Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise.James Baldwin
Five years ago, they took my uncle from his house in Oyigbo. The people who whisked him away were policemen from the state headquarters in Port Harcourt. The men arrived early in the morning, before the sun peeked out from behind the clouds. They bashed in the wooden door, producing a terrifying sound that shot through the house. They barged in, holding back my uncle who, though dazed, challenged them. He struggled against their firm grip, screaming. He struggled because he thought they had come to kidnap him—or to kill him. The policemen didn’t introduce themselves; they were not in uniform. Wouldn’t anyone think the same?
In Nigeria, police practices often resemble the tactics of kidnappers: they break into people’s private spaces, dressed in mufti. They make no formal announcement. No identity cards, no warrants. If you ask them for proof, they will curse at you, swarm over you, strike you with fists and batons. And after they have taken you away, they will refuse you any contact with your people for days. If you resist their ignoble and unethical actions, they will label you an armed robber, a cultist, anything they want—it doesn’t matter. And they will make you pay dearly.
The policemen, my uncle told me, had a hard time pulling him to their van. He was tall and muscular. So, they beat him with balled fists. His face was swollen with welts, a dark-brown color around his eyes. As he clung to the headboard of his bed, one of the policemen shot him in the leg. He screamed. The policemen ignored his cries, his pain, and the wound that spurted blood. They handcuffed him, bundled him up, and took him away in their van.
When this news reached us, my mother, sobbing, spoke with the rest of the family. After some investigation, they discovered that my uncle had been taken to the state police headquarters. What happened? The question everyone was asking. Did he steal? Had he done anything odious? Everyone, of course, was confused. My uncle, calm and collected, wasn’t the kind of person who would stir up trouble. We were bewildered. And this bewilderment deepened into anxiety as we feared for his life.
Eventually, we learned that Mr. Chris, a barrister who owned the compound next door, had arranged with those policemen to arrest my uncle. He wished to appropriate a small portion of my uncle’s land. He had wanted to build shops on it, but my uncle had denied him access. They had had a fierce quarrel and thrown curses at each other.
I met this barrister once when I visited my uncle. Dark and of average height, he blinked his eyes too often when speaking. He was boastful and spoke haughtily. I never liked him. He could often be found visiting his building in Oyigbo, a small town in the southern part of the oil-producing Rivers State, where my uncle was stolen away.
Over the past few years, the #EndSARS protests spread throughout numerous cities in Nigeria, calling for the disbanding of a notorious police unit: the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). As the protests grew, the memory of my uncle’s experience came rushing back to me, filling my mind with terror and fury. I watched video clips and read tweets. Many were personal stories that testified to just how much people had suffered—and continue to suffer—at the hands of the police. People passed out names and photographs, searching for loved ones and friends who had been snatched up and disappeared by government forces. As citizens across the country stormed the streets, I joined the protest in Port Harcourt. Everybody held signs calling for an end to SARS, an end to police brutality, an end to an unaccountable government. We marched to the Government House, the seat of the local state, chanting melodies of freedom.
One reason that the police still feel free to brutalize people, I reckon, is that they see them as docile and powerless as lambs. They believe the people to be defenseless, lacking the tools or influence to negotiate and defend their rights. Police feel justified in committing inhuman and reprehensible actions against average people, people like my uncle. But the wealthy and the top politicians—those that the police worshipped, to whom they bowed and saluted, that they called “Sir”—would never receive that treatment. Never!
Ordinary Nigerians, especially the youth, have also believed they are powerless. The civil rights laws that are supposed to protect them, to ensure justice, have proven inadequate. Nigeria is a hen that remains calm and watches while a hawk scoops up her chicks. Despite a law passed in December 2017 that criminalized torture, police officers continue to brutalize people on a daily basis. Because of this law’s porosity, because of this injustice living in our legal system, the police officers who arrested Hamilton Osahenhen Obazee and tortured him to death on March 6th, 2020 are yet to be prosecuted. The police officers and soldiers who shot peaceful protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate one year ago, on October 20, 2020, are yet to be arrested and prosecuted. The beginning of the end of justice is the denial of freedom and the unjust application of the law.
