Police officers are touted around the world as society’s first line of defence. This year has reminded us that this belief isn’t a universal privilege. 

In 2017, Nigerian activists began the #endSARS movement to protest the federal police unit known as SARS. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was commissioned in 1992 to tackle rising crime rates in Lagos by functioning outside of legal purview and covertly arresting, detaining, and prosecuting suspected criminals. Despite extensive evidence of the executions, rape, torture and extortion conducted by SARS officials, the Nigerian government did little to check the group’s impunity. Even the protests in 2017 and 2018 merely resulted in cosmetic reforms and a name alteration

But this time, change feels imminent. After the video of a young man reportedly shot by SARS operatives surfaced on Twitter earlier this month, #endSARS has taken the Internet by storm. Many celebrities within the Nigerian diaspora have spoken up against the previous infractions and the government’s current incommensurate use of force to quell peaceful protests. President Muhammadu Buhari’s recent decision to disband SARS and create SWAT—a new unit to “fill the gaps”—was also viewed by many Nigerians as another glorified rebranding strategy. Consequently, protesters still throng the streets, clamoring for more substantive change. 

The resurgence of #endSARS comes just months after widespread protests against police brutality in America. To many, the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor further confirmed the reality of institutionalized racism and brutality towards African-Americans and other minority groups. The #BlackLivesMatter and #endSARS movements have marked similarities. Both are grassroots movements birthed by Twitter hashtags. Both advocate police reforms as one manifestation of greater social equity. Both protest against institutions historically built to further objectives of colonial domination and racial oppression. When viewed together, these campaigns raise questions about the role of policing in societies, permanently scarred by the horrors of their own past. 

Nigeria has never been a monolith. Prior to colonization, it didn’t even exist. In its place were an amalgam of kingdoms and empires, operating independently for centuries before they were colonized by the British and crudely clumped together for administrative ease. Today, 60 years after independence; Nigerians represent over 250 ethnic groups, speak 514 different languages and have no true national identity—save a shared history of subjugation. Most of Nigeria’s political institutions are also vestiges of colonialism. Founded in 1820, the Nigerian Police Force’s original goal was quashing dissent among natives to ameliorate conditions for British merchants trading manufactured goods for raw materials. Most of these officers were non-natives trained in paramilitary combat and were often under direct control of politicians. The colonial police primarily functioned as an instrument of political terror. 

When Nigeria finally won independence from a declining British Empire in 1960; it inherited a power vacuum. Filling it has been a grisly affair, with power shifting hands first through coups and recently through democratic processes. But the one party that has never had true power is the citizen. The ideal state machinery grants agency to citizens by conferring and safeguarding their rights. Nigeria has spent its entire independent life rebuilding a state on top of one that actively attempted to commodify and subdue those under it. SARS has never been the real issue—it is merely a symptom of a political climate rife with corruption and unconducive to upholding human rights and democratic ideals. 

Compared to Nigeria, to some, America may seem to be the paragon of democratic stability. In a sense, it is. Few countries have such a history of strong democratic ideals and separation of powers between executive, judicial and legislative branches. However, true democracy mandates the indiscriminate enforcement of these benefits onto each citizen. This is the juncture where  America’s past debilitates its present. 

Prototypical policing in the United States was largely community-based, where citizens volunteered to maintain order and safeguard property in their localities. This included the creation of patrols as early as 1704 to recapture runaway slaves. Even when slave patrols were dissolved and policing became institutionalized; police officers were still required to uphold , often by force, discriminatory Jim Crow laws. The police have been used for much of America’s history to implement racist laws and policies that criminalize black individuals. While important remedial steps have been taken, recognizing this should not be a controversial or partisan stance. 

#endSARS and #BlackLivesMatter are not just fights against police brutality. They are pleas for accountability, respect, and basic human freedoms. The questions they raise about the role of law enforcement officials in society cannot be ignored. In Nigeria, Buhari promised to oversee “extensive police reforms” in accordance with the “genuine concerns” of the people. While this acknowledgement is promising, Buhari also referred to the misdemeanors as stemming from “a few bad eggs.” This rhetoric is increasingly being used in America as well, and is concerning because it indicates a fundamental negligence of structural problems in the police force. 

At times like these, it is important to remember that the institution of policing is a relatively modern invention and is not sacred or above change. “All Cops Are Bad” does not personally indict every single police officer. It merely recognizes their membership in a system that continues to perpetuate racial injustice. The ire that this phrase draws stems from instinctive righteous indignation, and is a weak attempt to absolve oneself and others from complicity. Taking the argument personally also results in re-marginalizing the oppressed individual and their perspective, ultimately distracting from the real issues and stymying attempts to achieve progress. Meaningful reforms will require centering the suffering of the victim over the guilt of the oppressor. 

Like in many other countries, the police force may become positive actors for  all citizens of Nigeria and the United States. But to do so will require an acknowledgement and reconciliation of their respective colonial and racially-charged histories, and a dedicated commitment towards becoming more equitably just and peaceful.

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