Police Brutality in International Life and the Case of #EndSARS: the Foreign Policy Implications


By Bola A. Akinterinwa

In polemology, one major defining element of terrorism is ‘brutality’ or ‘cruelty.’ Any brutal act is considered as terroristic, hence the derivation of terrorism from it. The origin of terrorism has been traced to the time of French Revolution in 1789. International Life is a component of International Relations. While International Relations is used, stricto sensu, to refer to the relationships between and among nation-states, in other words, about government-to-government activities, international life is generally used lato sensu, to refer to activities of government officials in their private life, as well as to the involvement of non-state actors in international relations. For instance, a diplomat can go to a dance party both in official and private capacity. When the attendance is in private capacity, it falls under international life and we can talk about ‘officious’ relationships as distinct from official and unofficial relationships. Thus, brutality in the context of government-to-government ties should be differentiated from brutality at the level of international life. And perhaps more importantly, it should be noted that international life, like in international relations, is not devoid of brutality and terrorism.

#EndSARS is a spontaneous protest movement, given birth to on Thursday, 8th October, 2020. It is largely made up of Nigerian youths. From its name, the main purpose is to protest against police brutality in Nigeria and eventually calling for an end to it. Again, polemologically, it is not structured, it does not have any known leader and has been engaged in peaceful protest, but the police force has been responding to the peaceful protests brutally, killing innocent protesters and brutalising media men covering the protests. In fact, Mr. Francis Ogbonna. of the Arise Television, got his head broken and his camera completely damaged. This brutality directly offends the 1999 Constitution of Nigeria as amended.

For instance, Section 22 of the Constitution has it that ‘the press, radio, television and other agencies of the mass media shall, at all times, be free to uphold the fundamental objectives contained in this Chapter and uphold the responsibility and accountability of the Government to the people.’ Put differently, the media practitioners have not only the freedom to uphold the fundamental objectives, but also in doing so, are required to make the Government accountable to the people of Nigeria. In this regard, what are the fundamental objectives to be upheld by the media professionals?

Chapter II of the 1999 Constitution articulated the fundamental objectives and the directive principles of State policy: government’s responsibility to the people, politico-economic objectives, social and foreign policy objectives, etc. It is made clear that Nigeria is ‘a State based on the principles of democracy and social justice’ (vide Section 14(1). More important, Section 14(2)(b) says ‘the security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government.’ The reactive brutalisation of Francis Ogbonna and unnecessary repression of peaceful #EndSARS protesters clearly suggest that the President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB)’s administration is quite far from making security and welfare of the people the primary purpose of his government. This point is buttressed by the mistreatment of, and issues in, the #EndSARS protesters contrary to the organic law of the land.

Issues in #EndSARS
There are many critical issues in this matter of #EndSARS saga. The first is the spontaneity of the protest. The spontaneity is brutality-driven. It isa protest against police brutality, which is not simply about corporal mistreatment of people, but also includes complaints about poor and bad governance. The protesters are asking for good governance, strong institutions, comprehensive police reform, and even for better police service delivery, in terms of better salary, better equipment and better training.

As noted earlier, the first source of grievance is police brutality, but with the increasing acquisition of new knowledge day-after-day of protests, fresh demands are added to the need to end police brutality. As at today, the conception of ending police brutality has become all-encompassing within the framework of good governance. The main components of the #EndSARS are now wholistic reform of the police, restructuring of the polity, good governance with particular emphasis on respect for democratic values and human rights, and review of the emoluments of the legislators. The emphasis is increasingly being placed on equity and social justice for all.

A second issue is the mistrust of Government as a result of the handling of the protest by the Government of Nigeria. In times past, the protesters have alleged that Government had done nothing to address their past legitimate complaints on police brutality. They also argued that Government had always dissolved the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, but re-constituting it into new formations, and without actually investigating and sanctioning culprits. And most disturbingly, even with the disbandment of the SARS, police brutality is still meted out to protesters, thus adding salt to injury and making trust quite difficult in whatever the Government promises to do in resolving the problem. In the eyes of the general public, and particularly, the protesters, the PMB administration is that of a regime of impunity.

