Anti-police demonstrators in Lagos. Amnesty International is investigating at least 10 deaths since the protests began
Anti-police demonstrators in Lagos. Amnesty International is investigating at least 10 deaths since the protests began © Sunday Alamba/AP

The writer, a former deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, was a presidential candidate in Nigeria’s 2019 general elections

A crackdown by Nigerian security forces in Lagos on peaceful protests against police brutality has revealed a dismal truth: the number one job of the police in Africa’s most populous country is regime protection, and the lives of citizens have little value.

This month, Nigerians have protested against the country’s notorious police unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, with cries of “End Sars!”. On Tuesday, curfews were imposed by the state government and reports of shootings spread on social media. Amnesty International is investigating at least 10 deaths since the protests began; hundreds more are injured. The outcome could reshape Nigeria’s future.

There were echoes of the Black Lives Matter protests in the US over the summer, but in Nigeria the unrest has nothing to do with racism and everything to do with a culture of authoritarianism and corruption in a formal democracy where state power has very few limits.

The notorious Sars police unit was set up in the early 1990s as an elite force to combat robbery and banditry by terrorists and militias. But it has developed a reputation over the past decade for brutal killings, beatings and extortions of innocent young Nigerians.

The force is ill-trained, poorly equipped to fight crime and notoriously corrupt. The International Political Science Association’s World Internal Security and Police Index has ranked Nigeria as having the worst police force in the world.

Young Nigerians are enterprising, innovative and fun-loving, but they are also frustrated by rising unemployment and poverty. They have had enough of the heavy hand of police brutality and their rage has boiled over. But the crisis reflects a deeper one: of ineffective governance. In the absence of a social contract between the government and the governed, Nigerian youth feel alienated. With youth unemployment at 35 per cent, and many graduates unable to find work, migrating to foreign countries seems more attractive. Some have fallen victim to human trafficking as they seek opportunities abroad.

Nigeria’s young people have hitherto had little or no influence on the country’s politics and its weak governance. Disempowered by apathy and poverty, they become easy pawns in the hands of a political system that has obtained votes by providing “stomach infrastructure” — a euphemism for vote-buying — during election cycles.

Today, however, Nigerians have found their voice and their demands are justified. The country needs fundamental reform of its police force, with merit-based recruitment, training in human rights and community policing and forensic equipment to combat crime effectively. With only 350,000 federal police officers for a country of more than 200m people, Nigeria is under-policed. The country needs at least 1.5m new police officers. Its economy is oil-dependent and has been hit by a combination of depressed oil prices and the Covid-19 pandemic, but government should nevertheless prioritise spending on security, which would create essential jobs in the longer term.

President Muhammadu Buhari’s response to the protests should demonstrate real commitment to comprehensive police reform. In response to public pressure, the government promised to disband the Sars earlier this month, only to replace it with a Special Weapons and Tactics Team. Protesters considered this merely old wine in new skins and stuck with their demands for real reforms.

Buffeted on one side by the protesters and on the other by demands from Nigerians of all ages for constitutional reforms to devolve powers to regions from a bloated central government, based in the capital city of Abuja, Nigeria is inching towards a moment of reckoning with its many internal contradictions.

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