Oga, mek we kill am!, the gangling police constable had told my father. This was sometime in the early 1980s and the scene was the ever-busy Ilesa-Akure expressway, in the old Oyo, now Osun State. My father, an Inspector in the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), headed the Ilesa Signals Corps of the police. However, short of officers to lead police patrols, in the light of the ever-bludgeoning criminal activities in the Ife-Ijesa zone of the time, the Divisional Police Officer authoritatively yanked the Inspector from his signals unit office drudgery. He then drafted him to the road. On this particular night, armed robbers had reportedly snatched a vehicle and the expressway was their surest route of escape.
It was late in the night. Ifeanyi, (real name) the lanky policeman, was a member of the patrol. He was notorious in the Ayeso, Oke-Iyin police barracks for his constant alcoholic reverie. Always looking skunk-drunk and frail like a deboned chicken, this young cop, of about 30 years of age, constantly had his eyes dilated, almost all the time you encountered him. Dark, pitiably thin, with an aquiline nose and some eczema-looking graffiti bordering his nose, Ifeanyi’s dress sense too was inverted. He was also renowned for wearing his police uniform awkwardly. Curiously, about 35 years after and almost about the same number of years after Ifeanyi suddenly died mysteriously from an undisclosed ailment, his sadistic picture still hovers around my face like some grotesque apparition.
Ifeanyi was manning the road this night, the Inspector sitting some meters away. As usual, he was reeking of liquor and made a few totters he assumed were walking steps. As a symptom of this state, with scant provocation, he raised his voice at motorists. Then Ifeanyi walked up to his boss, seemingly trembling and agitated. He sounded very animated, his usual cheetah speed manner of talking making an even faster sprint. He had just stopped, searched a motorist, he told his boss. Alas, when he asked the man to open his car trunk, he found it loaded to the brim with cash. “Oga, mek we kill am… it is our chance to make money!” he whispered conspiratorially.
The Inspector was alarmed, shocked, and bewildered. How could such thought that smelled deeply like an odour from Mephistopheles, clamber up the mind of a law enforcement officer, a man born of a woman? Years later, my father told me that he, there and then, made some quick calculations. The first was, he assured himself it was not time to assert his boss role on this expressway at this critical time. If he did, forcefully preventing Ifeanyi from this consuming blood-thirst of his, armed with a police rifle and drunk, the lanky bloke could waste him and the motorist conveying the money. So, my dad told me he cleverly accosted the motorist, confirmed that he legitimately owned the money, and whispered to him in Yoruba to speed off.
The above impunity and brutality are as ancient as the Nigeria Police Force. Not minding its prohibition by national and international laws, a 2005 investigation of Nigeria police by the Human Rights Watch found out that torture, other cruel, degrading, and inhuman treatments are being meted on the accused. Last Wednesday, as some television stations beamed live videos of policemen of the Lagos Police command and men of the Neighbourhood Watch, torturing Uber driver Adedotun Clement, the notorious image of Ifeanyi came streaming back into my consciousness.
What seems to be unchanging and stagnantly hanging on the uniform of the Nigerian policeman is a long-held culture of lawlessness and impunity. Though they share a spatial affinity with the common man on the streets – being our brothers, fathers, friends, and all that – Nigerian policemen seem to be at war with the common people of Nigeria. I submit here that this brutality is borne out of the force’s ontological dysfunction, a genetic disorder if you like.
Any attempt at evaluating the current state of the NPF without going into its historical foundation will be an exercise in futility. Erudite historian, Toyin Falola’s Colonialism and violence in Nigeria is an ample guide in this regard. It examines the spate of violence and instability in Nigeria, pre, and post-colony, and how these play a major dominant role in institutional relationships today. Among others, it also examines the conditions that created a legacy of violence bequeathed to Nigeria by colonialism and how violence is deployed as a tool of domination and resistance. In it, you will find out why democracy and all its appurtenances of civility, respect for the human person, and allied indices have failed abysmally in a democratic Nigeria.
Falola located the roots of the Nigeria Police Force’s inherent hostility against the Nigerian people in the wonky conception of the colonial police. It was an extension of colonialists’ brutish and selfish quest to protect themselves and their domination from native resistance. It was never a friendly apparatus for the protection of the Nigerian people, nor an organ to defend them. Confronted by initial resistance by the natives to its rule, the colonial constabulary was established to crush dissent of resistant natives, patterned to be above the law, and equipped with deadly weapons to crush resistance of any kind.
