Hardly anyone would have predicted that the #EndSARS protests would have erupted when they did, that they will take place in 25 states so far, and that they will continue almost two weeks in with no signs of abating. This has also been backed by a massive online protest, dominating social media in not just Nigeria but many other countries as well; of course, there has been global media coverage on it too.
Expectedly, the government has responded and has agreed to the 5 explicit demands of the protesters and the uniquely leaderless movement, which include compensation for victims of police brutality and the arrest of erring police officers; yet, the protests have only continued to swell.
It then begs the question: why are all the entreaties of the government falling on the deaf ears of the protesters?
Simply put, the protesters do not believe the government, and this is with good reason too.
Police brutality, sadly, can be said to have been a feature of the Nigerian life right from colonialism and kept getting worse under military regimes which cannot be put in the same sentence as respect for human rights.
Since the return to democracy in 1999, there has been a lot of conversation on reforming the police force to make it a more efficient crime-fighting body that also observes and respects the rights of citizens – reports of panels appointed by the government and of non-governmental organizations with detailed recommendations, reform projects funded by international donor organizations and partners, and numerous citizen protests in the media.
Yet, there has been very little change with these reports only gathering dust in the drawers of government departments. The status quo has continued to remain and the will to implement reforms of any kind has been severely lacking.
There have also been very specific cases against police officers accused of every sort of human rights abuse imaginable, with convictions resulting from these complaints being very few. As a matter of fact, a prime suspect in one of the most celebrated police brutality cases was acquitted in a curious manner and is now an Assistant Inspector-General, putting him in pole position to potentially become the nation’s top policeman.
Specifically with the dreaded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), the report of the Presidential Panel on Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad set up by the Federal Government in 2018 was just implemented (partly or in full but it is hard to say since the report is not in the public domain) with the dismissal of 37 officers and recommending 24 of them for prosecution – an action clearly taken as a response to placate the protesters and end the protests.
It is such actions or rather the lack of them that has made the protesters lose trust that the government will indeed follow through on their promises to meet the demands. The government has lost numerous opportunities to prove itself worthy of being trusted by turning the desire to end police brutality and reform the police into an academic sense when lives are being lost daily, even during the protests.
It is up to the government to begin to rebuild the trust by keeping to its word to ensure that protesters are not harassed or intimidated by the police or any proxies and that they begin to take action on those clear 5 demands.
It is only after action has been taken and been seen to be taken that the protesters will be able to trust the government that it will start the process of reforming Nigeria’s brutal and repressive police force.