Police and Nigeria’s Young Democrats
Nigeria’s youngest citizens are demanding their elected government to treat them with dignity and protect their constitutional rights and democratic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly, both online and on the streets.
President Muhammadu Buhari, a self-proclaimed convert to democratic principles, is facing the most serious test of this conversion.
The #ENDSARS social movement, which has its origins online in 2017, has reignited following reports
of the shooting of an unarmed young man by members of Nigeria police’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).
But they have cracked peaceful demonstrations against police brutality down on with live ammunition by the same public officials accused of gross heavy-handedness.
They report it that at least 10 people have been killed by police officers since the start of the protests, with dozens arrested and injured.
This comes on top of 82 cases of police abuse by SARS documented by Amnesty International between January 2017
and May 2020, including beatings, mock executions, disappearing citizens, waterboarding, and sexual violence.
Set up in 1992, SARS appears to operate free of even an illusion of accountability and has become
notorious for operating in the same clandestine and violent manner as the criminal groups they created it to combat.
But it is merely the tip of the spear of Nigeria’s violent and predatory police force.
Vested interests in the status quo
Endemically corrupt, underfunded, and understaffed, the federally controlled Nigeria Police Force (NPF) of 371,800 officers is being
outpaced by the manifold internal security challenges of a country with an estimated population of over 200 million.
Nigeria’s police to population ratio is drastically below the United Nations’ standard of 1:450 while, in 2018,
Nigeria’s Police Service Commission (PSC) complained 150,000 policemen were attached to VIPs and private individuals.
Buhari’s ascent to a new Police Bill in September, finally replacing the old colonial Police Act of 1943, shows how poorly served the Nigerian public has been.
But the Act contains no timeline of implementation or provisions for the operationalization of units such as SARS.
Sections of the Nigeria police system have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.
We know senior ranking officers to maintain a perverse bribery pyramid which requires that poorly paid
rank-and-file officers transfer bribes extorted from citizens up the chain of command.
The police have rejigged and rebranded anti-robbery, kidnapping, and violent crime units, but they are resistant to systemic change.
Even after Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) Mohammed Adamu announced the dissolution of SARS –
for at least the fourth time in four years – protesters were being dispersed with teargas, water cannons, and even live bullets.
This ‘crackdown mentality’ reveals much about the Nigerian state’s deep-rooted paranoia,
especially facing a youthful citizenry who are finding their voice.
The generational divide in the #ENDSARS movement is clear, as many of those mobilizing, organizing, marching and crowdfunding are in their 20s and 30s.
Social media is a natural interface and incubator for their opinions and activism, and they have little patience for Nigeria’s respectability politics.
The protests have snowballed into an outlet for latent anger and frustration,
as Nigeria has the largest number of young people in poverty in the world, and the most food-insecure households in West Africa.
With a median age of 18, more than half of Nigeria’s population is under 30 years of age, and young people overwhelmingly suffer from Nigeria’s high rates of unemployment.
Nigeria has become more and more hostile, dangerous, and unfulfilling for its young people, a major setback for the country’s first truly democratic generation.
Buhari has converted to a democracy in his twilight years, but the young activists in these protests were born into it,
and the awareness of democratic rights and freedoms are stronger for this generation than the memory of repressive dictatorships.
The question now is whether the Nigerian government is prepared to engage with such a switched-on, rights-conscious and active citizenry.
Nigerians and the rest of the world are watching how President Buhari handles this moment.