In the ongoing protests, Government not only accepted to comply with the five main demands of the protesters, and also announced on October 11, 2020 the dissolution of all the formations of the SARS as a first step in the police reform effort, but protesters have disregarded the effort and continued with their peaceful demonstration. The protesters insisted on the immediate release of all arrested protesters, justice for all the deceased victims of police brutality, appropriate compensation for the families of the deceased victims, establishment of an independent body to oversee the investigation and prosecution of all reports of police misconduct within ten days, psychological evaluation and re-training of all disbanded SARS officers before they can be re-deployed in line with the new Police Act, and upward review of police salary in order to compensate for protecting lives and property of citizens.

As regards the dissolution of the #EndSARS, Government replaced it with the Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT). The SWAT is not to include any member of the dissolved SARS. It is to operate strictly on the basis of intelligence drive. Under no circumstance will the SWAT engage in any routine patrols. And more significantly, the members of the SWAT are not only prohibited from indiscriminate and unlawful search of phones, laptops, and other smart devices, but must also have integrity of character by not having any pending disciplinary action, especially concerning misuse of firearms and abuse of human rights. What the SWAT is simply saddled with is to respond to robbery attacks, engage in rescue missions, respond to high profile criminal operations and scenes of weapon-related crimes.

These measures pledged by Government are not convincing enough for the protesters, not only because similar measures had been taken in the past, but all to no avail, but particularly because the government has also been silent over the perpetrators of crimes. Perpetrators are rightly or wrongly believed to have always been covered up in the context of esprit de corps. The protesters admit that criminal suspects can be redeployed to other police units, but raise questions on their anti-human rights mentality still moving along with them. This simply implies that the idea of a SWAT is not really a big deal for the protesters.

One point is noteworthy at this juncture: the more Government makes efforts to satisfy the demands of the protesters, the more the fresh requests. From the initial request for an end to police brutality, there are now demands for whatever constitutes negativities in the political governance of Nigeria. Put differently, the presenters, numerically increasing day after day, are asking for an end to brutality in all ramifications in political governance. They want to see Government action in this direction before the protests can be brought to an end.

A third critical issue is the recidivist character of the brutality in political governance, which appears to be more omnipresent under the PMB administration. Could the origin of the recidivist character be traced to official remissness or outright neglect? The Vice President, Professor Yemi Osinbajo, SAN, admitted that the Federal Government should have acted faster. As he explicated it in an apparent tender mood in a twit, ‘I know that many of you are angry and understandably so. We could’ve moved faster and for this, we are sorry.’

The expression of sorry, genuinely intended or not, appears to be coming too late because the new demands being made directly threaten the continued legitimacy of the elected government of PMB. In fact, the restructuring of Nigeria that has been made a-no-go-area for serious public discussion is now part of the conditionality for the #EndSARS to be brought to an end. Will the PMB administration now accept to negotiate or not? Will he use the military to force his way through if he does not feel comfortable with the demand of restructuring? This brings us to the issue of the fourth issue, the military question.

The military made it clear last week that it would ‘maintain law and order’ and that ‘all subversive elements and trouble makers’ should be warned in advance. The military said that it ‘remains highly committed to defend the country and her democracy at all cost.’ This statement is quite interesting because of its ambiguity. What is the meaning of defending the country? Who is the country: is it the people or PMB? to whom does the military owe allegiance: the people or to the Commander-in-Chief?
Under normal circumstance, because the 1999 Constitution clearly states that sovereignty belongs to the people of Nigeria, by implication, whatever the authority the Commander-in-Chief may want to lay claim to, is necessarily derived from the people. This also means that military allegiance can only be to the people. However, the way the military put it gives the impression that it would defend whatever interest the civil authority (PMB personified) decides to be pursuing. There is the need for greater caution in this regard.
Additionally, the military said it would defend Nigeria’s democracy. This is good and noteworthy.

Democratic values require the protection of democratic freedoms, prevention of human rights violations, right of association and protests. It involves transparency, which Professor Osinbajo admits is a key tenet in political governance. The implication of seeking to defend democracy simply requires supporting the calls for ending brutality by the police, as well as by the military. The brutality of the military is only different from that of the police in the sense that the military are not visibly engaged in financial extortions of the public unlike the police for which it is an honourable tradition.

