U.S. President Joe Biden has set a goal of connecting America’s foreign policy to its people and to conditions at home. He and his appointees and nominees talk, for example, about approaching international affairs with the humility borne of the country’s recent high-profile struggles with democracy and with justice in policing, and they say the administration wants to ensure the American people understand and benefit from the nation’s role in the world. The United States and Nigeria might be able to help each other out on some of these fronts.
Just as the United States is a global powerhouse whose domestic ailments are felt far and wide, Nigeria is Africa’s largest economy and the continent’s most populous country, and what happens in Nigeria directly impacts West and Central Africa and even the whole continent. Conversely, when Nigerian leadership is absent in regional issues, either because it is consumed with internal affairs or because it is setting a dire example of governance, the effects reverberate far across its borders.
Most U.S. and other international attention on Nigeria has focused on its struggle with the Boko Haram insurgency. But that and similar issues are really symptoms of the underlying ills that its leaders have either exacerbated or struggled to address. Among those issues is abusive policing – sound familiar?
Just as police abuses exploded into public view in the United States last summer with the racial justice protests over the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, Nigeria was gripped by unprecedented protests in October over the infamous Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). The unit had been linked to egregious and systematic human rights violations, including extrajudicial execution, torture, arbitrary and unlawful detention, and extortion.
The protests were so large as to practically shut down Lagos, Africa’s largest city. They triggered similar demonstrations across the country. The protests and the military’s brutal crackdown on them in Lagos — the Nigerian military shot and killed 38 people at the Lekki tollgate plaza on Oct. 20 — added to the global demands for reforms and accountability for police in dozens of countries. The government impunity continued afterwards, as authorities detained more protesters and froze demonstrators’ bank accounts and seized their passports.
A History of Abuse
The expressions of public outrage in Nigeria’s streets shocked the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari. But he should not have been surprised. Established in 1992, SARS was formed to combat armed robbery and other serious crimes, but it soon began to be known for its abuses. Efforts to enforce oversight, discipline, and reform for the SARS unit and the Nigerian security forces repeatedly stalled, and a culture of impunity was consolidated.
A preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court found not only “a reasonable basis to believe that members of Boko Haram and its splinter groups” committed acts constituting crimes against humanity and war crimes, but also that the same could be said, though to a lesser extent, of members of the Nigerian Security Forces (‘NSF’), according to Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda. “These allegations are also sufficiently grave to warrant investigation by my Office, both in quantitative and qualitative terms,” she said in a statement in December.
She reiterated what she said were repeated urgings to Nigerian authorities that they take their own actions within their judicial system to hold accountable any individuals who were responsible for the violations. But she clearly found that the Nigerian government’s record on accountability for its security forces is dismal. While some minimal actions were taken against members of Boko Haram, “the military authorities have also informed me that they have examined, and dismissed, allegations against their own troops,” she said. As a result, Bensouda said, she would proceed to request permission from the ICC’s Pre-Trial Chamber to proceed with an international investigation.
Human Rights Watch also has noted the absence of progress on accountability for security force abuses in Nigeria. The group cited two inquiries in 2017 and 2018 for which the reports still haven’t been made public, including one on SARS. Unfortunately this is typical historically for Nigeria – a 2002 report presented to then-President Olusegun Obasanjo by the Human Rights Violations Investigation Commission, more commonly known as the Oputa Panel, to investigate human rights violations, including assassinations and attempted killings between January 1966 and May 28, 1999 was never officially released to the public.
The 2019 U.S. State Department country report on human rights in Nigeria documents government agents committing arbitrary, unlawful, or extrajudicial killings. It reported that, while there has been some improvement, the national police, army, and other security services still use deadly or excessive force against protesters and suspects and are not held accountable for doing so. It also notes that “Findings from panels of inquiry are not usually made public.”
A Fundamental Challenge to the Republic
The impunity enjoyed by Nigeria’s security forces is a fundamental challenge to Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, and it is a challenge that the administrations of Presidents Obasanjo, Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, Goodluck Jonathan, and Buhari have refused to address. Indeed, the Buhari administration’s business-as-usual crackdown to the #ENDSARS protests may have shaped a whole new generation of Nigerians who have had enough abuse at the hands of the country’s security forces and who might not be as restrained or patient with their demands for justice as their predecessors. The continent, like other parts of the world, has enough examples, even recently, showing the disastrous consequences of frustrated demands for government reform, whether in policing or otherwise, that started out nonviolent: Cameroon, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Uganda.
In the United States, despite some incidents of violence, the Black Lives Matter protests remained overwhelmingly peaceful. And the groups now have converted their street activism to the ballot box and local issues such as the proportion of government budgets that go to law enforcement versus health care and education.
As the new U.S. administration determines its approach to Nigeria, police reform and youth activism are at least two areas where the countries could work together and learn from each other. While some may be mourning the demise of a U.S. foreign policy based on claims of exceptionalism, social media and the internet more broadly have allowed everyone to see the challenges and unfinished business in the world’s oldest democracy.
A model based on self-perceptions of exceptionalism is no longer an option. What better time to start engaging as equal partners, in which each country’s government and civil society organizations push each other and themselves to establish policing that respects human rights, welcomes accountability and professionalism, and responds to the needs of the communities they are mandated to protect.