Why Nigeria’s Youth Are Protesting for Police Reform

By Andrew Cesare Miller

October 20, 2020*

“Police Is Your Friend.” Nigerians say this slogan of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), which polices the country’s 200 million people, with laughter and resigned frustration. Decades of NPF misconduct and ineffectiveness understandably have led many Nigerians to view the police with skepticism. On October 8, the tensions boiled over into nationwide protests after a video showed police officers shooting a man outside a hotel in Lagos–Nigeria’s commercial capital and home to more than 13 million people. 

Protesters initially called for the disbandment of NPF’s tactical unit, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). In a major win for the protesters, Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari dissolved the unit. Leveraging the momentum, the protesters are now calling for a broader overhaul of the country’s police force in what appears to be the strongest national movement for police reform since the country’s 1999 transition to democracy.

Young People Bear the Brunt of Police Abuses

Nigeria’s youth, who have been boosting the #EndSARS and #EndPoliceBrutality campaign on social media, are leading the movement. Young people taking the lead in the push for reforms is unsurprising given that they bear the brunt of police abuses. In the United States, policing inequities tend to break down along racial lines with Black communities facing heavy-handed enforcement and deadly police violence at times, as George Floyd’s killing put into full view.

In Nigeria, a key fault line for police abuses is generational, with corrupt officers targeting young people. Lagos youth have recounted to me a bevy of police abuses as part of a research project on police-community relations and gang violence that I began in 2016.  

Students described SARS officers stopping them without apparent cause and accusing them of “doing Yahoo Yahoo” (internet scams) for carrying a laptop in their backpacks. To the students, the officers’ goal seemed not to apprehend scammers and wrong-doers but rather to extract bribes from their detainees.

The NPF’s slogan “Police is your friend” affixed on the wall of a police post in Lagos (author’s fieldwork photo).

Shopkeepers recounted seeing police officers collecting bribes from local gangs known as “area boys.” The area boys extort businesses—many of which young Nigerians own or manage—in Lagos’s bustling markets, and shopkeepers believe that the gangs pay off the officers so they can continue their extortion with little police interference. The corrupt officers and the gangs are “in soup” (working together), one shopkeeper put it to me as she bumped the sides of her index fingers together.

A Few “Bad Eggs” in the Police?

Nigeria’s political leadership deserves credit for rapidly responding to popular calls for reform, but this same leadership may not understand the extent of the reform needed.

On October 11, Buhari dissolved SARS in response to protests, and given that the NPF is responsible for policing all of Nigeria, the dissolution has taken effect nationwide. The speed of Nigeria’s reforms contrasts with American policing reforms, which are in part slowed by the idiosyncrasies of the more than 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. In Minnesota, for instance, the site of George Floyd’s killing, reform efforts have stalled due to procedural technicalities in the city’s charter. 

Buhari has emphasized that the NPF’s misdeeds are limited to “a few bad eggs” who tarnish hard-working NPF officers. The president is right to recognize that many NPF officers genuinely try to provide public safety and improve relations with communities. In 2018, I met an officer in Mushin, considered one Lagos’s “roughest” areas, who, in a small gesture, paid out of his own pocket to plant greenery in the station to make it more inviting for citizens. 

But, the NPF’s problems are not simply a matter of a few corrupt officers. The problems are structural, originating from the top of the government. Despite a modest 2018 pay hike, NPF officers earn meager salaries starting as low as around $120 per month (albeit with other benefits). Budgetary shortages and mismanagement also mean that officers sometimes face long stretches without receiving a paycheck. These realities cripple morale and create pressures on officers to solicit bribes.

Further corrupting the NPF are a lack of resources to investigate cases. According to Lagosians, police customarily ask for a hefty “mobilization fee” to pursue a case partly to pay for logistics such as fuel for the officers’ vehicles.

Protesters Want a Professional Police Force

Nigeria’s protesters recognize that the Nigeria Police Force’s problems go well beyond the now-defunct SARS. For the protesters, the solution is not to dismantle the police as a whole but rather professionalize the force. Their demands include establishing an independent review board for citizen complaints as well as the reevaluation and retraining of ex-SARS officers. And, whereas protesters in the United States are calling for defunding the police, Nigeria’s protesters are demanding pay raises for NPF officers.

The NPF head convened a board that has approved these reforms, and Buhari more broadly has promised “extensive police reforms.” If reforms are implemented properly, they will put the NPF on the undoubtedly long and windy road toward fully professionalizing the force. 

Nigerians, however, often remark that politicians promise much more than they deliver, and police crackdowns on protests have reinforced their skepticism. Ultimately, it remains to be seen if NPF officers will get the resources that they need, and Nigerian citizens will get the professional police force that they deserve.

Andrew Cesare Miller (millera@usna.edu) is an assistant professor of political science at the United States Naval Academy. These views are his own, and not those of the Naval Academy or U.S. government. 

*Header image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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