In Nigeria and more than a dozen nations—the United States, Brazil and Japan are others—public protests erupted in the past year against police brutality. Across the globe, police violence traumatizes the marginalized, spares the powerful and remains unaddressed until the abuse is illuminated to broad public view. While brutality is typically rooted among a minority of officers, it persists because weak systems of police accountability offer impunity, even to repeat offenders. In Nigeria, as in other countries, the solution will require building strong accountability mechanisms—both within police agencies and externally, in the communities they serve.

Nigerians in Lagos protest attacks and extortion against youth by the SARS police unit. “Dressing cool is not a crime,” a protester’s sign declares. (TobiJamesCandids/CC License 4.0)
Nigerians in Lagos protest attacks and extortion against youth by the SARS police unit. “Dressing cool is not a crime,” a protester’s sign declares. (TobiJamesCandids/CC License 4.0)

Four months after Nigerians’ protests against an abusive police unit made international headlines—the problem of police impunity persists. The protests, against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), went global in October, sweeping Nigerian diaspora communities, and viral, through the hashtag #EndSARS. While the government officially disbanded the SARS unit on October 11, Nigerians say the systemic problem of violent policing remains unresolved, and citizens protested anew this month.

Police Violence and Impunity: a Global Problem

Nigeria’s crisis is decades old and reflects current patterns elsewhere. If police killings had been included in Nigeria’s homicide rate in 2008, the total number of homicides would have shot up 40 percent. In the first two weeks of last year’s initial COVID lockdown, more Nigerians died at the hands of the police for violating curfew than were killed by the virus. As Brazil locked down against COVID last April, 35 percent of all killings in Rio de Janeiro state were by police. In South Africa, killings by police ignited protest. With vastly different security landscapes, recruitment and training, police officers across wealthy and low-income countries alike murder their compatriots at alarming levels when there is no accountability for their crimes.

In Nigeria and other countries, the problem is rooted partly in systems of recruiting, training, promoting and disciplining police officers. Many countries have reformed these systems, often with funding and pressure from international donors. Yet the most fundamental problem is impunity for abuses such as extra-judicial killings, kidnappings, extortion and humiliations of citizens. No fewer than four Nigerian government-commissioned studies over 15 years have highlighted the weaknesses—and the country’s critical need to build stronger internal and external mechanisms to hold abusive officers accountable. The problem has been to muster the political will to actually implement these widely supported policies.

The available data on complaints about police behavior show that impunity opens the door for a small number of officers to commit a disproportionate number of abuses. Over 33 years in Chicago, just 10 percent of officers were the subjects of one-third of all complaints. A strong predictor of whether police officers will abuse suspects and victims of crimes is whether they have done it in the past. Impunity not only allows these few abusive officers to continue their behavior, it lets the behavior spread throughout police units and whole departments. It allows the spread of police cultures that permit and celebrate violence, and even torture. One bad apple really does spoil the bunch.

Worldwide, specialized police units such as Nigeria’s SARS—including anti-drug, anti-gang and anti-terror forces—are more likely to commit abuses against the population and to operate with impunity. Such violence is sometimes enabled or directed by politicians determined to appear “tough on crime”—an element of anti-drug operations in the Philippines and anti-gang operations in Brazil. In violent and divided societies, brutal policing and even extrajudicial killings can win support among populations suffering high crime rates. But this wanes as people feel the cost. Militarized anti-gang or anti-drug units operating outside of regular police hierarchies and oversight strike not only hardened criminals. They also victimize the innocent—primarily people in marginalized, powerless communities.

What Prevents, and What Permits, Solutions?

This relative invisibility of the victims—to the broad population and to those in power—hampers efforts to address police abuses. Brazil’s Afro-Brazilians are policed more often and more violently than their compatriots. Jamaica’s police kill people in what authorities describe, without corroborating evidence, as “shoot outs”—a practice they use almost exclusively in impoverished neighborhoods. Across India, Pakistan and Nepal, that same police tactic is popularly labeled “fake encounters.” In Kenya, human rights organizations and independent monitors record hundreds of killings by police per year, concentrated in the poorest communities.

Protest movements arose when the abuses were dramatized to the broad public, and the powerful, in ways that could not be ignored. Sometimes the dramatization was by viral video evidence, such as the killing of George Floyd in the United States or the execution by officers of Nigeria’s SARS unit of a man in a Lagos street. In Nigeria, it also happened when police targeted people or groups with more political power. The SARS unit became notorious for targeting young people whose cars or dress suggested middle-class wealth. “The police hardly harass the elderly, but once they sight a young man and you maybe have dreads, piercings, or tattoos, you are automatically a ‘Yahoo boy’ [an internet scam artist],” a Nigerian musician, Omah Lay, told Teen Vogue. Police would use such accusations to justify stealing the person’s cellphone or extorting money, Nigerians have recounted to journalists.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime publishes a guidebook for policymakers and police agency leaders on police accountability. “Good policing is policing with legitimacy on the basis of public consent, rather than repression,” the guide notes. The necessary accountability requires internal and external mechanisms to investigate and punish police misconduct, set priorities for policing that address community needs, and root out corruption and abuse. Internal mechanisms—such as systems to allow citizens to safely report police abuses, and independent internal investigations teams or inspectors general to investigate such reports outside the chain of command—are half of the answer. Oversight mechanisms external to the police hierarchy, such as parliamentary oversight and independent civilian review boards, are even more important. They are more likely to dismiss offending officers but must be free of both political and police interference and vetoes.

Opportunities for Action in Nigeria

The Nigerian government initially responded quickly in October to the #EndSARS protests, disbanding the SARS unit and announcing that its members would not be admitted to a newly formed elite police unit. Since then, progress has stalled. As protesters have made clear, it is not time for another study group or commission. While improved laws and regulations to prevent extrajudicial killings and other police misconduct are surely part of a long-term solution, those safeguards that exist in law and policy are not being implemented. The immediate imperative is to gather the political will to implement these policies.

External accountability mechanisms are, however, lacking. Establishing and supporting community accountability for police misconduct will require more investment from Nigeria’s federal and state governments and international security partners. As civil society and outside experts work to build political will for external accountability mechanisms, existing examples demonstrate their effectiveness in Nigeria. In the north-central city of Jos, community-based dialogues and problem-solving workshops supported by USIP have led to significant external accountability for police in a community that previously had seen serious police violence. The Nigeria-based CLEEN Foundation has been working to reduce police violence and increase accountability to communities in Nigeria for decades. The British Council’s Managing Conflict in Nigeria project has taken a similar approach.

As Nigeria works to improve relationships between the police and the communities in which they work, and to repair the damage of decades of abuse, especially from specialized units, policymakers must focus first on ending police impunity. Providing external accountability for specialized units such as SARS can be particularly challenging because they often operate widely, beyond any single community. Oversight by legislatures or special, independent bodies can address impunity and hold these special units accountable to the population and to other parts of the security services. Countries all over the world are facing the same problems. While the final policies may look different from country to country, ensuring that internal and external accountability mechanisms make it first into law and regulation and then into practice is the best way to end impunity.

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