Opinion | In a State of Violence

LAGOS, Nigeria — The High Court of Justice is on fire. Behind my home, it has been ablaze since noon. But in reality, the justice system the court claims to represent has been burning for nearly 60 years.

Several hours after a shocking crackdown of peaceful protesters by Nigerian security forces, black smoke is replacing the city’s ordinary pollution. Lagos, usually a hustle and a bustle, is dead.

“We the people,” begins the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria. Section 40 guarantees us the right to freedom of assembly. By Section 41, “we the people,” are guaranteed the right to free movement. So, we assembled. And we moved. For that, we have been killed.

On the evening of Oct. 20, without instigation, the armed forces indiscriminately opened fire on a crowd of protesters, killing an as-yet-unknown number. Sitting peacefully, a few miles from where I write, the crowd of protesters had resolved to have our government face us, and cease killing us.

In Nigeria, the accepted experience with almost all officialdom is aggressive: the civilian officers in full military garb who slap women trying to enter the passport office; the ordinary policeman who pulls his gun on unarmed civilians because they dared to talk back. Violence defines the predictable. It takes an unpredictable, extraordinary level of brutality to cause a storm.

On Oct. 3, a video surfaced online that appeared to show the point-blank killing of a Nigerian citizen by officers of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, commonly known as SARS. In the days since the video’s emergence, people across the country, young and some old, have taken to the streets to protest police brutality and call for SARS’s disbandment.

SARS was founded in 1992 to deal with violent crimes like kidnappings and armed robbery, common at the time. In the years since, SARS has come to resemble the armed thugs it supposedly combats. Often in plain clothes, SARS officers became synonymous with torture, illegal detention and extortion. Violent crime might have fallen, but it was not because criminals knew that they would face the full force of the law, but rather that they would be extrajudicially murdered.

The call for police reform in Nigeria is not new, but the scale of the current protests is. Diverse, spontaneous and structureless, these protests have been helped by a digital know-how beyond the comprehension of many Nigerian politicians. Those who wish to organize a protest simply send out a tweet letting people know when and where. Within hours, chants of “soro soke,” meaning “speak up” or “speak out” are heard in the streets. In Lagos, as protesters pass through local neighborhoods, they are welcomed by market women, stallkeepers and children, who sit, watch, and listen.

These protests have been aided by Nigerians from across the country and beyond, who have donated their time and resources. When unlawfully arrested protesters need legal aid, they simply ask and networks organized online call volunteer lawyers, who drop what they are doing and proceed to the police station. When protesters need food, water or mobile phone data, they ask and food, water and money from an ever-growing fund of global donations is sent. And when they need ambulances or security guards to protect them from hired thugs, from the state itself, they ask, and private ambulance and security services are sent their way.

The political class is rattled. As usual, President Muhammadu Buhari has said far less than is expected of true leadership. He has delivered one sparse address, now over a week old, confirming sentiments that had been broadcast by the inspector general of the police: SARS would be disbanded and investigations opened, but the police were largely a force of hardworking officers not to be tarnished by “the few bad eggs.”

The hollowness of the president’s words have been matched by the superficial statements of many state governors who have, unwittingly, confirmed that they have neither the power nor the will to stand up for, and to protect their citizens.

In the case of the Lagos State Governor, Babajide Sanwo-Olu, a raft of statements in apparent support of the protesters was followed on Oct. 20 by the announcement of a 4 p.m. curfew to curtail “miscreants” infiltrating the protests. On the same day, the Lagos State government issued a correction: the curfew would take effect from 9 p.m. Too late. Hours before 9, armed soldiers began firing live rounds into the peaceful crowd of protesters, with fatal consequences.

It is difficult to believe that the governor did not foresee his curfew leading to unnecessary violence by the very agents we are asking to stop killing us. For two weeks, protesters dared to speak truth to power, and for two weeks the army had been looking for an excuse to make it clear that in Nigeria, violence — their violence — always reigns. They found it.

These protests, which continue reinvigorated in other parts of the country, have become about challenging the legitimacy of a defunct political leadership. They have become about challenging governmental incompetence and disregard for the majority of citizens in a country that finds new ways to prove that it hates us. The protests raise the question: Who gave our so-called leaders the authority they think they have over us; if we are a democracy, who is really in charge?

The protests provide an opportunity to rid ourselves of falsehoods that have kept our country in stagnation for over a half-century: that the police and the government that wields it are in our service; that we are a democracy; that in the 1999 transfer from the military we were given a genuine shot at democratic freedom. In both the character of the people who purported to represent a civilian leadership and the vestiges of military authoritarianism that remained, we have never known democratic rule.

The type of democracy that we pretend we have requires careful sustaining. It makes appropriate, respectful room for every legitimate member. Its expression is daily, not once every turbulent fourth year in dishonorable elections marred by paid voters, disengaged nonvoters, hired goons and illegitimate political “godfathers.”

If SARS, Nigeria’s military and its police are all simply the fists with which the powerful do their bidding, imagine the brutality of the arms behind them. But legitimate authority is not brute force; legitimate authority finds its weight in motivating and persuading people without the need to lift a bullying finger.

Most in the Nigerian government want us to see them as figures of authority. But recent events have confirmed they would be nothing without their fists. They have confirmed it is they who are afraid — afraid that their children, regardless of age, ethnicity or gender should, one day, be free in a country where honor and respect are not the result of force. It is they who are afraid that, unleashed from their shallow power, this country might no longer be a testament to unnecessary suffering and violence.

But how do we get there? At a protest in Lagos Island, three women are standing on top of a car, each with a loudspeaker in hand. One speaks in Yoruba. An elderly woman, for whom English is a very foreign language, is ushered to the front of the throng by a younger one. The woman on top of the car cries out in her native tongue, “If we come together in love, they cannot destroy us.”

Eniola Anuoluwapo Soyemi is a Nigerian political theorist and a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute.

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