Protest to Participation #EndSARS

I tell a lot of stories about my childhood — well here’s one that speaks to the #EndSARS #SARSMustEnd outcry.

In 2006 I worked in a bank in Makurdi. At the time, I lived at home with my Father in the Federal University of Agriculture staff quarters. The University is at the end of a lonely 4km road that — excluding one housing estate — is all woodlands, farms and a few rural villages. It is a long trek from anywhere else in Makurdi.

Sometime that year I was in a bad accident and my car was wrecked. To get around I relied on rides with colleagues or my Father — and when all else failed, there was public transportation. Public transportation was ok in Makurdi but on uni-agric road it was problematic. The 16-seater buses only took off when full and waiting hours at the northbank junction for them to load was a residential hazard. The buses filled really slow on most days and didn’t smell too good — between the agricultural produce in the boot and the occasional goat being carried baby-style by a farmer. You would understand when I tell you they held zero allure for me.

So, hopping on a bike was the way forward and, on this day, I thought nothing of it. I told the bike-man where I was going, we agreed the fare, and took off. It should have been uneventful.

Then, just as we got past the federal housing estate, a Police checkpoint loomed over the hill. I felt some nervousness rise, I knew they could easily pick on us. They never did anything more than wave us by when we drove past in a personal vehicle or a bus. But this was different, a young lady and a bike man — we were vulnerable, and thus, fair game.

They flagged us down and started asking the bike-man for documents he didn’t have. The discussion inevitably took the form of a shakedown. Nigerians know how this goes. It starts out formal and official, then when you are unable to comply with their valid (or spurious) request they then take it to the next level: a little more steel enters their tone and they begin to act in a jocular somewhat maniacal manner. This is to make sure you are clear on two things: firstly, that you need to settle them (bribe them) and secondly that they will harm you if necessary.

They said we couldn’t leave — we were detained. I certainly was not responsible for producing documentation for the motorbike so what was my own in the matter? I began to feel it was not looking good for us — I did not see how I was going to get out of the situation quickly or unscathed. It was dusk, and I really wanted to be out of there before it became dark. So, I made as if to go ease myself and then quick as a whip I got my phone out of my bag and called my Father. The two policemen charged at me knocking the phone out of my hands; but not before my Father got the gist of the situation.

It probably took my Dad 10 minutes to get there, but it felt like a lot longer. “You think say na only you get Papa?!” The policemen were livid as they shoved me around. They did nothing further, probably because they knew help was coming.

My Father arrived and questioned them. They tried to embellish the story so that they would have just cause for detaining me. “She was disorderly, she was rude, we warned her — Oga warn your daughter oh!” They recognized him as a Professor at the University. Now the tables had turned, they were panicky, not knowing how far he would take the matter.

He was not having it. In typical professor fashion, he decided to turn the situation into a stern but teachable moment for the policemen. You see from adolescence to early adulthood my Father had lived in the care of his uncle — superintendent of police in Kano Police Station at Bompai. My great uncle eventually became assistant commissioner of Police and Commandant Police training college in Maiduguri.

He addressed the Policemen “I grew up in Police barracks in Minna and in Kano. And this is not the police force I knew. You brutalize citizens, fail to investigate crime, are corrupt and have forgotten the Police code of conduct. Gentlemen, Nigerians are afraid of you — the people you should protect and serve are afraid of what you will do to them in a confrontation, it is not beyond you to beat, extort, and harass innocent citizens for no just cause. Right now, I am happy my daughter is alive and well and I am taking my daughter home.”

As we drove away I felt relieved, protected, safe. But what would have happened if my Dad had not picked the call. If I had no Father to call?

All that was 14 years ago. In the intervening years, the Police have only become more corrupt, unprofessional and have demonstrated even more impunity. The decline has been systemic and is reinforced by deep rot in the system. The problems with the Nigeria Police force are systemic: poor recruitment practices, inadequate training, under resourced operations, abysmal remuneration, appalling working conditions, gross indiscipline & unprofessionalism, weak controls, under regulation and a dearth of expertise in specialized fields. The Police seem to be trained to exercise force rather serve communities by detecting, investigating and preventing crime.

The Nigeria Police Force, headed by Inspector General of Police Adamu Muhammed, is the principal law enforcement and security agency in Nigeria. The force has a 371,800-person staff strength spread over 36 State commands. In 2006 the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) set up in 1992 was only 14 years old. It was established as a solution to the endemic problem of armed robbery but over the years became notorious for perpetrating multiple cases of harassment, extortion, torture, and extra-judicial execution. A solution that has become a threat equal to the one it was meant to address. Read Amnesty Internationals report on SARS impunity here.

Nigerian victims of extrajudicial killings

As a Federal unit, SARS is better resourced than regular police. Three agencies are responsible for the oversight and regulation of the Nigeria Police Force: The Police Service Commission, the Nigerian Police Council and the Ministry of Interior. These agencies are either neglectful of their mandate or have mandates that do not serve Nigerians today.

Today is the 11th day of the #EndSARS protests in multiple cities in Nigeria. A leaderless, nonviolent, mass dissent against police brutality prompted by 20-something-year-old’s and a coalition of feminists. There is something about the #EndSARS protests that is worthy of note, for first time in a generation, protests are being sustained and gaining traction. The early demands have been met: SARS has been banned by the Inspector General of Police and the President has addressed protesters. This reconciliatory stance from government is a step in the right direction and now Nigerians want to see these statements culminate in actions to be effected in the short, medium and long term.

Protesters are demanding: an immediate release of all protesters arrested by the Police; justice for all deceased victims of police brutality and appropriate compensation for their families; the establishment of an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct; psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed; and increased salary for police officers.

In my evaluation, at its core the protest is about demands for reform in three interrelated areas:

Social Justice: fairness in access to opportunity, wealth, and social privileges. It is about fostering Public Value in the way we treat and are treated by others, and justice and fairness of the institutions we rely on to protect us from victimization and discrimination. It is about redesigning how we use the assets and powers of the state to ensure we protect individual dignity — regardless of diversity in personal activity and preferences. Nigerians are demanding that all individuals be uninhibited from fulfilling their societal roles and earning their due from society; especially for Nigerians who have been targeted by the Police because of their youth, gender, style of dress, social status, physical appearance, or occupation.

The Rule of law: the fairness with which the law is wielded in society. Nigerians are asking for the law to constrain illegitimate behavior of individuals and institutions (such as the Police) and ensure all Nigerians are equally subject to the legal codes and processes enshrined in our constitution and laws.

Criminal Justice: the neutrality with which justice is dispensed to those who have committed crimes. Nigerians are demanding that the government agencies responsible for ensuring security and safety such as the police and the judiciary are resourced, trained and regulated so they can function to detect, investigate and prevent crime instead of victimizing vulnerable, innocent citizens.

As a conscientious supporter of the protests I encourage four things:

1. That we maintain a two-pronged approach of strategic public dialogue and non-violent protest.

2. That we sustain the protests over the long term.

3. That sets of clear actionable demands form a checklist to be released over the long-term duration of the protests.

4. That we begin to organize for political participation in 2023 — more youth should stand for elective office at all levels and all youth should prepare to vote

Let us go from protest to participation and from demanding governance to supplying it.

I write. To tell the truth. To relive memories. To make sense of today. To create the future. I write.