#ENDSARS Protests: Time for Unionized Police Service

Guest Columnist: Issa Aremu

“Trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism – Pope Francis

 As #ENDSARS protests spread across the country, there is the need to upscale the narrative on national policing.

The  historic protests had rightly exposed and damned the unacceptable serial atrocities of some men in uniforms over the years. No one dares again claim ignorance that lives of Nigerians  are being wasted by some  paid to protect them. There was Emmanuel Egbo a 15-year-old boy killed by a police officer in Enugu on 25 September 2008 . He was was reportedly “playing with his fellow children and was unarmed”. The Apo Six once captured national imagination: Six young Nigerians aged between 21 and 25, at the corner of Gimbiya junction, off Port-Harcourt Street in Abuja between the night of June 7 and the early hours of June 8, 2005 were murdered by men in official uniforms. Whatever is left of the conscience of the nation  has been called to question in the last two weeks of youths protests? Extrajudicial killings had lasted so long precisely because people of good conscience remained unacceptably indifferent”.

By blocking our roads (of indifference) in major cities, the youths have made the point that an injury to one is indeed an injury to all. It’s either is security for all or insecurity for all. But the country needs  a wholistic bird view of the crisis of policing for an enduring police  reform.

It is good  that the Presidential Panel on Police Reforms  agreed to the 5-point demand of protesters against police brutality, namely halting the use of force against protesters and unconditional release of arrested citizens, justice for the victims of police brutality, including payment of compensation, and the psychological evaluation of policemen, including increasing their salaries.  The recognition of the precarious conditions the police operate by the protesters even as they legitimately decried brutalities of the notorious defunct hated Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), is the historic take away of the current historic youth uproar.

The policemen and women are workers in uniforms employed to protect all under the constitution. It would be recalled that in  2002, under the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the country’s police forces went on strike over a dispute over wages and unpaid benefits. The government had to  desperately deploy the army to take up duties normally carried out by police officers.

That singular “police strike”  caused major disruptions across Nigeria which forced banks  in Lagos and other cities closed due to concerns over security. The appreciation that those who must protect us must also be protected first against want must not be lost. Who speaks for the police as workers and professional security workforce? It  was time Police men and women were allowed to improve their conditions of work  through free and independent associations and unions instead of the present regimented arrangement in which police unleashed pent-up frustrations against the people they are paid to protect.

So far every body speaks for the police, often against them  (due to the brutalities of the few in their ranks) but the police who do the work and wear the shoes can tell their stories better through free associations or trade unions.

Police men and women face precarious working conditions which include, poor remuneration, forced postings, poor and lack of training  among others. The first move to decolonize and reform the police is to allow the ranks and officers, the freedom of associations as contained in 1999 constitution (with a provision that they cannot go on strike, but they can channel their legitimate grievances through collective bargaining process with police service Commission) as it is case in democratic countries like South Africa, United Kingdom and United States of America (USA). There are almost one million  Police men and women  in America.  75-80% of them are organized in trade unions.

In  South Africa, all service men are members of the  South African Policing Union (SAPU) established in November 1993 with workers in Correctional services as members. The beauty of unionized police is that the union can hold members accountable better and isolate bad guys wrecking the profession. Conversely if the union does not live to expectations, the public can engage the union than agonizing with dispersed individual police men and women.

Recently the activists in the movement for “Black Lives Matter” (BLM) in the US, shifted focus from the atrocities of individual criminal police officers to organizations with most powerful influences in law enforcement such as  the police unions. The  BLM Organizers protested at the offices of two of the America’s largest police unions recently.

Unions could be  of benefit to member- workers and society at large. It’s time, Nigeria considered the British and South African models of allowing police to have a union/ association with a provision that they would NOT go on strike because they are essential services . Often we know victims  of police brutalities.

But what of the  police men and women who have fallen casualties  due to the activities of the criminals? Only policemen and women can speak for themselves in a free association regulated by essential services law.


It is commendable the notorious Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had been disbanded by Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, indicting a sensitivity  to the mass protests against the excesses of the  outfit. 

The next measure should be  community policing with citizens’ ownership and buy-in.

Police may  find out later that the communities that desire peace and security would be worthy allies of the police even in advocating for better working conditions for the police service. It is time we also looked outside the “physical” security box. We must broaden our perspective on national security to include job and income security, social and economic security for the greatest number of Nigerians. With 50 percent open youth unemployment, massive factory closures and 60 per cent gross under employment ( road-side hawkers of Godknows what!) Nigeria remains the most “peaceful” country in the world. Paradoxically it is the same under resourced Federal police force that is expected to  maintain “the peace of the grave yard”.

The Tunisian revolution was triggered by an unemployed youth, revolution which in turn swept the ancient Mubarack regime in Egypt and Gadaffi regime in Libya. Yet the unemployment rate then in Tunisia was just 14 per cent! Economic and social security of the critical mass is as significant as the lives and property of the few. Nigeria is deserving of a developmentalist state which once ensured almost full employment and youth cooperation for development.

Many factors explain the current vulnerability of youths to protest apart from physical brutalities. The notable problem is  unemployment. Policing in a democratic society should be part of the developmentalist state that minimizes physical insecurity through creative engagement of its citizens particularly in value adding activities not crime. Lastly, the protesting youths must   “diversify” their strategy now from the street protests  to dialogue  with authorities, falling which the message would be lost, and hijacked with attendant loss of public sympathy.


  • Issa Aremu is a member of the National Institute