The way forward requires acceptance by all of us – government and people – that there is need for a radical transformation in the security situation of Nigeria. It will not be a sprint but a long haul. We must begin by transforming the conversation that began with #EndSARS rather than side-stepping it. This is the only way that Nigeria’s leaders and their fellow citizens can envision a common future…
#EndSARS was waiting to happen. Brought on by the weight of history; a dialogue of the deaf between Nigeria’s governing elite and the governed about how the latter experience (in)security; and the deficit of new ideas to convene and govern our collective aspirations, #EndSARS symbolises a deep structural problem.
At the core of the #EndSARS protest is the extent to which there is a shared vision of security between the governing elite and a cross-section of the Nigerian society. Undoubtedly, Nigerians distrust State authorities at several levels, the most visible for ordinary Nigerians being the police. The harrowing stories of citizens suffering at the hands of the Special Anti-robbery Squad (SARS) have been well told elsewhere. The Lekki shootings on October 20 only entrenched citizens’ distrust in the institutions meant to protect them from fear of violence.
Notwithstanding our recent tragedies, it is not too late to turn the situation around, provided the governing elite can fundamentally shift their mindset towards a commitment to a new national security conversation in which Nigeria’s leaders will choose to see the world through the eyes of their people and undertake to act speedily to address their concerns. Nigerians know how broken the security system is and it will take more than half-hearted assurances and platitudinal statements from government to regain their trust.
I offer, here, several proposals for moving away from this precipice to a new national security conversation that could lead to a renegotiated but better Nigeria. It is important to see the notion of “conversation” beyond verbal or overt dialogue. We have observed citizens and the state engage in “talking” and “talking back” about the human condition in Nigeria through a range of actions and inaction. For too long, Nigeria’s governing elite presumed to be in conversation with citizens, imposing their security vision as security and justice for ALL; whereas, in practice, Nigeria’s elite has conversed with itself; while fellow citizens talked back in various forms, ranging from music, theatre, violence, and sometimes silence and disengagement.
However, in the past more than two weeks, we have witnessed the heartbeat of our continent – Nigeria’s youth – talk back to their government through constructive protest; and the governing class has talked back to the youth through a confusing combination of verbal commitment, silence and violence. It is in the nature of a difficult conversation that it can sometimes deviate or degenerate into violence, particularly when there is no common ground. The introduction of armed soldiers, and the attendant violence, into this conversation, suggests a lack of fresh ideas for continuing the conversation, and in particular, a rigid mindset on the part of the governing elite. #EndSARS will persist because there is no alternative for either side to pursue. Therefore, we must reflect and start a new national conversation. As we do so, it is important to understand how we got here.
The Weight of History
Historical baggage accompanies Nigeria’s security crisis. It goes back to the central tenets of colonial security thinking, as well as the organising logic of state-centred security during the Cold War era. During this time, the colonial powers used the police to subjugate local African populations and to extract taxes. Many post-colonial African countries, including Nigeria, retained the same adversarial colonial security apparatus. Subsequently, in the Cold War environment into which African countries emerged at independence, the state, not the people, was the reference point.
The governing elite and the people have been conversing about security in parallel universes. Every facet – the meaning of security, its translation and experience – are fundamentally different for the governing class on the one side, and the rest of society on another. For too long, security was framed to secure the defence of the state and the protection of privileged elite…
With the end of the Cold War, ordinary Africans could demand, for the first time, that their leaders recognise their vision of security and respect their dignity. Nigeria has had many chances to prioritise the security of citizens since 1999, yet issues concerning policing and oversight of the police, were pushed to the back burner for too long. The language of people-focused security – human security – entered our security discourse but did not translate into real change on the ground towards the protection of ordinary people. Opportunities were lost to align the security aspirations of the Nigerian people and their leaders because successive Nigerian governments saw security, particularly police control and oversight, probably given the experience of military government, as too vital to their power, to lose a grip on.
An Inaudible Conversation
The governing elite and the people have been conversing about security in parallel universes. Every facet – the meaning of security, its translation and experience – are fundamentally different for the governing class on the one side, and the rest of society on another. For too long, security was framed to secure the defence of the state and the protection of privileged elite and their networks, from fear of violence. The vast majority of citizens, who are not under the umbrella of elite protection and who cannot afford to pay for protection, are therefore doomed to suffer at hands of the police.
