The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Nigeria’s harsh police culture grew from colonial abuses

Akali Omeni’s new book ‘Policing and Politics in Nigeria: A Comprehensive History’ explains why this culture persists

5 min

While I’m teaching my politics of policing class in Philadelphia, I often suggest that the United States can learn lessons about policing by studying other countries through a comparative lens. Students can be skeptical. But it’s not hard to show that many issues we might think are unique to policing in the United States — disproportional violence against minoritized communities, militarization of police, patterns of state repression by police, political elites weaponizing crime for political gain — come up again and again around the world.

Consider one foundational challenge of policing: the expectation that the government should have a monopoly on violence and that police are charged with using it to protect citizens’ security. Police officers are supposed to exercise that monopoly in a country, deciding how and when to use that violence in the communities they patrol. But their right to do so is highly contested. In many societies, police have dual roles. Yes, they are responsible for providing law and order, ostensibly keeping communities safe from crime. But they are also used by people in power to coerce their political opponents. That leaves citizens with two questions: Whose interests do the police protect and how do politics shape policing?

In “Policing and Politics in Nigeria: A Comprehensive History,” Akali Omeni skillfully examines these issues as he traces the history of policing in Nigeria from the colonial era to now. While Omeni situates the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) as a foundational institution of the Nigerian state, he also argues that the NPF is a broken institution that does not place the “average Nigerian’s interest and well-being at the core of its culture.”

Just over two years ago, the #EndSARS social movement in Nigeria drew worldwide attention to the ongoing culture of police abuse and impunity within the NPF’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The NPF tasked SARS with handling violent crimes like armed robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnapping and murders. But rather than effectively protecting communities and curbing violent crimes in Nigeria, SARS became infamous for its police brutality against civilians.

This is not a new phenomenon in Nigeria, or the region. Drawing on historical evidence and interviews he conducted, Omeni documents an ongoing culture of NPF police abuse from the colonial era until now, including extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and corruption.

Omeni begins the book in the colonial era before the unification of Nigeria. The book’s early chapters show how the culture of the United Kingdom’s colonial police force was shaped by both suppressing local rebellions and independence movements and by fighting in World Wars I and II. As an institution, the police were on the front line protecting British colonial interests. Omeni shows how even the individual colonial administrators’ opinions uniquely shaped policing. He links this British colonial policing culture to that of several imperial police forces including the Lagos Police, the Royal Niger Company, the West African Frontier Force and the Armed Hausa Police, which were eventually united into the NPF.

Next, Omeni examines several critical junctures in Nigeria’s state development, when its government had the opportunity to change policing for the better. These include Nigeria’s independence in 1960; decades of military dictatorship; and Nigeria’s return to democracy in 1999. Instead of reforming the police to focus on protecting Nigerian citizens, Omeni shows that successive governments allowed the colonial era’s policing culture of us-vs.-them to persist. Even as the NPF became centralized, Omeni argues, the politics of control and partisanship within the police shaped political events like the Biafra war, decades of military rule and the eventual transition to the democratic Fourth Republic.

Omeni argues that British colonial rule continues to shape policing in Nigeria. But he also makes a strong case that Nigeria’s leaders have repeatedly broken promises and failed to reform the police to meet the needs of Nigerian citizens. Omeni shows that while policing practices, trainings and pathologies developed under the colonial era persist today, the culture of police abuse — most infamously known through the SARS unit’s flagrant abuses — continues because of such larger issues as institutional neglect, political tensions and authoritarian dynamics. In other words, rather than protecting everyday Nigerians, politicians and police officers in Nigeria used the institution’s pathologies for their own ends.

Omeni could have connected how the history of policing in Nigeria connects and relates to policing more generally. As I read this book, I kept thinking that while the history of policing in Nigeria is a Nigerian story, it is also a larger story about how the institution of policing is designed to use violence to control societies. Yes, police are also supposed to keep communities safe and deter crime — but fundamentally their role is to ensure political control of local communities.

For individuals trying to understand the #ENDSARS movement, militarization and the police, the lingering effects of settler colonial dynamics, and the durability of authoritarian institutions and repressive behaviors by police, even in ostensibly democratic societies, this is a must read.

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Travis Curtice (@travisbcurtice) is an assistant professor in the department of politics at Drexel University. His research examines the politics of policing and political violence.

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