IT’s been two years since the angry days of October 2020 when disenchanted Nigerians took to the streets of Lagos and other urban centers across the country to protest persistent abuse at the hands of the police Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). Organised under the banner of the hashtag #EndSARS, the protests were only notionally about the activities of SARS, whose members had exercised a reign of terror on the Nigerian populace. The protesters’ intent was far more substantive: they wanted to call attention to the rough justice constantly meted out to Nigerians not just by the police but law enforcement in general.
Insofar as the protests were about making those grievances felt, they were a massive success. #EndSARS quickly garnered international attention, messages of solidarity and, crucially, material and financial support poured in from various parts of the world. The pathos generated by the protests seemed to intensify after armed policemen allegedly shot and killed an unknown number of protesters at the Lekki, Lagos, tollgate on October 20. A number of security operatives were also killed. All in all, the #EndSARS protests were the biggest and most raucous in the country since 1989 when student-led anti-SAP riots forced the then Ibrahim Babangida military administration to institute economic reforms.
The protests seemed to have triggered some immediate changes as well. For one thing, and in a move that signaled a degree of official concurrence with the protesters, the anti-robbery squad was disbanded; for all its bullishness, the Buhari administration seemed to grasp the message that the protesters were fed up. For its part, the Lagos State government set up a judicial panel of inquiry to look into the demands of the protesters and the circumstances surrounding the events of October 20 at the Lekki tollgate.
Whether, two years on, anything substantive has changed in police-public relations is a different matter. Unfortunately, our observations indicate that very little has changed. For the most part, hapless Nigerians continue to experience heavy handed treatment from the police, who continue to behave as if the law does not apply to them. For example, hundreds of Nigerians have died at the hands of security agencies since the protests ended in 2021. Many more have suffered untold brutalisation, with the judicial system providing little by way of redress.
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On the one hand, this is about the failure of government to respect the dignity of Nigerian citizens. Once in power, officeholders act as though they are above the law, trampling on rules at will, and being generally insufferable. On the other hand, this is not just about those in power. The truth of the matter is that the average Nigerian has no notion of individual space, let alone individual dignity, and casual incivility predominates in a milieu whereby everyday violence has become endemic.
We support the activities of civil society organisations aimed at reforming law enforcement and the justice system. More important, we urge Nigerians to look inwards and strive for the attainment of a new ethos of social intercourse that privileges bodily integrity. Police brutality is just one thread in the larger fabric of everyday social violence. To honor the memory of those who paid the supreme sacrifice two years ago, both need to be addressed.