The burning questions I have held since those protestors were shot at Lekki Toll Gate are these: Why is the government reluctant to punish or prosecute police officers found guilty of brutality? Why are they getting away with this crime? Why does the government use them as instruments of oppression?
Historically, the police have always aligned with the government to oppress powerless citizens. Police act to protect the interests of the wealthy and powerful—just as Mr. Chris used them in an attempt to encroach on my uncle’s land. The government stymies freedom and suppresses the demand for democracy. This is why they fight protesters, people who demand accountability and reforms. Instead of safeguarding and protecting the protesters or ensuring peaceful protests, the police fight them with tear gas, batons, guns. Sometimes, they kill. In July of 2003, during a nationwide protest over an increase in fuel prices, authorization was given to the Lagos State Commissioner of Police to shoot protesters on sight. Human Rights Watch recorded the policemen using both tear gas and live bullets, murdering many protesters.
In my family, after the arrest of my uncle, we felt a fear settle into the seams of our minds. That fear cut into me deeply. I saw my uncle lifeless and stuffed in a coffin, lowered into a grave. God forbid! I said, rebuking that deathly vision in my head. I had feared that he might exit this world because he came ominously close to doing so. For three or four days after his arrest, my uncle was left in a lonely cell with a bullet wound in his leg. In those stark and hopeless days, he said, he writhed in pain. He stood at the boundary of darkness. He was only one of many who, both from negligence and from brutality, have watched their lives or the lives of their loved ones slipping away.
I’m not entirely sure how he survived. I only know that my mother and aunty spoke with the police. Perhaps they cried. Perhaps they paid a bribe. But somehow they convinced the authorities to treat my uncle as his leg wound deteriorated. Finally, he was referred to the University of Port Harcourt Teaching Hospital to receive care.
Of course my uncle was scared. We all were scared. Maybe of death—or maybe it wasn’t really about death. We all were scared of so many things. But a consequence of this fear, is that, at times, we accept our powerlessness. And when we retreat in fear, our oppressors—the government and police—allow us to speak only silence as we watch the state perpetrate its oppressive policies. Any attempt to challenge this, to demand, to speak up, is stifled and crushed by force. The first coin of injustice an oppressive government throws at its citizens is to deny them of their freedom of speech and to wall off all criticism—key ingredients necessary to hold government accountable.
So we chose to take nonviolent direct action to defiantly demand accountability and justice. When a large number of Nigerians, despite the pandemic, took to the streets in October, it was to call the attention of the government, to ask: How many deaths will it take for police brutality to be stopped? What will it take to be seen as humans, as real, hardworking citizens of Nigeria?
In the days following the #EndSARS protests across cities in Nigeria, my mind became plagued with grief, with fury. I felt the world was about to break, to cast us all into the ocean. In those days, sleep hardly kissed my eyes. But music brought me relief. I would plug my ears with headphones, nodding to the lyrics of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song and Fela Kuti’s Zombie and Beast of No Nation. I don’t know why I chose those songs, but as I listened, their effect was majestically soothing. I admired how both artists called for social justice with their sharp criticism of the oppressive political, economic, and class systems in which they lived.
Now, just like before, many people are seeking ways to confront police brutality, to topple oppressive structures and live freely. In the past few months, many have been calling for state policing and the defunding of police. The calls for defunding, as Paige Fernandez observes, have a simple premise: “We must cut the astronomical amount of money that our governments spend on law enforcement and give that money to more helpful services like job training, counseling and violence-prevention programs.” These aims are worthwhile. But we must also confront a deeper source: police brutality is enabled by the existence of state structures that serve the rich and powerful, by police’s knowledge that the law will always protect them, by their sense of impunity.