Above all is the issue of vested interests of invisible stakeholders at home and abroad. Who really is sustaining the mass movement? How does government manage the protests that have become a southern versus northern protest? From ending police brutality, we now have ending insecurity protests. Quo vadis? The foreign policy implications can now be addressed at this juncture.

The Foreign Policy Implications
#EndSARS has a definite beginning but its end cannot be definite, especially in terms of its likely global ramifications and implications. #EndSARS is currently at the level of a crisis, but gradually deepening into a conflict situation, with the possibility of becoming a ‘Nigerian Spring’ not to say ‘Northern Nigerian Spring’ versus ‘Southern Nigerian Spring’. The factionalisation of this ‘Nigerian Spring’ into Northern and Southern, can precipitate a forceful, but unwanted, resignation of PMB in the manner of Arab Spring.

It can also prompt the type of Malian saga. It is useful to remind here that there was a people’s coup that began with the June 5 Movement, which organised a sustained protest that insisted on the departure of President Aboubacar Ibrahim Keita, an elected president of Mali. The people were angered by many challenges: maladministration, galloping corruption, election result manipulation, insecurity, closure of schools for two years, etc. President Keita made frantic efforts to remain in power but to no avail. In fact, the military had to give a military expression to the people’s wish by removing President Keita to the chagrin of the ECOWAS leaders who not only insisted on non-acceptability of the forceful change of government, but also imposed sanctions.

The truth of the matter is that the military is currently holding on to power with civilian involvement. Another truth is that the people’s sovereignty remains superior to the delegated sovereignty acquired from the people by the ECOWAS as a supranational authority. A third truth is that the#EndSARS has become the cynosure of global eyes with the monitoring of how peaceful protestants are mistreated and also noting the guiltiness of the PMB administration and its security agents. A fourths truth, and perhaps most disturbing, is the existence of State’s international responsibility. There are four different types of crimes that can readily warrant the application of the principle of International Responsibility to Protect (IR2P) and the invocation of a State’s international responsibility. In this regard, IR2P is founded on three pillars: capital requirement and promotion of market discipline. The first pillar is about the cases of crimes of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing, which is more directly relevant to our discussion here. Every Member State of the international community has the responsibility to protect its populations against the commission of any of the foregoing crimes.

It is important to note that both the African Union, and particularly the ECOWAS capitalised on the principle of subsidiarity to intervene in the Malian crisis. On the basis of the ECOWAS Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which prohibits any forceful change of government. The application of the principle and protocol did not stand in the face of the people’s resolve.

The situation in Nigeria is not in any way different from that of Mali. The problems of herdsmen versus farmers dispute, obnoxious policies of price hike at difficult times, boko haramism, nepotism-driven political governance, institutional corruption, electoral culture of rigging through vote buying, kidnapping and other forms of armed banditry, etc, all point to the observation that Nigeria is on the path of a dangerous expedition. This is why the #EndSARS which began as a protest by the youths, who, statistically speaking , account for about 65% of the population of Nigeria, should be a notice of caution to everyone.

In this regard, greater attention should focus on the spontaneity of the emergence of the #EndSARS movement and its sustainability for more than ten days. Even if there is an end to their protest today, the capacity to renew the protest with greater capacity cannot be easily ruled out. #EndSARS has the potential to raise the international responsibility of the PMB administration in various ways. By virtue of articles 39 and 40 of Nigeria’s 1999 Constitution as amended, which as noted above, provide for freedoms of speech, association, protest and to be legally protected during peaceful protests. By virtue of the use of brutality in stopping and preventing free association of people to protest peacefully, especially that the era of law of wandering and loitering was thrown into the garbage of history in 1989, PMB may one day be charged for crimes against humanity, if not for crimes of genocide. The threats issued by the Nigerian military to the peaceful protesters only strengthens the case for allegations of crimes against humanity. PMB must quickly begin to re-learn how to thread softly in the handling of the #EndSARS, in particular, and generally, in the political governance of Nigeria.