Recently, the Nigerian community successfully pressured its government into scrapping the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit from the police force. The struggle utilized several platforms and modes of expression at their disposal.
Their dissatisfaction had risen from the fact that although the unit was instituted in 1992 to prevent robberies and street aggression, its members were fond of being the transgressors of Nigerians’ peace. Nigerians often reported being assaulted, without justifiable cause, by the officers deployed under the SARS unit.
The officers targeted citizens whose appearance reflected the unconventional lifestyle for the ordinary Nigerian. People with cars that stood-out fell victim of the SARS brutality. Youths whose hair was styled or carried expensive phones and others in such walks of life were subjected to harassment and torture.
One Twitter user told of how he was threatened with death. He noted that the officers were adamant as they forced him to give them money. Their adamance was protected by the unreactive government toward the public outcry against SARS.
It is this lack of reaction that is more relatable for most African states’ citizens. Personally, the news of the #EndSARS campaign success was received with surprise.
The fact that a government would carry a positive reaction to public outcry, in light of the nature of governance in the Eastern, Central and Western area of the continent which is unsurpportive of expression, birthed my shock. In most cases, these governments tend to suppress any sign of free expression, or, in the better circumstances, they ignore the plight of the demonstrators.
Let us consider Uganda. Many times, people have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction. It is to be noted that state resistance has been fatal to some where such demonstrations have been politically charged. Such as those lives that were lost in the 2010 campaigns. Unfortunately, many of the citizenry grievances are born from political oppression and, persecution at times.
Opposition politicians often run short of smooth operations when attempting to access their constituents. The police usually finds their methods ‘disruptive’. Earlier this year, after continual pleas for support by his constituents, the Mityana Municipality MP, Francis Zaake, started distributing food to them. The state thought this was very insensitive of him as he’d exposed these already starving citizens to the risk of dying of the then loosely spread Covid19. On their part, government was dilly-dallying over their process of resource distribution among the daily income earners.
Oddly, when Zaake was set to appear in Court for his case to be heard, he was in such a sorry state that the Magistrate would not conduct the hearing. One wonders what transpired between the days of his capture and his appearance before court!
More recently, colleagues of Dr. Stella Nyanzi were arrested and detained at Kiira Road Police station. Their arrest followed their involvement in a peaceful demonstration against police brutality. The audacity! These people do what you’re denouncing while you’re denouncing it. Ironic, isn’t it?
In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the new president, Felix Tshisekedi, has started to shock observers. His diplomatically ushered-in presidency along with his pledge to purge the country of its ills were unprecedented. However, it is reported that he has become highly intolerant of critics, journalists and political parties. Activists have reported threats, beatings, arrests and intimidation. The Human Rights Watch documented 39 cases of threats and harassment for free speech and media freedom.
A 33 year-old lawyer was arrested for criticizing a governor’s performance. The prosecution in his case demanded a letter of apology before it could drop charges. The fellas aren’t ashamed of petty conduct. A one Henri Maggi was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment for saying that Tshisekedi hadn’t won the 2018 elections.
In May, Christine Tshibuyi, a Congolese media personnel, was threatened for having written an article about attacks on journalists. Later, as she was driving, she was flanked by a Republican Guard vehicle and assaulted. Her reports to police of the incident went uninvestigated.
The protests against the appointment of a new president for the Congolese Electoral Commission were met with brutal force. Three fatalities were reported. All this happening after a peaceful transition of power. Perhaps there are forces behind the scenes. Nonetheless, on the face of it, even diplomatic change of government is incapable of ushering in realistic democratic governance.
In Nigeria itself, the same #EndSARS protests had come up so often against the SARS police unit. The government was hesitant to scrap the unit or at least, take on effective reforms. Thus, for nearly a decade, the Nigerian population has continually taken to the streets to express their anger towards the insolence of the officers in the SARS unit.
Eventually, the government gave in to popular demand and scrapped the entire SARS unit. This was coupled with a promise to investigate the reports of assaults. Later, the Nigerian president, Buhari, vowed to compensate the victims who suffered, some of whom died, at the hands of SARS officers.
However, my shock at an African tropical government positively reacting to public outcry dissipated upon clearer observation. While pledging several things to its citizens, the Nigerian government went ahead to institute a new police unit which they named the Special Weapons And Tactics (SWAT). The funny thing is, the same contentious individuals who had been previously operating under the SARS unit were to be moved to the SWAT unit. What arrogance!
To the Nigerians who had suffered and lost so much at the impudent hands of the SARS officers, the scrapping of the unit was a hollow victory. This pushed them to broaden the purpose of their demonstrations and protests. They demanded permanent solutions to the poor governance, corruption and other things they felt were the basis of their political, economic and, to some extent, social misery.
At the centre of their new demands was, still, the desire to end police brutality. Insolently, the police is reported to have shot at demonstrators. Amnesty International reported fatal shootings among these. The government instigated a 24-hr curfew to end the protests. All this action from government undermined the victory that ought to have come from the scrapping of the SARS unit.
It therefore became apparent that Nigeria was not special. Like any other country in the Tropics, its government was intolerant, oppressive and undemocratic. You see, at the centre of democratic principles is the will of the people. The government is entrusted by the people to govern them as they see fit.
Here in the Tropics, we seem to have a different understanding of democracy. For my government at home – in the Pearl of Africa – it is undisputable that there’s a queer approach to observing the democratic principles. The arms of government and institutions within them are very disruptive. It is worth noting here that the Executive has been fond of transgressing these principles more often than the others. Authoritative commentary on that would require an article of its own. Perhaps, some other time!
The #EndSARS campaign has been an eye opener. Even when the government seemed to concede and give in to the public’s demands, it was akin to a magician’s illusion; ‘watch my right so the left may make a fool of you!’
Although police brutality is common throughout the world as was evidenced by recent events in America, there are subliminal factors that demand different approaches to police brutality in Africa from those applicable elsewhere.
It is yet to be determined why African governments are incapable of democracy! It is also worth thinking of a united African effort against this mild tyranny! On the looks of it, despots are an African pandemic common to all [tropical] countries. This warrants a wave similar to that of the mid-twentieth century against colonialism!
- Joel Kenneth Ndawula is a Student of Law at Uganda Martyrs University Nkozi. He is an inspired writer, the editor and author here; a blogger of sorts.
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