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Decolonising Nigerian policing: Reflections on #EndSARS

By Moses E. Ochonu
27 October 2020   |   2:55 am
A senior editor with a U.S. media organisation interviewed me via email yesterday about #EndSARS. Here are my responses to her questions. We have been told by several experts that the history of policing in Nigeria has roots in Britain’s colonial rule and police state. Would you say that is accurate? Could you comment on that?…

Police officers walk between protestors during a protest against abuses by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) at the Lekki toll Plaza in Lagos, on October 12, 2020. – Nigerians protested to pressure the government to follow through on disbanding a feared police unit after authorities made the rare concession in the face of widespread anger over abuses.<br />Around 2,000 people blocked one of the main highways in the country’s biggest city Lagos, demanding officials make good on an announcement on October 11, 2020, that the federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) was being scrapped. (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

A senior editor with a U.S. media organisation interviewed me via email yesterday about #EndSARS. Here are my responses to her questions.

We have been told by several experts that the history of policing in Nigeria has roots in Britain’s colonial rule and police state. Would you say that is accurate? Could you comment on that?

Policing in contemporary Nigeria is indeed rooted in a colonial policing philosophy that aims to dominate space, intimidate communities, and mete out exemplary punishments to serve as deterrents. The problem with the British colonial state in Nigeria as elsewhere was that it was, despite or precisely because of extravagant displays of violence and brutality, quite weak, its control brittle. Because Nigerians never accepted colonisation and sought to subvert it, there was always the spectre of resistance and uprising.

The colonial regime made up for this underlying weakness and illegitimacy and tried to preserve itself by relying on its police to both maintain “law and order” and pre-empt and put down uprisings. What this meant was that the colonial police conducted both traditional policing duties as well as military or quasi-military operations against Nigerian communities. It also meant that given the emphasis on suppression of revolt rather than intelligence gathering and protecting Nigerians, and given the small ratio of colonial police personnel and British colonial officials to the Nigerian population, brute force was the primary operating philosophy of the police. After independence in 1960, the postcolonial Nigerian police were never reformed or decolonized to protect communities rather than treat them as potential criminals and insurgents against state supremacy. The police continued to treat Nigerians as people who must be intimidated into submission to and stopped from undermining state authority, even if pre-emptively. Now, as in colonial times, the Nigerian police are an instrument of the state rather than an institution dedicated to protecting and serving the Nigerian people.

Could you speak to the history of the SARS unit? Why did they come to be, and how do they continue to act with such impunity today? 
SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) was established in the early 1990s, during the military regime. It was a response to legitimate concerns about rising incidents of violent crime, particularly armed robbery on highways and in heavily populated urban areas. Traditional police units were considered too ill-equipped and ill-trained to take on increasingly well-armed violent criminals. The mobile police squadron (MOPOL), Nigeria’s version of a rapid response police squadron, was already deployed across the country and was busy responding as needed to communal conflicts and volatile urban events. SARS was set up to respond to the specific challenge of urban and suburban violent crimes.

The problem was that, like other police units and its predecessor outfits from colonial to postcolonial times, the unit lacked intelligence gathering capacity and had an antagonistic relationship with Nigerians. The other problem was that SARS was stretched thin as violent crimes proliferated and armed criminals proved elusive and capable of matching SARS’s firepower.

The resulting frustration and the increasing wave of violent crimes such as kidnapping and armed robbery caused SARS operatives to lash out against innocent citizens, especially young men and women. Because SARS was conceived in a military regime, its mode of operation inevitably reflected military “pacification” thinking and bore the hallmarks of military responses to problems. SARS operatives resorted to crude stop-and-search operations that targeted young people walking around with laptops, expensive phones, or driving expensive cars. They began to profile, harass, extort, and extra-judicially detain and kill young people they encountered in urban areas. SARS atrocities increased in correspondence to the intensification of violent crimes.

A final reason SARS’s impunity and illegality escalated was the absence of oversight. The police unit was let loose on Nigerian communities with little or no accountability and with tenuous control from the central police hierarchy. Individual SARS units in various parts of the country set their own agenda, carried out their own operations, and quickly transformed into rogues and mavericks perpetrating various acts of violence and extortion against Nigerians. They became a law unto themselves and began to act as accusers, judges, and executioners.

Now that the government has said (again) that they will disband the SARS unit, do you think that will actually occur?
My sense is that this announcement, like previous ones banning SARS, is a face-saving gesture by the government. They wanted to end the protests, which are an embarrassment to the government, and which, beyond #EndSARS, clearly reflect the frustrations of young Nigerians about rising unemployment, poverty, corruption, and mismanagement of national resources. What is more likely to happen is that the unit will be replaced by a similar outfit with a different name. There is a lack of political will and an absence of imagination on the part of the police leadership and the government. 

The fundamental problem is the colonially inspired notion of policing, which turns the police against citizens, which in turn destroys trust between Nigerians and those sworn to protect them. What is needed is for the police to be completely overhauled to respond to evolving security challenges in a manner that does not criminalize innocent citizens or treat them as potential criminals or subversives.
Another colonial philosophical holdover in SARS and the broader Nigerian police that needs to be eliminated is the notion that protest is criminal activity or something intended to overthrow the government. This thinking pervades the police and makes it react to protests and agitations in a violent, knee-jerk manner. We have already seen that response during the #EndSARS protests. The criminalization of protest, which is a constitutionally protected right of Nigerian citizens, should be erased from the philosophical guidebook of the police. This requires reorientation, retraining, and a complete operational overhaul of policing in Nigeria. The entire Nigerian police need to be decolonized, not just SARS.

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