The widely acclaimed #EndSARS protests, led by Nigerian youths, shocked the country, and caught the world’s attention. The protests were triggered by a viral video allegedly showing an officer of the notorious Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS, killing a man in Delta State.
The #EndSARS demonstrations mirrored the #BlackLivesMatter protests, which also started when a viral video showed a police officer brutally killing George Floyd in Minneapolis in the US. The two events shifted the world’s focus to police brutality in both countries.
But there is a fundamental difference between police brutality in America and in Nigeria. In the US, police brutality usually stems from the behaviour of rogue officers, who are either racist or deranged. But the law is always there to take its full course! However, in Nigeria, police brutality is an inherent part of an oppressive state structure.
Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, famously said: “The care of human life and happiness, and not their destruction, is the first and only object of good government.” But Nigeria is an exemption to this golden rule!
In its 2019 report, Human Rights Watch listed “torture, forced disappearances, assassinations and extrajudicial summary executions” among human rights violations in Nigeria and added: “These abuses typically occur within the context of the Nigerian government’s security operations.” Nigerians are not only dying from organised non-state violence, such as terrorism, they are also dying from state-enabled violence!
But why? Well, structures matter. Nigeria’s current governance structure empowers elected Nigerian politicians and enable them to act as masters, not servants, of the people. For instance, the structure is such that a president can, as President Muhammadu Buhari does, behave like an absolute monarch, controlling all key levers of power and yet hole up in Abuja, completely removed from the people.
Furthermore, the structure allows state institutions and officials, including security operatives, to abuse their powers with utter impunity without being held accountable for their actions.
In a democracy, public officers must be sensitive to, and prioritise, the needs of the people and act in the best interests of society or face consequences. But in Nigeria, public officers are arrogant, unresponsive and unaccountable. Truth is, the Nigeria state is too powerful, too dominant and too domineering to produce the Jeffersonian “good government.”
I mean, where are the checks on presidential power in Nigeria? The Presidency is unconstrained. President Buhari can ignore court orders if he wishes, he can side-line the legislators, who are already his poodles, and he can direct any state institution, however supposedly independent, to do his bidding. So, the Nigerian state is a Leviathan, except that, unlike Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan, the Nigerian Leviathan cannot protect the lives and property of its citizens.
But does Nigeria need a Leviathan state? Of course, not! David Hume, the famous Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, pointed out that the more powerful and overbearing a state is, the less prosperous and happy its citizens will be.
Indeed, scholars have found that decentralised state, in which significant power is devolved to sub-national units, generates more prosperity and happiness than centralised one in which power is concentrated overwhelmingly in central government, in the hands of an all-powerful president.
Of course, such centralisation of power always leads to oppressive governments because those at the centre – president, institutions and officials – always have idiosyncratic views of patriotism – they think they are more patriotic than the rest of us – and will justify the repression of ‘enemies of the state’.
It was precisely to check against such governmental tyranny that the framers of the American Constitution introduced the Second Amendment to allow US citizens to bear arms. Nigeria’s Constitution doesn’t permit that, thankfully!
Which brings me back to the #EndSARS protests. The Constitution may not allow Nigerians to carry guns to check against state oppression, it allows peaceful protests. Over the past two weeks, Nigerian youth have, unprecedently, used that power of peaceful protest and civil disobedience decisively to vent their anger over police brutality. Kudos to them!
But here’s where I diverge. The protesters’ demands for police reform, disbandment of SARS, higher salaries for police officers and judicial inquiries – all miss the point! For the reasons I gave above, Nigeria’s problems are deeply systemic and structural, and police brutality is just a symptom of the underlying malfunction.
Thus, police reform without a radical overhaul of how Nigeria is run, without political restructuring, is like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound! The system is so broken, a sticking-plaster approach won’t fix it!
Okay, SARS was disbanded. But the government immediately replaced it with Special Weapons and Tactics, SWAT, which many see as a mere rebranding of SARS. The same government sent armed police to disperse the protesters, allegedly killing some people, and is launching “Operation Crocodile Smile”, a military clampdown on agitations.
Ridiculously, the National Economic Council asked all state governors to establish a judicial inquiry into SARS abuses. But what happened to all the previous ones? As Human Rights Watch has pointed out, “neither the report of the Presidential Judicial Panel set up in 2017 to investigate the military’s alleged war crimes nor that of the Presidential Panel of Inquiry set up in 2018 to investigate SARS abuses has been made public.”
The UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnes Callamard, said after visiting Nigeria in Sept 2019, that the absence of “accountability functionality” in Nigeria drives human rights violations in the country. In 2019, the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, ICC, started preliminary investigations on Nigeria, a serious international embarrassment, given that a Nigerian, Judge Chile Eboe-Osuji, is the current president of the ICC.
Truth is, there are deep-rooted systemic and structural impediments to good governance in Nigeria. So, yes, #EndSARS, #EndSWAT even. But without a systemic, root-and-branch transformation, without restructuring, Nigeria’s over-centralised, over-powerful state structure will remain oppressive, perpetrating, condoning and covering up unforgivable inhumanities. Ending that must be the mother of all #Ends!