It’s NOT about dismantling SARS, it’s about democratising Nigeria
What we know about 21st-century revolts is that the youth are its key actors, it starts on social media, it then moves from the virtual spaces to the streets and it is televised, thanks to mobile phones. What we never seem to know is when and why it moves from virtual spaces to the streets. For years, the youth have been threatening on social media that they have had enough of police brutality and won’t take it anymore. For the past week, it has been happening and the streets of all our major urban centres are witnessing youth revolt and counteraction by security agencies and paid thugs.
The seriousness of the situation became apparent on Wednesday when Col. Sagir Musa of the Nigerian Army public relations department issued a statement warning: “all subversive elements and trouble makers to desist from such acts as it remains highly committed to defending the country and her democracy at all cost”. They affirmed their loyalty to the president and promised to, “fully support the civil authority in whatever capacity to maintain law and order and deal with any situation decisively. They concluded on the familiar note that they are ready to deal with all “antidemocratic forces and agents of disunity”. I believe they are misreading the situation. The youth in the streets are saying they want the human rights of Nigerians to be respected, that they want law enforcement agencies to respect the rule of law and that they want Nigeria’s democracy deepened. This is a delicate time and it is important that the Nigerian State hears what the youth are saying so that the outcome of the present situation would be the consolidation of Nigerian democracy rather than reversal to authoritarianism.
Nigeria’s security agencies are encountering a new situation in which the youth are rejecting promises they know to be empty because they have heard them before and know they would not be kept. I can only imagine the perplexity and anger in security and ruling circles yesterday, when an international group called Anonymous released information with names, telephone numbers and emails of SARS officers and issued a 72-hour ultimatum to the Nigerian Government to implement the demands of the protesting youth or face massive hacking and exposure of government dirt. Governments are not used to receiving threats from shadowy groups who define themselves as the vanguard against tyranny and injustice and can easily reach the conclusion that there is an unfolding coordinated subversive threat by internal and external actors.
Also, yesterday, Twitter founder Jack Dorsey came out to openly support the street protests in Nigeria. In addition, he shared links for donations of bitcoins for the Nigerian struggle to millions of people around the world. The message is clear, the Nigerian government can control its banks but money no longer needs government approval to circulate and be spent. He might have been reacting to unconfirmed reports that the Central Bank of Nigeria had instructed Flutterwave money transfer company to stop donations to an account run by a feminist group raising money for medical and legal bills of the mounting number of victims of the protests. The other feature of 21st-century revolutions that we can deduce is that the local is global and the global expresses itself locally. The Nigerian ruling class must be fuming and asking themselves “that don’t they know we are a sovereign country.” Yes, we are sovereign but in the new world, global forces have a responsibility to protect people whose rights are being violated by their own governments and its agencies.
Let’s look at the narrative that is unfolding. Nigerians know that their Constitution says that the State has the responsibility to provide for the security and welfare of all citizens and they know that it is not happening. They also know that the police were created to defend their rights and that is not happening. It was way back in 1984, under military rule, that the Nigeria Police Force set up the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Yesterday, the first commanding officer of SARS, retired Police Commissioner Fulani Kwajafa was on the BBC Hausa service campaigning for SARS to be disbanded. The octogenarian argued that the unit was set up to improve professionalism and the use of intelligence in combating armed robbery. At the time of his appointment, he has had 26 years’ experience as an intelligence officer in the police and used that to train the initial squad. Yesterday, he declared on BBC that currently, the robbers are the ones running SARS so there is no reason to justify its continued existence.
The Inspector-General of Police has announced that the new Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT) that he wants to establish to replace SARS will be intelligence-driven, will not continue with the practice of routine patrols to arrest Nigerians profiled for their smart cars, phones and computers. In other words, they will no longer be an organ for extortion. That has been the mandate of SARS since 1984 but the practice has been torture, extortion and extra-judicial killings of Nigerians. Today, Nigerians have clearly rejected SWAT because they know it would be an exact reproduction of SARS. The police have refused to reform itself over the years because they have decided that they want to remain in the mould of an organ that brutalises and extorts Nigerians.
In 2005, the Justice Ejiwunmi Presidential Commission on Reform of the Administration of Justice made substantial recommendations on Police Reform that were not implemented. President Obasanjo then established the Muhammadu Danmadami Presidential Commission on Police Reform in 2006 and the police refused to implement the report. When President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua came into power, he found out that the Dammadami report was not implemented so he established the M. D. Yusuf Presidential Committee on Police Reform to update the recommendations but once again, the police resisted reform. Yusuf in his report had pointed out that the Force has a workforce that is largely “undesirable” and complained that many of the police personnel were “criminals”. In 2012, President Goodluck Jonathan set up the Parry Osayande Presidential Commission on Police Reform Report and once again the police refused to implement the recommendations. The police, therefore, have the institutional memory that no Nigerian President has succeeded in making them implement reform, they simply say YES SIR and continue with what they have been doing. The youth know that which is why they continued with their demonstrations even after the police have once again promised they will reform themselves. We will have police reform when a Nigerian president imposes it on the institution.
The Nigerian State should be grateful to the youth for having the knowledge and courage to place on the table the imperative of immediate police reform. The advocacy to End SARS has been ongoing for many years with Segalink as a focal point. Over the past three days, he has repeatedly called on protesters to stop because all their recommendations have been accepted by both government and the police. He has been ignored because the youth know they have heard that before and it never happened. Even in January 2019, the police had announced that they disbanded SARS but had done nothing in reality. Segalink could not read the tea leaves and has side-lined himself from a movement he played a huge role in developing.
With the numerous security challenges Nigeria is facing today, ranging from resurgent secessionists, Niger Delta militants, religious fundamentalists, Boko Haram terrorists and so on, Nigeria desperately needs functional police and the first step in that direction is to reduce corruption from the Police Force. We desperately need a police service, not a brutal force. We need a Police Service that is fit for purpose and the youth are telling us to do that now. Mr. President, please listen to what they are saying. Mr. President, please develop a mechanism to impose reform on the Nigeria Police Force. That is the pathway to democratic consolidation.