Baba Aye: Bloodbath in Nigeria – Part 1, a political economy of the police

Two elements which are becoming increasingly prominent in the global world order during the decay of neoliberalism are, first, the role of the police – highlighted by their involvement  in some high-profile labour disputes and generalized social control – and second, the generalized revolt, which frequently challenges or shatters conventional compartmentalization of labour and other movements as well as transforming the means and forms of dispute.

Baba Aye is the co-convenor of the Coalition for Revolution, a leading member of the Socialist Workers and Youth League, and a trade unionist in Nigeria. In Part 1 of this article about the uprising in Nigeria, he explains how the revolt unfolded and begins a political economy of the police. Part 2 concludes on an outline of the trade union movement in the revolt. Originally published in Global Labour Column.


The Nigerian army killed 38 defenceless #EndSARS protesters in Nigeria on October 20 as it moved to suppress a two-week nationwide protest by tens of thousands of people – mainly youths – against police brutality and bad governance. This marked a turning point, as a gale of violence followed in the wake of this massacre.

The #EndSARS rebellion was sparked by the killing of a young man by police in a provincial town in the Niger delta region on October 3. It was believed at the time that these were men of the vicious Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), an elite corps in the police notorious for brutality and extra-judicial murders.

There was great outcry in the Naija1  blogosphere, particularly on Twitter. This anger spilled onto the streets four days after the murder, sweeping across two thirds of the 36 states of the federation. The biggest protests were in Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory, and (particularly) the mega-city of Lagos with more than 21 million inhabitants.

On October 11, the movement won what appeared to be victory. A presidential directive was issued via twitter that: “The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force @PoliceNG has been dissolved WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT” (capitals in the original). But the protesters were not deceived. The government had declared SARS disbanded or reformed in 2017, 2018 and 2019, less stridently on each occasion, in response to killings by SARS operatives. And, as the #EndSARS campaigners pointed out, the issues at stake went beyond SARS. They wanted an end to police brutality in general.

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So, they stood their ground. The spaces they occupied became carnival-like with live music and dancing. But within hours, the police attacked protesters with water cannons and tear gas in Abuja. Several of them were also arrested as they fled for safety. But they were undaunted. The crowds regathered and increased in numbers. The movement then presented a 5-point programme of demands dubbed “5 for 5,” which stands for:

– The immediate release of all arrested protesters
– Justice for all deceased victims of brutality and appropriate compensation for their families
– An independent body to oversee the investigation and persecution of all reports of police misconduct
– Psychological evaluation and retraining of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be redeployed
– An increase in police salary so they are adequately compensated for protecting the lives and property of the citizens .

On October13, a presidential panel on police reforms approved the “5 for 5” after discussions at a “multi-stakeholders” forum summoned by the inspector general of police, My Mohammed Adamu, and the National Human Rights Commission. UNDP (United Nations Development Programme), the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation and OSIWA (the Open Society Initiative for West Africa) attended the meeting. The popular musician known as Falz, who had been part of the movement, and a number of national NGOs such as Enough is Enough, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre and the Centre for Information Technology and Development, were also present.

But that same day the inspector general announced the replacement of SARS with a Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit. This old wine in new skin was government acting in bad faith and it strengthened the resistance’s resolve. #EndSARS was momentarily switched to #EndSWAT. But by then SARS had become emblematic of police brutality and more, so #EndSARS continued to be the movement’s signifier.

The mood on the streets became more charged. The hashtag #EndBadGovernanceInNigeria also got trending on twitter. And in the neighbourhoods, protesting residents drew attention to several points of concern such as bad roads, epileptic power supply with crazy bills,  and a rising cost of living. Demands from within the formally leaderless movement became even more politicised. There were calls for dissolving the national assembly or at least dissolving the senate for a unicameral legislature.

In five states, including the federal capital territory, hired thugs took to attacking the protesters, but in most instance they were overwhelmed. Evidence gathered and confessions they made showed they were working at the behest of chieftains of the ruling political party.

In the south-western state of Osun, these thugs (who were well known enforcers of the ruling All Progressives Congress) shot two protesters in the back, killing them instantly in the presence of the governor on October 17. This was when the #EndSARS activists were about to reveal evidence of a monetary transaction between the governor’s office and the thugs who had earlier attacked them twice. As the governor’s convoy scurried out of the melee, it was attacked.

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In Abuja, the hoodlums went a step further after a series of their attacks were repulsed. They set more than 200 cars of protesters ablaze in the early hours of 19 October. All these developments fuelled anger in the movement. Cries of president “Buhari2 Must Go” began to find an echo in the #EndSARS rallies.

Pent up resentment
Outside the protest movement itself, pent up resentment against the state burst the seams of civility. Angry mobs stormed prisons in two cities, and prisoners, many of whom had been held without trial for the most trivial of offences, were let loose. Youths also attacked Rapid Response Unit police officers and burnt down an infamous police station in Lagos.

Claiming that the protest had “degenerated into a monster” which was “threatening the wellbeing of society,” the Lagos state governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, just after noon on October 20, declared that a 24-hour curfew would come into force in the state by 4:00pm, later postponed to 9:00pm.

But before 7:00pm, security personnel took up positions in the two main occupied spaces which had become centres of the #EndSARS resistance in Lagos: in front of the Lagos State of House of Assembly on the Mainland, and at the Lekki tollgate on the Island. In Lekki, the security personell were soldiers and they set bonfires on the two possible exit routes out of the rally ground.

Just before then, the CCTV cameras were dismantled and the billboard and all streetlights in the area switched off3. And then the massacre began. The aim of the army was clearly not to disperse the crowd. Blood was meant to be spilled with the aim of driving fear into the heart of the #EndSARS movement towards killing it.  

The police and the decay of neoliberalism
The police are an important instrument of the capitalist state’s coercive apparatus. They maintain law and order. The particular manner in which the ruling class’ will is expressed and the social order of capitalism is constructed shapes the specifics of policing and police brutality (which can hardly be totally wiped out of policing).

For example, the recent global spread of the Black Lives Matter uprising showed the interconnectedness between systemic racism and institutionalised (even if not formally) police brutality against black and brown people from the United States to Canada, France to Britain and Germany to Australia. The nature of real or constructed crime which policing engages with as law enforcement also stems from the concrete nature of the capitalist order in different countries.

In Nigeria, the police force, which was established in 1820, enforced the colonial order for most of its existence. After independence in 1960, flowing from the clientelist order of neo-colonial capitalism in the country, policing and its associated brutality was associated increasingly with their unofficial partisan role for the parties controlling government. This was taken to the peak with the formation of the Mobile Police (anti-riot police) known as “Kill and Go,” which became a machine facilitating the rigging machine of the National Party of Nigeria – the ruling party at the federal level during the Second Republic (1979-83). 

To be continued…. 

1 Of or from Nigeria in local patois.
2 Mohammed Buhari, a retired army general, is the president.
3 48 hours later, the state government would claim that it was license plates verification cameras that were taken down and the lights being switched off was because the workers responsible had to leave before the curfew came into effect. But these obvious lies raise more questions than answers.

[For international news and analysis from working-class, oppressed peoples, and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]

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