The Nigerian youth of this century are alive to this reality. Ongoing research at the African Leadership Centre on their perspectives of security indicates that the human condition in Nigeria is the primary security concern of its youth. They define security as “living well” and “living long”, a view clearly at odds with the state and elite-centric approach to security. Even then, it is easy to see how insecurity persists. For one group, living well means “being healthy; living with no fear of danger and lack; and fulfilling life goals with benefit to others”. Yet, for another, living well means “living large”; and “having the power and means to do whatever I want”. So, the pursuit of the personal aspirations of a relatively small group of people can create existential threats for a larger group. This is easily Nigeria’s story.
In 2019, the new National Security Policy, uncharacteristically, but appropriately, highlighted a range of security concerns to Nigerian citizens, from kidnapping to poverty and unemployment, that went beyond the usual state-centred paradigm. Clearly, the lessons of Boko Haram and the range of internal security threats faced by this and preceding governments opened the window to an expanded perspective of security. In 2020, a new Police Act was assented to by President Buhari. However, translating the National Security Policy and the new Police Act into real change for citizens had neither occurred nor showed signs of occurring before #EndSARS happened. This is the crux of the matter. Control of the Nigeria Police Force (its anachronistic surname established by the 1999 Constitution is yet to change, unfortunately) is still centralised with much power in the hands of one individual – the inspector general of Police. Given the overlapping functions between the IGP, the Police Council and the Police Service Commission (which, like the Police Council, is a constitutional body, yet is not even mentioned in the Police Act), effective oversight of the Nigerian Police is lost.
Failure to clearly define the limits of the IGP’s authority and the proper supervision and oversight of the Police by the appropriate authority will condemn ordinary Nigerians to a cycle of abuse without consequences. So, who polices the Police? Is it the president, the Police Service Commission or the National Assembly? To add to the uncertainty, the Court of Appeal recently ruled that parts of the new Act are in conflict with the 1999 Constitution’s provisions on the Police Service Commission.
Two important points of contention must be immediately addressed if we are to see a changed future. The first is the conflict in the constitutional responsibilities of the Police Council, as against that of the Police Service Commission, which is compounded the provisions of the Police Act that seems to have created a statutory Ministry of Police Affairs, without saying so. Effectively, there are four poles of both constitutional and statutory responsibility between the Police Council, the Police Service Commission, the Ministry of Police Affairs and the inspector-general of Police. The second concerns the debate about states control of policing. This is a real challenge for the mindset of Nigeria’s Federal Government that historically has been so nervous about ceding control from Abuja.
Providing legitimate space for a year-long national security conversation that opens conversable spaces at all levels of society for Nigerians to project a collective vision of security and governance. This cannot be a closed-door process by a handful of elites…
Convening Citizens’ Aspirations Into a New National Security Conversation
The way forward requires acceptance by all of us – government and people – that there is need for a radical transformation in the security situation of Nigeria. It will not be a sprint but a long haul. We must begin by transforming the conversation that began with #EndSARS rather than side-stepping it. This is the only way that Nigeria’s leaders and their fellow citizens can envision a common future, and plan from that future to begin a new conversation. Here are five elements of a new security conversation that is possible, going forward:
• Unveiling the TRUTH about the recent shootings in Lekki and other places is an important starting point for regaining the trust of citizens in their leaders. Truth, along with a public apology from Nigeria’s leaders, can have a transforming effect;
• Keeping the president’s and governors’ promise to bring SARS perpetrators to book. In this effort, representatives of youth coalition with relevant expertise should be granted observer status in the inquiries at a minimum;
• In the absence of amending the Police Act 2020, ensuring an active Police Council with the president and governors exercising their overarching authority for monitoring and supervision of the police. In this regard, an administrative rule established jointly by the Council and the Commission, with the aid of the federal attorney-general, and embodied in an Executive Order by the president, that addresses the overlapping functions of the IGP with the Police Service Commission and the Ministry of Police Affairs (which may be seen as the executive arm of the Police Council), is vitally important;
• Providing legitimate space for a year-long national security conversation that opens conversable spaces at all levels of society for Nigerians to project a collective vision of security and governance. This cannot be a closed-door process by a handful of elites;
• Organising a referendum to allow Nigerians an opportunity to make a choice from among the best ideas that emerge from the National Security Conversation. Doing this alone will begin to give Nigerians a collective sense of belonging rather than a perception of life in two parallel universes.
’Funmi Olonisakin is a professor of Security, Leadership and Development at King’s College, London.
This article was originally published by Business Day.