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Cheta Nwanze: The Looming Threat of Social Unrest in Nigeria Amidst Police Brutality



Given the current economic troubles in the country, it is not out of place to say that we could face social unrest in the near future. But what would be the spark? 

On 17 July, there were a series of anti police brutality protests in Aguleri, Anambra state, following the killing of Mr Chidubem Ezenwa. Ezenwa had been taken into custody, alongside three others, in June after he and his friends were accused of violence in a hotel in the community. He died in custody after allegedly being tortured by police operatives. His father, Mr Sunday Ezenwa, said his son came from his base in Asaba, to check on his friend who was involved in an accident. The police defended their action of detention and torture on the grounds that Ezenwa and his friends have been top of the police’s most wanted list for cultism related offences for some time.

Given the unrepentant posture of our police regarding their habitual high-handedness in dealing with Nigerians, I would say that the police ranks very high on the list of possible causative factors. Proper police reform is important to stave off this. The Nigeria Police Force has long been criticised for its poor performance, corruption, and human rights abuses. The country’s police force is largely characterised by low morale, inadequate training, poor equipment, and limited resources. This has led to a situation where officers are often ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of law enforcement in Nigeria, including high levels of violent crime and insurgency in some parts of the country.

The lack of effective policing also contributed to a culture of impunity, where criminals were able to operate with relative impunity, and citizens were often left to take matters into their own hands. This, in turn, led to a breakdown of trust between the police force and the public, with many Nigerians feeling that the police were more interested in extorting money from them than in protecting them from crime. The state of the country’s police force before the recent reforms was widely regarded as a major obstacle to the country’s development and a threat to the safety and security of its citizens.

The impetus for police reform emerged from widespread protests against police brutality and the activities of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a unit of the Nigeria Police Force. SARS had been accused of extrajudicial killings, torture, extortion, and other forms of abuse of power, which triggered the #EndSARS movement. 

The #EndSARS movement gained momentum in October 2020, both domestically and internationally, demanding an end to police brutality and the disbandment of SARS. The protests, which began in early October 2020 under the hashtag #EndSARS, quickly gained traction both within Nigeria and internationally, with many Nigerians calling for an end to police brutality and the disbandment of SARS. The protests were largely peaceful.

The government responded by dismantling SARS and pledging reforms. A judicial panel of inquiry was established to investigate human rights abuses, propose compensation, and recommend reforms such as community policing, enhanced accountability, and improved training. The panel has since submitted its report and made several recommendations for police reform, including the establishment of community policing, the strengthening of police accountability mechanisms, and the implementation of better training for police officers.

President Muhammadu Buhari also announced the formation of the Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team, intended to replace the disbanded SARS unit. However, these announcements were met with scepticism by the protesters, who felt that previous promises of police reform had not been implemented effectively.

Previous attempts at police reform since 1999 yielded mixed results. The 1999 Constitution established an independent police service commission, the Justice Oputa Panel investigated abuses, the Police Service Commission Act addressed appointment and discipline, and the National Human Rights Commission focused on human rights violations. Additionally, a 2016 Police Reform Bill emerged to improve accountability and professionalism.

Regarding the contradiction in the 2019 reform bill, the amendment extending the tenure of Inspectors General of Police (IGPs) to five years aligns with the retirement age of 60. Thus, the retirement of IGPs at 60 after serving the full term is in accordance with the amendment and existing retirement policies. Part 8 of the reform bill intends to prevent abuse of power by requiring a court-issued warrant for arresting suspects without a warrant. Compliance with this provision is crucial to protect citizens’ rights, and any concerns regarding non-compliance should be reported to relevant authorities for appropriate action.

While the failure of the police reform bill may have contributed to the anti-police brutality protests, they were primarily a response to specific incidents of brutality by SARS. To accommodate the protesters’ wishes, the government should engage in dialogue to understand their demands and work towards finding acceptable solutions, which may involve amending the reform bill or introducing new legislation. And while the government has taken some steps towards implementing these reforms, there is still much work to be done to ensure that the Nigeria Police Force operates in a manner that is transparent, accountable, and respectful of human rights.

Despite the government’s efforts, the issue of police corruption and brutality still stands, and more importantly, police impunity. As in the case of Mr Ezenwa which I spoke about earlier, who releases a statement justifying extra-judicial murder simply because they suspect someone of cultism? 

While some positive steps may have taken, such as the release of arrested protesters and the identification and prosecution of officers involved in police brutality, the broader reforms demanded by the #EndSARS movement have not been realised. Comprehensive police reforms to address the systemic issues within the Nigeria Police Force are vital. Another round of anti-police protests could be triggered if the government fails to address concerns and implement meaningful reforms, and these would very easily degenerate into riots. The pressure cooker has been lit.


Nwanze is a partner at SBM Intelligence


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