#EndSARS was waiting to happen. Brought on by the weight of history; a dialogue of the deaf between Nigeria’s governing elite and the governed about how the latter experience (in)security; and the deficit of new ideas to convene and govern our collective aspirations, #EndSARS symbolises a deep structural problem.
At its core is the question whether there is a shared vision of security between the governing elite and a cross-section of Nigerian society. The Lekki shootings on 20 October 2020 only entrenched citizens’ distrust in the institutions meant to protect them from fear of violence.
In the light of our recent tragedies, I offer, here, several proposals for moving away from this precipice into a new national security conversation that could lead to a renegotiated and better Nigeria. For too long, Nigeria’s governing elite presumed to be in conversation with citizens, imposing their security vision as security and justice for ALL; whereas, in practice, the elite conversed with itself; while fellow citizens talked back in various ways, using music, theatre, violence, and sometimes silence and disengagement.In the last two weeks, we witnessed Nigeria’s youth talk back through constructive protest; and the governing class responded through a confusing combination of verbal commitment, silence and violence. In turn, other groups of (severely deprived) youth announced their presence through spasms of mindless violence across the country. #EndSARS will persist because there is no alternative for either side to pursue. Since we cannot continue to suffer the various unintended consequences that have followed the actions and inactions of both sides, we must reflect and start a new national conversation. As we do so, it is important to understand how we got here.
The Weight of History
Historical baggage accompanies Nigeria’s security crisis. It goes back to the central tenets of colonial security thinking as well as the organising logic of state-centred security during the Cold War era. Colonial powers used the police to subjugate local African populations and extract taxes. Many post-colonial African countries, including Nigeria, retained the same adversarial colonial security apparatus. Subsequently, in the Cold War environment into which African countries emerged at independence, the state, not the people, became the reference point.
With the end of the Cold War, Nigerians could demand for the first time that their leaders recognise their vision of security and respect their dignity. We have had many chances to prioritise citizen security since 1999 but issues concerning policing and police oversight were pushed to the back burner for too long. The language of people-focused security – human security – entered our security discourse but did not translate into real change on the ground toward the protection of ordinary people. This was because successive Nigerian governments saw security, particularly police control and oversight, influenced by decades of military government, as too vital to lose a grip on.
An Inaudible Conversation
The governing elite and the people have been conversing about security in parallel universes. Each facet – the meaning of security, its translation and experience – is seen in diametrically opposed light . For too long, security was framed to secure the defence of the state and the protection of privileged elite and their networks from fear of violence. The vast majority of citizens, who are not under the umbrella of elite protection and who cannot afford to pay for protection are therefore doomed to suffer at hands of the police.
The Nigerian youth of this century are alive to this reality. Ongoing research at the African Leadership Centre indicates that the human condition in Nigeria is the primary security concern of its youth. They define security as “living well” and “living long”, a view clearly at odds with the state and elite-centric approach to security. Even then, we see how insecurity persists. For one group, living well means “being healthy; living with no fear of danger and lack; and fulfilling life goals with benefit to others”. Yet, for another, living well means “living large”; and “having the power and means to do whatever I want”. So, the pursuit of the personal aspirations of a relatively small group of people can create existential threats for a larger group. This is Nigeria’s story.
In 2019, the new National Security Policy, uncharacteristically, but appropriately, highlighted a range of security concerns to Nigerian citizens, from kidnapping to poverty and unemployment, that went beyond the usual state-centred paradigm. Clearly, the lessons of Boko Haram and the range of internal security threats faced by this and preceding governments opened the window to an expanded perspective of security. In 2020, a new Police Act was assented to by President Buhari. Yet, translating the National Security Policy and the new Police Act into real change for citizens had neither occurred nor showed signs of occurring before #EndSARS happened. So, control of the Nigeria Police Force (its anachronistic surname established by the 1999 Constitution is yet to change, unfortunately) is still centralised in the hands of one individual – the Inspector General of Police. Given the overlapping functions between the IGP, the Police Council and the Police Service Commission (which, like the Police Council, is a constitutional body, yet is not even mentioned in the Police Act), effective oversight of the Nigerian Police is lost.
So, who polices the Police? Is it the President, the Police Service Commission or the National Assembly? To add to the uncertainty, the Court of Appeal recently ruled that parts of the new Act are in conflict with the 1999 Constitution’s provisions on the Police Service Commission. Failure to clearly define the limits of the IGP’s authority and the proper supervision and oversight of the Police by the appropriate authority condemns ordinary Nigerians to prospects of abuse without redress. Two important points of contention must be immediately addressed.
First is the conflict in the constitutional responsibilities of the Police Council as against those of the Police Service Commission, which is compounded the provisions of the Police Act that seems to have created a statutory Ministry of Police Affairs without saying so directly. Four poles of both constitutional and statutory responsibility now exist between the Police Council, the Police Service Commission, the Ministry of Police Affairs and the Inspector-General of Police. The second point concerns the debate about states control of policing. This is a real challenge for the mindset of Nigeria’s Federal Government that historically has been so nervous about devolving authority and responsibility away from Abuja.
Convening Citizens’ Aspirations into a New National Security Conversation
The way forward requires acceptance by the government and the people that there is need for a radical transformation in the security situation of Nigeria. The journey begins by transforming the conversation brought about by #EndSARS rather than side-stepping it. This is the best way for Nigeria’s leaders and their fellow citizens to envision a common future, and plan from that future to begin a new conversation. Five elements of this new security conversation present themselves:
• Unveiling the TRUTH about this week’s shootings in Lekki and other places is an important starting point for regaining the trust of citizens in their leaders. Truth along with a public apology from Nigeria’s leaders can have a transforming effect.
• Keeping the President’s and Governors’ promise to bring SARS perpetrators to book. In this effort, representatives of youth coalition with relevant expertise should be granted observer status in the inquiries at a minimum.
• In the absence of amending the Police Act, 2020, an administrative rule, established jointly by the Police Council and the Police Service Commission and embodied in an Executive Order by the President, that addresses the overlapping functions of the IGP with the Police Service Commission and the Ministry of Police Affairs (which may be seen as the executive arm of the Police Council), is vitally important.
• Providing legitimate space for an extended national security conversation that opens conversable spaces at all levels of society for Nigerians to project a collective vision of security and governance. This cannot be a closed-door process by a handful of elites.
• Organise a referendum to allow Nigerians an opportunity to make a choice from the best ideas that emerge from the National Security Conversation. This will give Nigerians a collective sense of belonging rather than a perception of life in two parallel universes.