This is why, to date, due to its wonky conception, the police possess scant regard in the perception of the same system it serves and the Nigerian people it seeks its friendship. The abode of its officers and men is a little of worth than a pigsty and their pay, dispiriting. When I take friends to the pigeon nest one-room apartment that I lived with my siblings and parents at the Ayeso barracks in Ilesa for about ten years, they find it incredulous to believe. There is no way anyone will be born in that kind of environment and they will not be rebellious against the system, nor will a resident of this environment not develop complexity and anger against the same society that made such their lot.
At the Lekki Toll Gate anniversary of the bloody October 20, 2020, EndSARS protest, right under the tip of the nose of Hakeem Odumosu, Lagos State Commissioner of Police, his police team could not shroud its innate bestial underpinning. Even when these policemen saw a battery of journalists’ cameras pointed at them, they still could not stop themselves from inflicting a regime of brutal, wicked, and inhuman torture on Clement, identified as a Uber driver. I watched the macabre scene on Arise TV as police folded Clement like fish prepared for an oven grill, pepper-sprayed his eyes, and threw him on the floor like a heap of bags of beans. The scene looked indistinguishable from a grotesque drama.
Clement’s inhuman torture, in spite of his very plausible account of how he got to the Lekki Toll Gate that morning and even his non-involvement in the protest, gave Nigerians and the world at large a peep into the cosmetic disbandment of the SARS last year. While its physical structures were pulled down by the Inspector General of Police, the police establishment has retained SARS’ restless hyena and fox operatives who daily bay for Nigerian people’s blood.
It is a pointer to the fact that, unless some foundational surgical operations are done on the ontology, the total nature of the being of the Nigeria Police, the people will continue to grapple with this cruel and inhuman policy model. Force, violence, and sweeping criminalization of everyone in civilian clothing are the modus operandi of the Nigerian police. There is no gainsaying the fact that it is unapologetically corrupt and its policing model diametrically opposed to the wishes and aspirations of the Nigerian people.
As is customary with the Nigerian government to offer escapism and palliatives in place of thorough combat and mental exploration of issues, the earth-shaking EndSARS youth protests of last year were followed by the institution of panels. Just like a medic who abandons symptomatic manifestations of leprosy to diagnose treatment of eczema, the panels, either out of naivety or systemic ignorance, failed to realize that grief and reconciliation have a philosophy of their own. The panels ultimately ended up with a prescription of compensations to victims. Do they know that those panels are mini truth and reconciliation commissions? And that in seeking truth and reconciling aggrieved people, especially those whose loved ones were mortally cut down in their prime, commodification (reducing to cash) of grouses is misplaced.
Antjie Krog, celebrated South African broadcast journalist with the South African Broadcasting Cooperation (SABC) and poet, best known for her award-winning book, Country of my Skull, a chronicle of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) drew the nexus between truth, grief, being aggrieved and the ultimate, reconciliation. With a cover photograph of Joyce Mtimkulu holding a fist-sized mound of all that was left of her incinerated son, Krog said of truth: It “does not bring back the dead, but releases them from silence.”
Unlike the TRC, the EndSARS panels set up in Nigeria, purportedly in the context of responses to abuses of power by Nigerian policemen, so as to confront human rights violations of years past and make a new beginning, were just a façade. They were never set up to discover the truth or placate the aggrieved. They were some placatory measly meal to a barking dog to keep it silent.
In Nigeria’s EndSARS panels, governments believed that monetary compensations, rather than truth, contriteness, sobriety, or acknowledgment of guilt, will release the victims’ families from their burdens. Police perpetrators of the heinous crimes leveled against them feel no remorse and it is never demanded of them. From Krog’s experience in covering the TRC, however, “perpetrators need to acknowledge the wrong they did. Why? It creates a communal starting point. To make a clean break from the past, a moral beacon needs to be established between the past and the future.”
To get to the bottom of the truth and reconcile those aggrieved by Nigerian police brutality, we cannot lump police perpetrators together as “the police.” We must put names and faces to the SARS human rights violators who committed grievous inhuman crimes, right from SARS’ founding in 1992. This is because, in the words of Jurgen Habermas, collective guilt does not exist; “whoever is guilty has to answer individually.”
