23rd October 2020
” Power is domination, control, and therefore a very selective
form of truth which is a lie.”
As #EndSARS morphs into a wider anti-corruption protest and after the massacre at Lekki Toll gate and other places Nigeria is actually getting some international attention. I still intend to avoid getting into the News / Fake News war on Social Media and focus on the wider issues – the real issues – and provide the context to how corruption and institutional looting keep the vast majority of a population of 200 million in poverty. Before I do that I do have a few questions to ask.
- When is a massacre not a massacre? Falling into the trap of semantics is one way of deadening the emotion and moving the language away from the issues to meaningless ‘grammar’. Whether there was ‘just’ one fatality, or ‘only’ seven or potentially dozens and the army took away the bodies what is indisputable is that, in an apparently democratic country, armed forces opened fire on unarmed, peaceful protesters. I intend to keep using the word massacre.
- Equally, does it matter whether the State Government or the Federal Government sent the shooters or whether they were official army units or ‘rogue forces’? According to Nigeria’s Constitution the President is “Commander-in-Chief of Nigeria’s Armed Forces”. Why is President Muhammadu Buhari not taking any responsibility whatsoever?
- Buhari and several African Heads of State were quick to send messages of support when George Floyd was killed yet they seem to lose their tongues whenever their fellow-Africans are killed. Why is that? Is it that they do not wish to draw attention to the numbers killed or brutalized by their own security forces?
Brutality begets Brutality
Returning to the original reasons for these particular Nigerian protests – Police Brutality. Within a few days of the start of the demonstrations Buhari announced the disbanding of the ‘Special Anti-Robbery Unit’ and the creation of a new force ‘Special Weapons and Tactics Unit’. No one was fooled, from SARS to SWAT. To misquote Wole Soyinka, a Hyena does not change its Hyenatude. They would be the same people with the same equipment, the same attitude and the same unaccountability though some senior people somewhere would no doubt make money on the contract for new uniforms. The police are only one cog in the machinery of a dysfunctional state but as the front line of government aggression genuine structural reform is a Sine Qua Non for genuine change.
Let us take a look at the way police operate in Nigeria. It is important to start by recognising that Nigerian policemen themselves are barely treated as human. By keeping the police themselves in a state of desperation the authorities keep them hungry and for decades the NPF have been hungry. As Bob Marley said in describing the similar oppression he fought against in his country, “A hungry mob is an angry mob”. (This of course perfectly describes the current violence that is happening across the country and that has overtaken the original protest but that is for another time.) If you are hungry, you are angry and you are going to take that out on somebody.
Police stations and barracks are appalling places. The police accommodation by Falamo Bridge has been an open sore for as long as I have been going to Lagos. Its dereliction is highlighted by the contrast with the opulence of Ikoyi’s prestigious residential area (home to many politicians not least political godfather Tinubu) on one side of the creek and the shiny hotels of Victoria Island on the other. To visit a Police Station is a truly upsetting experience. There is immediately an overwhelming stench of something dark that goes beyond the physical but the physical is pretty bad too. Let me paint a picture.
As you enter a neighbourhood police station, usually through broken gates propped open, the first thing you notice is a collection of rusting wrecks of old vehicles. Most of these are cars and buses that were impounded to extort money from a hapless motorist. Being stopped for a minor issue with documents or a traffic offence is just an excuse for a shake down. Failure to pay on the spot will see your vehicle towed by one of the battered old, jacked up tow trucks waiting outside the station. Many cannot afford or are too afraid to reclaim them and they stay there for years. There are always a few suspicious people hanging around and uniformed or plain clothes officers lolling about, sitting on broken benches, maybe with a tin plate being served by food vendors from their plastic containers. The building is dirty with paint peeling off the walls and signs of a leaking roof. There are almost always oily puddles on the compacted mud compound floor. As you move inside and your eyes adjust to the gloom from filthy windows and almost certainly no electric light, cold disinterested eyes look you over. As a white man you are given a modicum of attention as a potential source of funds but any Nigerian wanting to report a crime or seek help receives little or no interest. There are may be a few broken chairs or seats and a grubby counter or desk. I am fortunate that my occasional visits have usually been to see a ‘DPO’ (Divisional Police Officer) in charge of that location. His or her office would have a couple of chairs surrounded by piles of moulding brown files and various confiscated items in front of a desk with an array of mobile phones. All senior police officers have multiple phones lines for different uses and to avoid being accountable or tracked down. I believe every single time I have been in such an office there has been a plate with groundnut or chin-chin * on the table in front of the officer. There are still seldom signs of computers and most notes are scribbled on note pads after a request to use your biro. There is no working electricity and no money for diesel (if they have a working Generator) so computers are not much good anyway.
I am fortunate to say I have less experience of cells. They are worse I am sure than most European’s wildest imagination and I can say I have seen stains on the walls of the corridors that I would swear are blood. Trust me. Apart from local stations I have managed to avoid visits to the most notorious units based in Panti or Alagbon Close (the latter immortalised by Fela) but I have also visited more senior officers at places like CID at Milverton Close and even Abuja Police HQ’s. Even they are intimidating places to visit and the experience is remarkably similar.
Now, there is an important thing to understand about the structural hierarchy of police corruption in Nigeria and that is, it is a pyramid designed for the passing of collected money up the command chain to the point. Every constable collects money on the street as the bottom most rung of the bribe ladder and a share is passed upwards. The most obvious ‘tax’ is informal public transport. Every okada rider, every danfo driver or conductor pays. Every street hawker, ‘mama put’ **, vulcaniser (tyre repair), street side barber and small shop keeper either pays ‘dash’ or ‘rent’ to the police directly or it is collected by the network of locally organised ‘touts’ who then share an amount with the police. It is a sophisticated and surprisingly efficient system and actually ensures a basic level of order for those that pay and are within that area’s system. Outside of the cities, the road blocks and check points, operating as tollgates, collect money from long distance buses, trucks and as many private vehicles as they can squeeze. On a daily or weekly basis the cash collected moves up the chain. The more efficient ‘collection agents’ get promoted – not necessarily in rank terms but to more lucrative positions.
