Nigeria – the #EndSARS & Anti-Corruption Protests

Keith Richards, writer and resident of Chiswick, documented his Corona lock down, living on his own, in a weekly blog from 24 March to 7 July called Chiswick Confined – My Corona. Now he’s free to roam at will, the blog has mutated into Chiswick Unbound.

“Everybody run run run
Everybody scatter scatter
Some people lost some bread
Someone nearly die
Someone just die
Police dey come, army dey come
Confusion everywhere
Hey yeah!
Seven minutes later
All don cool down, brother
Police don go away
Army don disappear
Them leave Sorrow, Tears, and Blood”

Fela Anikulapo Kuti

Nigeria – the #EndSARS & Anti-Corruption Protests

Over the last two weeks there have been widespread protest against police violence and extra-judicial killings in Nigeria – Africa’s most populated nation. Typically, whereas similar scenes in Thailand and Hong Kong received UK media coverage, these, being in Africa were ignored. However, once security forces opened fire on seated, peaceful protesters killing and wounding an as yet unconfirmed number even our press, as obsessed by Covid, Brexit and Donald Trump as they are, began to cover the story. Social Media has been showing youths taking action in several cities right across the country since the #EndSARS hashtag protests went viral when footage of policemen dragging two youths into the street and shooting one was released. The Special Anti Robbery Unit ‘SARS’ killing was a specific trigger but the real reasons for the protests are long seated and deep-rooted. In this week’s Blog I try to provide some context for those that have only a superficial knowledge of this important country, even though there are probably some two million Nigerians or Britons of Nigerian origin in the UK.

How far do you go back to describe state sponsored coercion and repression in Nigeria – indeed almost anywhere in Africa? Historical study of pre-colonial African history shows that while there was inevitably warfare, domestic servitude and cruelty it was at a fraction of the scale that exploded when Europeans turned up. Even before full colonialisation the communal and economic structures of centuries old societies were severely disrupted by the new levels of aggression brought by European traders – their commercial interests backed up by the better weapon technology developed by the constant conflict that Europe specialised in. The slave trade and ‘plantation agriculture by force’, including rubber, palm oil and cocoa, had already de-populated whole areas and destroyed long standing societal arrangements before the ‘Scramble for Africa’ formalised the arbitrary colonial structures that still define the political geography of the entire continent.

In British Colonies like Nigeria, the technique for controlling massive populations with just a small number of white officer/administrators was the ‘Indirect Rule’ system. This, in the shortest possible summary, was to ‘divide and rule’ by creating caste-like systems and an acquiescent elite (sometimes by hi-jacking existing structures and sometimes by creating new ones). These elites would be rewarded by status and the opportunity for personal wealth if they collected British taxes, provided the overseeing classes and the low level military muscle required by a colonial administration to keep control over a conquered people. A belief that independence put an end to the colonial system is a naive and superficial one. There was no colonial power in Africa that did not attempt to ensure that they maintained influence and even some form of control when they ‘granted’ independence and ‘left’. Any African leaders that displayed genuine nonalignment and sought to achieve the objective best for their new nation was murdered or overthrown either directly by agents of the former colonial masters or by western sponsored members of their own elite who saw the prospect of their own power being eroded. Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Patrice Lumumba (Congo) and Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso) are probably the three most obvious examples. In Nigeria there is clear evidence that the pre-election census and the pre-independence election itself was manipulated by the British to ensure the Northern hegemony was maintained and a western facing government was in control. The constitutional and economic structures put in place remained in situ and even later constitutions have favoured the status quo.

So what protest was there against what to ordinary Nigerians was a continuation of the elite centred system that they hoped they had seen the back of after 1st of October 1960 when the green and white Nigerian flag replaced the Union Jack? During the colonial era there had been regional actions such as the (so called) Aba Women’s Riots in 1929 and Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti’s ‘Abeokuta’s Women’s Union’ protests in 1949 that achieved limited local concessions. There was also a General Strike in 1945, inspired by the important Railway Union that had some success in obtaining limited improvements in working conditions. However, any serious threat to the authorities was put down brutally: such as the 1949 massacre of 21 striking miners at the Iva Valley Coal mine in Enugu by armed police under the orders of a British officer. After independence the struggle for control was broadly between different members of the existing political classes. This continues today as so much of Nigerian politics is still dominated by the tribal ‘divide and rule’ structure left behind by the British. The Nigerian Civil War (also known as The Biafran War, 1967-70) was, in a way, an attempt to break out from that structure but can also be classed as a conflict between the same elites for the control of resources.

