Nigeria’s security agencies have largely abandoned their mandate to tackle crime and instead, turned to harassment and extortion of the youth. Though several calls by the public, including activists, for reforms have failed to yield results, it is not too late for the regime of the President, Major General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.) to act. People who choose to join security agencies must understand their job is to protect Nigerians and not compete with the criminals already making lives miserable for people.
Recently, the family of a graduate of the Institute of Management and Technology, Enugu, Ifeoma Abugu, 28, was thrown into mourning after she was said to have been sexually assaulted and killed by some personnel of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad in Abuja. She was arrested in place of her fiancé on September 10 2020 when the police officers did not find him at his residence. A 21-year-old man was killed the same month during a high-speed chase by police officers attached to the Osun State Joint Task Force in Osogbo. The deceased and with three others were returning from a mall when the security men gave chase.
Before then, an auto mechanic, Chima Ikwunado, died in police custody in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. An autopsy carried out by the police pathologist determined that the cause of death was extreme torture and not high blood sugar level as the agency had initially claimed. He was arrested along with four others for driving against traffic in cars belonging to their customers and was later labelled a cult member.
Police brutality is mainly motivated by corruption. In 2019, a public survey by the Socio-Economic Rights and Accountability Project ranked the police as the country’s most corrupt institution. “For every 100 police interactions reported by the respondents, there was a bribe paid in 54 interactions,” the report stated. An Amnesty International 2020 report, ‘Nigeria: Time to End Impunity,’ documents 82 cases of torture, harassment and extrajudicial killing by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. They were victims of arrest, torture or extortion by “the police unit, set up to fight violent crimes, are predominantly male between the ages of 18 and 35, from low-income backgrounds and vulnerable groups.” AI noted a disturbing pattern of abuse of detainees in SARS custody despite the 2017 Anti-Torture Act, which criminalises torture.
Police brutality in Nigeria has garnered a fair amount of national attention. Using the hashtag, #EndSARS, Nigerians in 2017 launched a massive campaign demanding an end to police oppression and human rights violations, particularly by SARS. In August 2018, the Buhari regime ordered an immediate reform of SARS, aimed at ensuring improved accountability but there has been no noticeable difference in their conduct.
Incessant police harassment, extortion, human rights abuses, illegal detention, torture and callous killings have persisted. As police brutality is alive and unwell, #EndSARS resurfaced in 2019 after a police stray bullet killed Kolade Johnson in Lagos during a raid in his neighbourhood, reportedly for youths with dreadlocks. The public reaction, in the face of national conversations on the violent policing of Nigerian youths, makes sense and is extremely warranted.
Clearly, the usual rhetoric by the regime has been exposed for what it is and therefore failed to deter notorious security agents. And it must be said that it is not limited to the police and its anti-robbery unit; it has indeed become a habit for security agencies generally to harass, torture and extort money from Nigerians, particularly the youth. Any young man with a laptop, smartphone, dreadlocks, tattoo and/or good car faces the risk of being profiled as a fraudster, arrested, kidnapped, assaulted and extorted by security agents. It is just as if it has become a crime to be a youth in today’s Nigeria, which has indeed failed them.
Nigerian youths have never had so rough; there are limited job opportunities available and an environment that is getting harsher by the day for businesses to thrive. Unemployment rate among those aged between 25 and 34, constituting the major working class group, is 30.7 percent. Similarly, the unemployment rate among young people aged between 15 and 34 was 34.9 percent, up from 29.7 percent. The rate of underemployment for the same age group rose to 28.2 percent from 25.7 percent in the third quarter of 2018.
The youth are the hardest hit; over 13.9 million people aged between 15 and 34 are unemployed, while about 2.9 million Nigerian graduates and those with postgraduate degrees are jobless. Unfortunately, the youth are profiled and traumatised by security agents on the unfounded suspicion of engaging in fraud or on some ludicrous allegations, including the hairstyle. Police officers are more likely to pull young drivers over for no reason and more likely to use force, even when the driver offers no physical resistance. Interestingly, the same youth leave the country for greener pastures, where they are not haunted and are able to excel among their foreign peers.
No doubt, police brutality and youth harassment reflect a profoundly unjust criminal justice system. Despite piling petitions against the conduct of security forces and repeated promises by successive governments to reform the police, gross abuses, illegal arrests, extortion and human rights violations are perpetrated daily by their personnel.
Police failures begin with bad leadership. Weak police leadership allows rampant misconduct and indiscipline. The Inspector-General of Police, Muhammed Adamu, must see the sanitisation of the police, including the SARS, as an important job. He should hold the police commissioners accountable for any unnecessary death in the states. If he fails, then he does not deserve to be in office any longer.
The killings and harassment of Nigerian youths must stop. Nigerians should collectively stand to defend the rights of the youth in a responsible manner because they deserve better from the people whose job it is to protect them.