I am emboldened to accept the need for individual transgressors to personally show acceptance of guilt, judging by the example of Alan Michael Lapsley. Lapsley, originally born in New Zealand, was a South African priest and social justice crusader during the anti-Apartheid era. As national chaplain of South African Anglican students during the 1976 Soweto massacre, Lapsley fought the apartheid lords, leading to his expulsion from the country. He then moved into exile in Lesotho and became a member of the African National Congress, (ANC) travelling all over the world to mobilize global support for the liberation struggle.
Lapsley later moved to Zimbabwe and in 1990, three months after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, he was parcel-bombed like Dele Giwa. Just as Giwa thought his parcel “must be from the president,” Lapsley ostensibly thought his was from the Civil Cooperation Bureau which, unknown to him, was an underground outfit of the apartheid security. The bomb was concealed in two religious magazines. The blast shattered his two hands and left eye, seriously burning him. At the TRC, with two prostheses replacing what used to be his arms, Lapsley said he was ready to forgive those who bombed him but he wanted acknowledgment and sobriety from them. Of Lapsley, Mandela said: “Michael’s life represents a compelling metaphor: We read about a foreigner who came to our country and was transformed by what he saw of the injustices of apartheid. His life is part of the tapestry of many long journeys and struggles of our people and… part of the tapestry of the many long journeys and struggles of our people.”
Nigerian elite and leaders have merely been playing the ostrich with our lives. Since 1966 when the military struck, successive governments have been bothered only about the now and never, tomorrow. That was why, in spite of the trillions of Naira accruing from petrodollars in about six decades, there were no mental projections or planning for today. Never did it occur to Nigeria’s past leaders that a time would come when the country would be in the hands of a clueless leadership like now that cannot distinguish its left from the right hand, as it is said. Nigeria is so unlivable, so much that its restless youths prefer to die in the Mediterranean than be trapped within. Hundreds of them have so perished due to our collective contributions over time to the dross that is Nigeria today. Neither us nor our leaders feel the sense of guilt that German theologians, after World War 11, formulated. One of them, Karl Jaspers, said that in our kind of national travails, we should be sobered by what he called metaphysical guilt. If I survived, while my brother is killed, I am a victim of metaphysical guilt.
Each of the émigrés who successfully left Nigeria, labeled the japa generation, having taken unimaginable risks to escape the country of their birth, celebrate their exit with orgies. Japa has successfully been incorporated into the Nigerian lexicon. Slang derived from a combination of ja which in Yoruba means running swiftly from danger and pa signifying “in totality,” parents cough out life savings to emigrate their wards from the calamity to come.
Unfortunately for us all, except we collectively address the Nigerian problem, especially as it relates to the tomorrow of our youths, those children we send out to Harvard, Oxford, and wherever will come back someday, at the zenith of their success to meet their waterloo in the hands of their angry, unsuccessful and bitter compatriots who are pining away at home. When Chief Obafemi Awolowo told us that the problem of born trowey – apologies to Mrs. Patience Jonathan – children of the North called almajiri was a collective national problem, we laughed him to scorn.
Now, those born trowey children have come of age, maiming, raping, killing, kidnapping us, downing fighter jets, blasting rail tracks, and hiding in the Sambisa forests as Boko Haram insurgents. Yet, we learn no lesson!.
The revolt of the youths in the EndSARS protests should have been an awakening to a sensible leadership that is not possessed by a pit-hole mentality. Virtually all families in Nigeria parade victims of successive leaders’ closet-mindedness. On the streets, you will see them early in the morning, jobless, unemployed, and many unemployable.
The EndSARS protests were a clarion call on us to put the Nigerian house in order, atone for the blood spillages that Constables Ifeanyis have committed, and find ways of evacuating the massive hopelessness in the land. We however slipped into a deep slumber and dirty compromises after October 20, 2020.
On compromises, Krog had quoted Chilean lawyer, defender of human rights during General Augusto Pinochet regime, and ideological purist, Jose Zalaquett, who said “it is better to suffer longer under a tyranny when there is hope for a politically purer outcome than to progress by messy compromises.”
The Federal Government saw the EndSARS protests as a regime battle that it, “through the help of Almighty Allah” vanquished. It compromised feeble-minded persons and a captive media into projecting its narratives of a conquest from the hands of EndSARS protesters comprising “haters of Fulani, Hausa, and the North.” We then returned to our peace of the graveyard. And, as a country, we woke up lost, gaining nothing and learning absolutely nothing. But we trudge on still in our nothingness, full of trashy ego and false wellness. The future, our future, sadly waits to bear the brunt of our serial failures. And still, we walk mindlessly on, in the dark alley of our common woes. Totally lost.