the values of the Constitution. However, can we really expect officials to comply with such regulations when the very Constitution is the product of a military decree? Indeed, even the people working within the justice system are unable to adhere to these values, with bribery and corruption running rampant among the members of the judiciary.
How else can the SARS officers be held accountable? Well, Nigeria has signed several international human rights frameworks such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1993 and the Convention Against Torture in 2001. Yet despite all of these actions, Nigeria has not signed up to the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which would allow the UN Human Rights Commission to accept communications from individuals who claim to be victims of human rights violations by the state. This is a glaring sign of the state’s unwillingness to truly be held accountable for its actions.
The sound of shots being fired against the backdrop of the Nigerian anthem is perhaps the most hauntingly accurate representation of the state of the nation today. If anything, SARS and the vile police brutality that it exhibits is symbolic of the state’s complete disregard for the well-being of its citizens. But is this really surprising? After all, Nigeria was formed and subsequently progressed without properly addressing the deep-seated religious and tribal tensions among the population. Furthermore, throughout the development of the constitutional settlement that Nigeria finds itself in today, not once were its people consulted on their views. This is in stark contrast to events such as the lead-up to the Belfast Agreement 1998, a framework that was able to put an end to decades of instability in the island of Ireland because it actually reflected the needs of the Irish people. Consequently, with no real sense of national identity within the minds of the ruling political and judicial classes, the genuine desire to fulfill their civic duty to look after the people that they are supposed to serve is simply absent from them. Thus, it is individualism and a lack of compassion from the leaders which is the true sickness in Nigeria. Police brutality is merely a symptom.
The bottom line is this: as of now, the Federal Republic of Nigeria lacks legitimacy of any kind. Thus, it is up to the next generation of Nigerians, both domestically and abroad, to heal the wounds that have been left by our predecessors and bring about real change. The abolition of SARS is the beginning of this long road to recovery, but it certainly does not end there.
Will we succeed? I sure do hope so.