French writer Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr declared in 1849 that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. From a literal interpretation, if things that are changing end up being like the former state, how much more when no attempt is made at creating a change, or when such change, though promised, takes up residence in a large void filled with disclaimed promises. One year after the popular protests tagged #EndSARS, has anything really changed with Nigerian policing?
Before we proceed, if you are one of those who pushed the narrative that no soldiers were at the Lekki Toll Gate on 20 October 2020, or the soldiers were there but only used blank bullets, or no protester was shot by soldiers, or the only deaths were due to “blunt force trauma”, or are asking “where are the bodies” or “where are the families that lost people”, I wish your conscience the best of grace. I understand how Instagram Live works, and I remember watching a live video with my wife on that bloodied night in October. Thousands of persons who watched the same live-stream could not have been hallucinating. Similarly, the Lagos State Governor who went around hospitals that night and found a way to blame “forces beyond our control” must have had just cause to give a speech regarding the incident that night.
Just in case you still vehemently believe nothing happened that night, you must also believe that the Nigerian security forces since the colonial era have not had a reputation for high-handedness and extrajudicial murders. You might also wish to believe that Odi, Zaki Biam, Zaria, Bakolori, and several others never happened, and were figments of treasonous imaginations. To be clear, the issues transcend the present administration. I do not think there has been any government in Nigeria that did not have at least one incident of unwarranted use of live bullets by security forces who seek satisfaction from misusing access to a licensed tool designated for taking lives.
One year after the killings at Lekki rudely ended the protests and triggered a round of post-protest violence, I can bet that most Nigerians would say nothing has changed. A lot of promises were made. Investigative panels were setup in different states. The then Inspector General of Police made a big show of shutting down the infamous SARS cartel to establish a new SWAT unit. Some officials and official propagandists screamed that the government had fully accepted the five demands initially put forward by the protesters, therefore, any continued protests were merely an attempt to remove the government.
After everything that was said and promised, we are here, 365 days later with the same problems that triggered the protests. Unscrupulous police officers are back on the streets harassing Nigerians with reckless abandon. A colleague of mine encountered police officers who seized his phone and went through his WhatsApp chats looking for “evidence” of his involvement in internet fraud (aka Yahoo Yahoo). Welfare conditions for police officers have still not improved. SARS is dead in name only because SARS lives on, and Nigerians are worse off. Today, as some have gathered to commemorate the events at Lekki Toll Gate, we are seeing a repeat of brutal policing splashed on TV screens as police officers gladly contravene Nigerian laws that allow citizens to hold protests. Imagine combining a struggling economy with police brutality, yet we demand that Nigerians be “patriotic” by not complaining. That is like what some parents do when they beat a child but warn the child not to cry, and then deliver more beatings when the child, as expected, cries due to the previous package of beatings.
If we have learned anything in the past year, I hope it includes the awareness that what it would take to change the police and other security agencies is more than press releases and pre-recorded broadcasts. To be fair, some aspects of the #EndSARS protests were rather idealistic because the ridiculous state of policing is tightly linked with the present structure of Nigeria. Attempting to transform the police force in isolation would only work if a human baby could be groomed by a troop of monkeys to be a gentleman. Maybe when we realise this, we would accept the hard work required to drive sustainable transformation of our country and start rolling our sleeves to get dirty. While there is a major role to be played by patriotic leadership, changing the “system” also needs people who are genuinely interested in creating a change, willing to start small and stay committed to making whatever changes they can make in their own little way, hoping that thousands and millions of others would do the same in their own sphere of influence, and the change we seek would soon become a reality.
Until then, we remember Nigerian citizens murdered by those sworn to protect them. May the labour of our slain protesters not be in vain. We also remember those who lost lives and properties in the chaos that ensued after the protests ended.