Now, this all works very smoothly with a minimum level of day-to-day intimidation but as in all machines there are occasionally glitches. Often that is to do with the greed of a particular policeman or when one gets drunk and rapes someone. Women have very little protection on the streets of Lagos. If someone, say in bus refuses to pay up when a policeman at a check point demands a little extra – maybe he has already paid up elsewhere, he or she doesn’t have enough or they just get fed up – then he or she runs the real risk of a serious beating or worse. I will provide an example from about 2015 when I was being driven home from work. Our office and factory was in a rough-ish mainland neighbourhood, Isolo, and as we came out of our local area we had to drop down from a fly over. As we came over Paul, my driver, and I noticed a bus had stopped and the passengers had emptied out and were milling around a couple of people lying on the ground. To be honest, this was not a remarkable sight but what had transpired, we later heard, was that a policeman had tried to shake down the passengers and one of them was an off duty soldier. Now there is no love lost between the army and the police and no soldier will be intimidated into paying extra like that. An argument ensued and the soldier was shot dead. Unfortunately for the policeman, we were not that far from the military cantonment where his family lived and someone must have phoned them. By the time we had got a mile or so along the expressway we hit an almighty go-slow and got stuck in traffic. This jam was caused by his soldier colleagues coming out to search for the offending policeman. Just to be on the safe side they beat to a pulp every policeman they could find. We were fortunate not to witness a tyre neck lacing. After an hour or so patrols of military police starting walking along the traffic and restoring order and we started crawling along, eventually getting home several hours late. Several of my colleagues were elsewhere in the traffic. None of us felt at risk ourselves and we were all just annoyed at being delayed. I tell this story to illustrate that the NPF brutalising people and being brutalised in turn has become just an everyday story in this dysfunctional nation. A story that the young #End SARS protesters have had enough of.
A contented, comfortable police force would not have the edge to keep such a large population down so the other technique employed by the establishment is to keep them so poor that they need this extortion system to feed and clothe their family. I attach here a chart that shows the current NPF pay scale. The protesters know this and a genuine improvement in terms and conditions for the police is actually one of their demands.
Let us put this in context. After a recruit has been in the force for several years he might hope to become a corporal or even a junior sergeant. This means after, say ten years of service, he or she might be earning around 50,000 Naira a month and taking home around 40k. That is less than 70 Pounds at the parallel rate or about 80 at the impossible to get official rate (or US$ 83 / 87) a month. A factory worker with some experience would possibly be on double that but typically with a decent pension, health care for himself and his family, subsidised canteen, product allowance, Christmas bonus and so on. In theory the police get some benefits but they are rarely available for any but the most senior officers. In fact, they frequently go months without salaries paid and it usually takes several years before their pensions are processed. The system is designed to make their attitude towards ordinary Nigerians a brutal one.
I just want to contrast and compare that of the remuneration of the political classes. The most up-to-date details figures I could find from a substantive source (see ***) are about two years old and I believe they have voted themselves another increase since then. The annual salary and allowances for an ordinary Senator (Compared to the average annual salary of a Police sergeant at about 700,000 Naira pa) are as follows:
- Basic Salary N2, 484, 245.50;
- Hardship allowance, N1, 242, 122.70;
- Constituency allowance N4, 968, 509.00;
- Furniture allowance N7, 452, 736.50;
- Newspaper allowance N1, 242, 122.70;
- Wardrobe allowance, N621, 061.37;
- Recess allowance N248, 424.55;
- Accommodation N4, 968,509.00;
- Utilities N828,081.83;
- Domestic staff N1,863,184.12;
- Entertainment N828,081.83;
- Personal Assistant N621,061.37;
- Vehicle Maintenance Allowance N1,863,184.12;
- Leave Allowance N248,424.55;
- Severance Gratuity N7, 425,736.50
- Motor Vehicle Allowance, N9, 936,982.00.
The basic salary of the Senior Senate Leaders is over Twelve Million Naira.
The total cost to the Nigeria people of their legislature is currently about 120 Billion Naira per annum. The 2020 Budget for the Health Sector is effectively Naira 47 Bn for capital expenditure and 44.5 Bn for basic Health care (a reduction of 13% from 2019).
As I close just consider whom the authorities think more important – themselves or the police? Their bums on seats, or the health of the nation’s population? I do not condone the rage that has spilled out onto the streets in burning and looting the symbols of repression but when you listen to President Buhari’s ‘grammar’ you might like to put it in some of the context I have given you. There is a great deal of anger in Nigeria. Only a genuine reform of the entire security apparatus can assuage the worst of it and bring about lasting change. #EndSARS
As Nigeria is indeed going through Black Times I leave you with a Live recording of Seun Kuti and the legendary Egypt ’80 at Montreux Jazz Festival last year with the title track of his Grammy Nominated album ‘Black Times’.
As his father said ‘Music is a Weapon’. Certainly, ‘the fruit does not fall far from the tree’.
Please comment on this website or by email. I will always respond to genuine questions and comments. Disagreement and debate is welcome.
*If you have never had chin-chin – small deep fried biscuity snack – you are not missing anything unless you have very, very strong teeth!
**Local food vendors sell starch (rice, pounded yam, fufu, eba) usually with a soup or stew with meat (goat, cow leg, chicken) and the name comes from the plea – ‘Momma put one more (piece of) meat, I beg’