Aryanna Chutkan       

Last month, the #EndSARS hashtag began trending on Twitter, gaining worldwide attention and bringing the conversation on police brutality to the global stage. While the hashtag and its corresponding domestic social movement have existed since 2017, public backlash to the brutality of Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) intensified following multiple assurances from the Nigerian government that SARS would be disbanded. Despite these assurances and multiple formal disbandments SARS has consistently been reformed, and remains notorious for its extreme brutality. SARS has faced criticism from Nigerians and from international watchdog groups like Amnesty International, but SARS has continued to act with impunity, committing rapes, acts of torture, and extrajudicial killings. Public outrage at SARS’s repeated instances of torture and murder came to a head when, following mass protests and mobilization in response to video footage showing a SARS officer shooting a young motorist, removing his body from his vehicle, and driving off in the motorist’s car, SARS officers opened fire on a protest at Lagos’s Lekki toll gate, killing 48 people.

In many ways, the killing of the aforementioned motorist proved to be a perfect storm in terms of facilitating the resurgence of the #EndSARS movement on an international scale. The interaction between SARS officers and the motorist in question was filmed in its entirety, and the video was posted to Twitter, where it received more than 10,000 retweets. The brutal nature of the interaction and the extremely clear abuse of power that it represented highlighted SARS brutality, as well as the deeper underlying tension between young Nigerians, feeling politically and economically disenfranchised, and the Nigerian state. Prominent celebrities from the Nigerian diaspora began to use the hashtag, and a swell of international support followed, matched by a resurgence in on-the-ground protests in Nigeria. While these protests were centered on the #EndSARS movement, they engaged more broadly with the discontent of the Nigerian people. The combined economic stress of Covid-19 and the existing economic crisis in Nigeria caused by a fall in global oil demand, lead to simmering discontent with a government criticized for “institutionalized corruption and state profligacy”, and the #EndSARS movement proved to be something of a flashpoint for much broader societal discontent.

All this culminated in the protests at Lekki toll gate, where protesters draped in Nigerian flags gathered to prevent motorists from using the motorway in two-week long protest under the banner of the #EndSARS movement. Despite assurances on social media that military officers would not engage with unarmed protesters singing the national anthem and holding the Nigerian flag and the fact that the protest in question was a peaceful sit in, a platoon of 20 armed men closed in on the protestors and opened fire. Eyewitnesses identified the arm platoon as having arrived in a pickup truck with “OP Awaste” written on it, referring to the joint military task force that operates in Lagos. Once the armed platoon arrived on the scene, shooting began immediately, with no warning given. Protestors at the scene described the armed forces as “shooting anything that moved”, and identified men wearing the SARS uniform at the scene, among the men firing into the crowd.

The Origins of Nigeria’s Violent Police Forces

            How did policing in Nigeria become so violent? The origins of policing in Nigeria can be traced back to the quasi-military police forces institutionalized by the British colonial governor in order to “protect” European settlements in Lagos. The initial force was comprised of underpaid and newly-free Hausa men, who took to extorting people under their jurisdiction to supplement their incomes. Quasi-military police forces became a part of the colonial apparatus in Nigeria to subdue local chiefs and protect British economic interests (George, 2020). The use of quasi-military armed forces to protect the government did not end with the end of colonialism.

SARS is a post-colonial manifestation of the same violent and exploitative policing practices established by the British colonial authority centuries ago.

Violent Policing is Not Unique to Nigeria

            Nigeria is not alone in this pattern. The End SARS movement has drawn comparisons to other instances of violent policing throughout the pan-African diaspora, including the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. The case of Guyana—a former British colony in the South American continent—also draws attention to the inordinately high numbers of civilian deaths at the hands of police officers. Data from the 1990s indicate that Guyana’s police homicide rate, at 2.2 homicides per 100,000 interactions, is the second highest in the world. The issue has persisted, and, as recently as 2019, Guyanan journalists have spoken out against police brutality, citing a US Justice Department report that found persistently high rates of police brutality, as well as specific instances of police brutality such as the wrongful death of 17-year-old Shaquille Grant at the hands of police. Much like in Nigeria, the origins of modern policing in Guyana can be traced back to the British colonial authority’s usage of quasi-military police forces. The dynamics established under colonialism have carried over into modern policing, resulting in violent, militarized police forces and ghastly amounts of police brutality.

Police Brutality: A Lasting Colonial Legacy

            What can the link between inherited colonial systems of policing and modern police brutality in Nigeria tell us about inherited legal systems in post-colonial states in general? First, in both of the case of Nigeria and Guyana, inherited policing systems are routinely prioritized over the safety and political human rights of the people. This prioritization of law and order over political human rights has led to the normalization and government acceptance of police brutality; a reality that is reflected in the Nigerian government’s repeated failures to substantially reform or disband the SARS unit as promised and the Guyanan government’s failure to address the continued problem of police brutality.

            Second, this prioritization highlights the relationship between inherited legal systems in post-colonial states and human rights. On an international scale, research has identified a link between legal systems and the human rights practices of a state. While this research has largely focused on the structure of the legal system itself, for example, whether a country uses a case law system or a civil law system, colonial legacies are reflected in other aspects of the legal system as well, including police forces and prisons. And this has serious implications for human rights practices.

            We have long known that the legacy of colonial legal systems can and do substantially influence the trajectory of development, particularly in the context of Africa. However, the cases of extreme police brutality in Nigeria and Guyana reveal that inherited legal systems have consequences beyond economic development, including consequences for the long term trajectory of human rights. Both of these cases reflect what Achille Mbembe describes in his essay Necropolitics as the power over death. Mbembe references the idea of the sovereign right to kill (droit de glaive), and highlights how the structures of colonialism allow states to exercise this right over their citizens. Consistently, what we see in both the cases of Nigeria and Guyana is the state’s ability and willingness to exercise the “droit de glaive”, thus replicating the very same patterns of violence and dehumanization inherited from their initial colonizers. What the #EndSARS movement brings to light is that these violent and militarized police forces are obstructing human rights – and they are not unique to Nigeria. As we face something of a global reckoning on the subject of police brutality, with protests spanning from Nigeria, to Guyana, to the United States, one thing is clear dismantling these colonial systems will be a key step forward in advancing human rights.

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Aryanna Chutkan is a Master’s student studying Political Science with a concentration in comparative politics. Their research focusses specifically on post-colonial statehood and legal systems, with a specific geographic focus in Africa and the Caribbean. They can be reached via email (achutkan@asu.edu) or on Twitter (@chutkanaryanna).