The massacre at Lekki punctuated more than two weeks of protest of police brutality in Nigeria. The hashtag #EndSARS began trending (again) on social media on Oct. 4. The immediate trigger was a video that showed a SARS officer shooting a young motorist in Ughelli, in Delta state, then pushing his body out of the car and driving off with the dead man’s Lexus SUV. Within days, crowds of young people gathered in Nigerian cities to demand the abolition of SARS.
This year’s protests follow on previous activism and government announcements that SARS would be demobilized in 2014, 2015 and 2017. And yet, SARS officers continued to act with impunity, committing armed robberies, rapes, other acts of torture and extrajudicial killings like the one in Delta State. On Oct. 11, leaders announced that SARS would be disbanded, but crowds of protesters grew bigger — even in the face of violence and intimidation. Since the protests began, estimates are that at least 100 individuals have lost their lives; 48 of whom were killed on Black Tuesday alone.
Black Tuesday is the latest in a long history of police and military campaigns in Nigeria against the civilian population. For half of the republic’s 60-year history and for the century of colonial rule before independence there have been quasi-military police forces and outright military police charged with repressing dissent from the civilian population. The history of Nigeria’s police abuses helps us see the continuities in the misuse of state power against citizens. But it also shows that through it all, Nigerians have resisted the negation of their basic humanity.
Modern policing in what would become Nigeria started in 1861 with the annexation of Lagos by British colonial forces. The colonial governor established an armed police force to “protect” the European-occupied parts of the city from recalcitrant local rulers. As a force composed of 25 newly freed Hausa men (from the northern part of the country), their salaries were low and undoubtedly inspired members of the force to supplement their earnings from the local population. Because they were Hausa men relocated to a largely non-Hausa Lagos (in southwestern Nigeria), their loyalty to the British as opposed to the local indigenous community was virtually guaranteed.
Beyond Lagos, the arrival of modern police forces accompanied the spread of British colonial power. Quasi-military police forces participated in the key punitive expeditions that brought defiant local communities under British control. In 1891, a British colonial official, Acting Consul George Annesley, assembled and armed a small group of men to subdue chiefs in the upper Cross River region, who were seen as obstacles to the expansion of British economic power. Annesley reportedly planned to pay his agents out of fines extracted from subdued native chiefs. Within a year, this force, which other colonial officials privately referred to as “Annesley Baba and his 40 thieves,” was disbanded following the revelation of atrocities against local people.
The pattern of assembling policing forces to protect government over the people, to prey on local communities and suppress dissent continued well into the 20th century. The Aba Women’s War of 1929, the General Strike of 1945 and the Enugu Colliery Strike of 1949 were instances where anti-colonial resistance was met with a quasi-military policing force deployed to subjugate citizens.
At Nigeria’s 1960 independence, the major political question regarding policing was whether the three regions that formed the country at the time should have their own police forces or if the federation should direct the police. Anxieties from this period motivated the current structure of the Nigerian Police Force, which is controlled by the federal government. The organization also stemmed from the widespread fear that regional leaders would deploy police forces against their political enemies. Such fears were not unfounded; politicians in the 1940s and even now have routinely employed and armed hooligans to intimidate political opponents and voters.
Yet centralizing power over police did not protect Nigerians from abuse. For example, when the musician Fela Kuti criticized the military government in the 1970s, a joint police and military operation invaded his commune in 1977. During the raid, his mother, the celebrated activist Funmilayo Kuti, was thrown from a second-story window, sustaining injuries that caused her death.
Today, the deployment of the army in the Lekki toll gate massacre has a particular symbolic meaning because Nigeria was under military rule for half of its existence as an independent nation. From 1966 to 1999, one coup leader took over from another in a seemingly endless stream of khaki-clad men. For decades, armed men from the military and police ruled the nation, governed the states and patrolled the streets, indiscriminately meting out unchecked violence upon ordinary people. The only check on their unpredictable violence became other armed uniformed men. All governments are susceptible to authoritarianism, but when the military and the executive become one and the same, the judiciary and the legislature tend to fall in line; this was military rule in Nigeria as in most of Africa, Asia and Latin America during the Cold War.
Despite a system that has been unresponsive to their needs, the youth of Nigeria have spoken up. There is a poetry to the fact that #EndSARs erupted in October 2020; Oct. 1, 1960 marked the official date of Nigeria’s independence from British rule. Sixty years later, young Nigerians are still demanding freedom from repression. The #EndSARS protests began with a focus on police brutality, but have extended to other dimensions of corruption, human rights violations and underdevelopment in Nigeria. Not necessarily seeking to topple Nigeria or even the Buhari regime, (there are other groups in the country much more focused on this) the #EndSARS protests sought to make Nigerian citizenship mean something tangible and worthwhile for young people.
Comparisons and connections can be drawn between the movement for Black lives in the United States and the #EndSars protests in Nigeria — both are triggered by the impunity of police violence upon marginalized communities; both movements featured dramatic outpourings of young people who had been written off by establishment politicians as disaffected or lazy; both movements made savvy use of social media.
But there are important contrasts as well. Police brutality in the United States upholds a White supremacist racial order. Police brutality in Nigeria upholds whoever is paying the policing forces — the regime in power. Just as the color line is still the fundamental dividing line of the societies of the Americas, religious divides, ethnic, caste and economic divides are fundamental to understanding social difference in other parts of the world.
Police brutality is the common tool used to maintain a variety of systems of inequality and oppression in different societies. And it is a tool that gets turned systematically on the most vulnerable members of society. But the protests against police brutality that have crystallized in 2020 insist that new and just societies in which young people can imagine meaningful futures are still, for the moment, possible.