Nigerians have a reputation for being noisy and often argumentative but the reality is that in political terms, especially given what they have been through, they are submissive to authority. Major activists such as musician Fela Anikulapo-Kuti bemoaned the passive attitude of their compatriots. The population’s hopes have been raised and dashed by successive military coups and by promises of change in the most recent ‘democratic’ constitutional structure. It is important to note that an ex-soldier has fronted every civilian regime, but one, since the return to democracy in 1999: each growing more corrupt and oppressive as time progresses. What every government has had in common is a violent and corrupt police force, supplemented by a paramilitary wing and backed up by the threat of the army. It is hardly surprising that the response by ordinary people to constant political abuses, corruption and government ineptitude has been to keep their head down and concentrate on surviving day to day. The middle-class, small for a country of Nigeria’s 200 million population, live in small enclaves in just half a dozen cities but are generally to be found on the island suburbs of the sprawling mega-city that is Lagos. The majority of the 20 million inhabitants of the city live in densely populated areas on the mainland or the original Lagos Island, often in ghetto like conditions. It is the militarised police system that just about keeps the lid on this teeming society.

Over the years I have been visiting or living there The Nigerian Police Force ‘NPF’ has been a constant presence. There are and have always been check points, choke points and extortion points whether on city streets or on the pot-hole filled highways between cities. Even as an entitled and protected expatriate there is still a frisson of anxiety as you approaches a roadblock, especially at night. The routine is to have your driver (expatriates and the middle class rarely drive themselves) slow down and switch on the internal light. Usually an exchange of pleasantries is enough but the new arrivals (‘fresh fish’) or the nervous will be intimidated into handing over some money. Maltreatment of an expatriate is rare but happens occasionally if those police are drunk or doped up but for ordinary Nigerians violence is commonplace. Bus conductors, taxi drivers, okadas (motorbike taxis), beggars and street food vendors, traders, small businesses and local bars can not exist without a constant drip drip drip of petty bribes, or ‘dash’, to the police. There is a hierarchy of punishment for the failure to comply. For the taxi or bus it might be a tyre being burst or a wing mirror smashed all the way to the vehicle being impounded and the driver being beaten. Women traders or ‘Mama Puts’ (street side food stands) are not exempt from a slap or a rifle butt in the face or worse.

Now, the ordinary police are one thing but the more heavily armed paramilitary special units are another. The largest of these units, the ‘mobile policemen’ or MOPOL for short were set up in 1959 as a ‘strike force’ that could be deployed swiftly when the ordinary police were unable to maintain civil control. By the ‘80’s they built a reputation for arrogance and being above any semblance of Rule of Law, becoming so notorious for their ‘shoot first’ policy that they quickly became known as ‘Kill and Go’. Their violent status was enhanced during the repression of protests (that much later morphed into militancy) in the oil producing Niger Delta during the Abacha era (1993 to 1998). In 2000 their viciousness culminated in the killing of 20 unarmed civilians during a drunken shooting spree in Suleja, Niger State.

In 2001 a Scottish friend of mine was killed at a checkpoint in Port Harcourt when a MOPOL shot at the back of his car because the driver had gone through a puddle that splashed the policeman. Over the last few years a number of investigations and ‘judicial reviews’, inspired as much my external pressure such as Human Rights watch and Amnesty International, as by local protests have seen cosmetic changes. In response the MOPOL was morphed into SARS. Ostensibly a dedicated ‘Special Anti Robbery Squad’ the unit has taken on the role of enforcer and extrajudicial murder squad previously undertaken by the ‘Kill and Go’ boys. The main difference is that cameras on mobile phones, the Internet and now widespread use of Social Media make it more difficult for them to operate in the shadows. As corruption and utterly incompetent management of the economy continue and Covid related frustrations have build up it seems SARS’ public brutality has finally ignited the fuse.

Certainly no people in Nigeria has represented the struggle against the forces of oppression or suffered from it more than the Ransome / Anikulapo Kuti family. As is my habit I leave you with a music video that represents what I have been trying to express. It contains shots of violence including when his compound, dubbed ‘Kalakuta Republic’, was attacked by the army who beat the musician, his ‘Queens’ and his followers and threw his 78 year old mother (the previously mentioned Funmilayo) off a balcony. She died shortly after. I leave you with Fela’s ‘Sorrow Tears and Blood’, an excerpt of which is included as the Epigram at the top of the article.

I hope this is given a little extra insight into why #EndsSARS has been trending and the violence in Nigeria has been appearing on your TV screens. For any more information or discussion please feel free to contact me on keith@outsiderinside.co.uk. My last book Never Quite The Insider is available on Amazon or for a signed copy visit The Bookseller on Chiswick High Rd.