Last summer, I saw this sense of impunity in action. This happened in Oyigbo on Tuesday, August 11th, 2020. On the side of the road, one woman grabbed at another, holding her tightly enough to pull off her sleeveless shirt. People had begun to gather. I was there, behind the tiny crowd, watching. The woman holding the other one was light-skinned—and was, we later discovered, a police officer. The other was dark-skinned, tall and slim. They had stepped off of a bus after the policewoman, dressed in mufti, had refused to make space for another passenger. After the dark-skinned woman asked her to make room, the policewoman had slapped her twice. Her only offense, another bus passenger said, was that she’d offered to lift the policewoman’s bag from the seat to make more space. Furious, she slapped the policewoman in response. For what allowed the officer to hit her twice for trying to help? At this point, the dark-skinned woman was still unaware that her assailant was a policewoman.
After they alighted from the bus, the officer, still holding the other woman, phoned her colleagues. After a while, they arrived in their car, leapt out, and began hitting the woman, forcing her into the car and taking her off to the station. We only watched, too afraid of being beaten and pushed into the car ourselves. Though some people had pleaded with the policewoman, there was nothing we could do. But why must they beg her? She was at fault. I was pained. Such cruelty and impunity; no consideration for fairness or justice. That policewoman felt justified in dishing out such oppressive treatment because she knew full well she would get away with it.
Since the #EndSARS protests began around 2017, many Nigerians have marched together to condemn the brutality of the police and the loud silence of the government. On social media, the protest was vehement and attracted much international support—for police brutality anywhere is the same everywhere. The #EndSARS protests spread around the world. The government’s response to these protests against brutality was further brutality at Lekki Toll Gate. It’s difficult to determine just how many people died that day, since the government obfuscates the numbers.
Defunding the police without a comprehensive overhaul of the structures that empower them, without enshrining constitutionalism and justice, would be like confiscating an armed robber’s gun and setting him free, thinking he’d change. If you must stop him from stealing, you must first change his thought, limit his tactics, dismantle the incentives that drive him.
When people speak out about oppression, it is not that they are cynically attempting to use it to unify people, to get them interested in a cause. Never. There is nothing cynical about pain, about being victimized or brutalized. Instead, when we all speak out, it’s with a singular voice: to bar the evil of brutality, to tear down oppressive structures, and to insist that we, the people, regardless of our class, gender or sexual orientation, be looked upon equally, as humans. In October of last year, many Nigerian youths spoke with this unified voice when they turned to protest. Why? Because the law has been hijacked, the people could not appeal to its efficacy; because the government acts in bad faith, the people will gain nothing from going into dialogue with them.
For a people to win desired change, to pull freedom from the ferocious mouth of their oppressors, they must confront their fear. This reminds me of how Bob Marley, in Redemption Song, tells us, “None but ourselves can free our minds.”Even in the midst of a deadly pandemic, many Nigerian youths across the country set aside the fear of dying from the virus, of being shot by the police, of being arrested. They trampled on this fear to call for justice, to call for an end to oppression and police brutality. When I think of this audacious protest and many others, I think of Fela Kuti. I think of Bob Marley, and how he lamented: “How long shall they kill our prophets / While we stand aside and look?”
During the October protest, many Nigerian youths refused to stand aside and look. We refused to stay in grief, though we grieved for the people whose blood was smudged on the ground at Lekki Toll Gate, and on the ground in every city across the country. We refused to see ourselves as powerless, or to be afraid. To remain scared would be to die in installments. Nigerian youths demand change. We no longer wish to seek answers in deafening silence. That was why we called forth the name of justice, asking that it be given us. That was why we seized the streets, graffitied them with our grievances, yelled our demands, and chanted the song of freedom: #EndSARS! #EndSARS!♦
Okechi Okeke is a recipient of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award and a finalist for the K and L Prize for African writing.