By Emeka Omeihe

A teacher, Yusuf Jimoh (not real names) was overheard in a discussion with some of his colleagues lamenting he has never in his life, witnessed the kind of things that happened during the ENDSARS protests. Asked whether that was the first time he was seeing organized protests in such a large scale, he said no.

Hear him: “I was privy to the prolonged June 12 nationwide protests in 1993 and the 2014 one following fuel price increase by the regime of President Jonathan. I am also aware that the #ENDSARS campaign started sometime around 2017 but could not gather momentum”.

For him, the last protests against the dreaded police unit came out with striking features creating impressions that will live with him for the rest of his life. Even as he regretted the deaths of both police officers and civilians, he could not imagine hoodlums or whatever name they are called could one day, take up arms and unleash mayhem of the magnitude inflicted on police formations across the country and loot COVID-19 palliatives in the manner witnessed.

That such deadly attacks could be launched against the police establishment resulting to deaths, serious injuries, burning and looting of their arms and ammunitions, were things really beyond his conjecture. He never imagined the reality of a foreboding situation where the police would suddenly become a common enemy to be subjected to selective onslaught. That was the uncanny predicament Jimoh found himself. And we saw how policemen disappeared from public view for a couple of weeks for fear of being attacked by the so-called hoodlums.

Jimoh is not alone in this entanglement. I am sure those of us living today have never come across an occasion where hoodlums took up arms unleashing collateral damage on police formations across the country in such a coordinated manner as witnessed during the last protests. It is also a remote possibility that we have had an instance where police officers were so intimidated by the volume and spontaneity of such attacks that they scurried for safety with their overall morale standing at an all time low. What is even more surprising is how the said hoodlums were able to spread across the country with a good measure of success in their devious agenda suggesting they have a ‘standing army’ under their command and control. The level of moral damage the attacks inflicted on the police establishment is evident from efforts by its leadership to persuade officers and men to return to their duty posts or face disciplinary measures.

The Nigerian Police may not have given a thought to the reality that a day could come when some members of the public would turn against them either in sustained peaceful nationwide protests against their excesses or by way of violent attacks as evident from the onslaughts of the hoodlums. But all this came to pass.

So, Jimoh was speaking the minds of many when he said the outcome of the ENDSARS protests will for a long time, linger in his memory. Its memory will not only linger for a long time but also serve as a veritable source of research for students of politics, history, military and strategic studies. It is not just a mere happenstance. It touches on the real foundation of governance- the location of ultimate power between the leaders and those they govern. We shall return to this.

By the accounts of the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, a total of 22 policemen were gruesomely murdered with 26 others injured by the protesters while 205 critical national security assets, corporate facilities and private property were attacked,      burnt or vandalized.

Adamu further disclosed that 10 firearms including eight AK-47 rifles were carted away during the attacks on police stations even as 1,596 suspects were arrested in connection with the violence and widespread looting across the country.

That is the account of the police. Probably, when the civilian casualty level is added up, the weight of human loss will become clearer. But if accounts from the social media and other independent sources are anything to repose confidence on, civilian casualties are bound to be much higher. But that is beside the issue now.

Of relevance is the emerging dialectics in which some members of the society found themselves taking up arms against a government agency that exists primarily to protect their lives and property. Is it a case of failure of the social contract between the government and the governed, a measure of loss of confidence or crisis of relevance? If it is a case of any of these situations or all of them, what does it say of the type of government we run in this country?

What seems to have emerged from all this, is the picture of a dysfunctional police institution; an institution that rather than serve the people and seen to be serving them, had metamorphosed into an unmitigated liability to those it is paid to serve. It evokes the image of an agency that had become law unto itself (instead of law enforcing) where arbitrariness, extra-judicial killings and all manner of infractions held sway.

It paints the picture of public disenchantment with an agency that is not in tune with its mandate; an agency that fails to appreciate that it exists at the behest of the people and they (the people) have a say in the way it should perform its functions. If this reality had been appreciated and internalized, statements as “I waste you and nothing will happen” would not have been a recurring decimal in SARS lexicon as copiously reported. Such callous terms as ‘human abattoir’ would not have had any appeal to SARS operatives.

Sadly and implicit in the mindset captured by the above statement is the feeling that policemen can do anything including extra-judicial killings and get away with them. Who told them nothing could happen when they kill innocent souls recklessly? What gave them the impression that they are above those they are paid to protect and they could trample on their rights and get away with it? These are the issues to ponder and they speak much about the limits of state power and the level of supervision that is brought to bear in the daily activities of public functionaries.

That was the contradiction at play and the main grouse of the protesters against the SARS unit. But that the hoodlums failed to make a distinction between SARS operatives and other police departments meant they did not really see any difference between and among them. That may have accounted for the indiscriminate attacks on police formations across the country.

But the protests brought in their wake, the disbandment of SARS and the setting up of judicial panels of inquiry into mounting human rights’ abuse allegations against some operatives of that outfit. So, it is not true they can do anything and get away with them including extrajudicial killing and robbing helpless citizens of their hard-earned monies under all manner of guises. It is not true that police operatives are above the law only accountable to themselves and their supervisors for their actions. They still have the larger society that is the custodian of real political power to contend with. That was the social dynamics that was activated and there are lessons to learn.

We are concerned with the heuristics of this contradiction especially now the government has accepted the desideratum of police reforms. The reforms must be all embracing and far-reaching, touching both the psychological disposition of policemen vis-à-vis their relationship with the public, recruitment process, salaries, allowances and the conditions under which they perform their work. The police that will emerge from the reforms should be a highly reformed and motivated outfit; one that is seen as a friend rather than a foe and sufficiently groomed to function effectively in a democratic setting.

Its overall outcome should be a synthesis of the contradiction between thesis and antithesis- one that turns out of immense benefit to the larger society.