Nigeria’s Protests and the Need for Bottom-Up Reform Across Africa

One of the rare times I made it through the international airport in Lagos with nary a request for a bribe, I was left feeling spooked. After all, during previous visits to Nigeria, I had had valuables seized right before my eyes under false pretenses; I had been detained in a cell awaiting ransom; and I had even once watched in alarmed disbelief as uniformed men with guns boarded my flight and extorted money from passengers, along with bottles of champagne from the crew, right there on the tarmac.

This time, as I exited the terminal, just as I was being greeted by a prearranged driver, a man in plainclothes approached to demand my passport. The driver whispered for me to ignore him and keep walking fast, after which the man in plainclothes flashed a gun under his shirt and said, “OK, you’ll see.”

Sure enough, as we were driving out of the airport parking lot, two men raised rifles at our vehicle, ordering us to stop. My driver ignored them, speeding ahead and barreling through the tollgate. Anticipating the worst, I had ducked, but was relieved to hear no gunshots.

This incident, more than two decades ago, was only one in a long catalogue of personal encounters with corrupt and abusive police officials I’ve experienced as a journalist working in a wide variety of African countries. I’ve defiantly slept in my car on a bridge all night in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, while refusing to pay for a contrived infraction. I’ve had police barge into my hotel room at night to collect bribes in Lubumbashi, in southern Congo. I’ve been threatened at roadblocks in too many places to count. And in country after country, I’ve collected permits and accreditations like talismans just to keep dishonest police at bay.

None of this compares, though, to the ordinary experience of many Africans, whose daily lives consist of navigating gauntlets of predation and violence by their own country’s law enforcement. Men in uniform often rob people in broad daylight on highways or at busy urban intersections, pulling over cars and trucks at roadblocks in order to extract what amounts to a costly informal tax from drivers and passengers alike. Crooked officers usually target the poor, because they are the most defenseless.

This oppressive reality is now on stark display in the surprising wave of protests washing over Nigeria. They began on Oct. 5 in indignation over the killing of citizens by something called the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, a supposedly elite police unit that has mostly excelled at combining murderous violence with brazen corruption.

The protests began in Lagos, one of the world’s largest and fastest growing cities, with a population of some 20 million. But they have since spread to many other parts of the country with remarkable speed. In overnight vigils, thousands of Nigerians have demanded that the police be held to account. On Monday, demonstrators brought Lagos to a complete standstill, closing major roads and even the city’s notorious airport. The Nigerian government has responded somewhat belatedly, with vague promises to reform the police, including disbanding the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. But the statements of the authorities have lagged well behind the mushrooming popular demands for a complete overhaul of the way the government responds to and serves the needs of the people.

For many Africans, daily life consists of navigating gauntlets of predation and violence by their own country’s law enforcement.

For someone like me who has spent a professional lifetime working in and writing about Africa, optimism and pessimism about the prospects of deeper and more meaningful democratization on the continent have come in alternating waves. As important as free elections are to rejecting a certain model of African politics—with distant and entrenched authoritarian leaders who enrich themselves and their cronies, hollowing out institutions along the way—Nigeria’s protests have renewed the sense in me that there are other measures of democratization that may be just as vital. They may even be more meaningful in the direct lives of citizens.

A deep crisis of accountability exists in so many African countries, running from the top to the bottom of society. Activists and the rest of civil society shouldn’t give up pushing for responsible, transparent and democratically accountable governance from their presidents and other leaders. But in many countries, achieving greater accountability at the ground level may be more immediately practical.

Here, Nigeria’s example may point the way. As remarkably vibrant as African civil societies have become in the past generation or so, they have still bumped up against their limitations in constraining corrupt leaders from feathering their beds and those of their clan with stolen money, or playing games with constitutional limits on their power. Civil society should still press for less abusive and more law-abiding leadership, but they should also focus more on the daily crimes and insults that many African citizens suffer at the hands of the police, soldiers, border agents and petty bureaucrats in general. Too often, these kinds of figures take their jobs as a state-given license to steal from the weak, sanctioned by the silence of their rulers.

Putting highly visible public pressure on the police and others responsible for rampant, low-level corruption and violence, like Nigerians are, has the merit of drawing presidents and other authorities out on questions they have historically shown great indifference to: the real, lived experience of their own citizens. That could potentially extend a sense of accountability up the political ladder. This could carry over to elections, too. If African civil societies can also make electoral campaigns more about deliverables, such as less corruption and more transparency in people’s day-to-day dealings with low-level authorities—and not only about more traditionally “national” issues, like economic growth and development—they may have a better prospect for extending a sense of accountability throughout the political system.

Western countries, which have long sustained an exaggerated sense of their power to influence African politics and societies at large, still have a role to play. The future of African government has never been more in the hands of the peoples of the continent, as opposed to outside powers, and that is as it should be. But as they seek to sustain their own engagement with the continent, Western governments should do more to marry their sometimes high-flown rhetoric about electoral democracy with issues that may seem smaller-bore, but which strongly condition the lived experience of hundreds of millions of Africans. That means the professionalism of police, petty corruption and other abuses by unaccountable bureaucrats. Targeting incremental but steady progress in these areas could significantly improve many people’s quality of life, and with it a sense of social trust. It might even culminate in more dramatic changes, such as a deeper culture of responsibility toward the public at the highest levels of government. One can even imagine powerful signals of virtue accumulating within different African regions, with the strongly positive records of some governments putting subtle pressure on neighbors to improve their own performance.

Too many past policies of Western engagement with Africa have manifestly failed. Starting at the bottom with things like police reform, the very issue that has brought so many Nigerians out into the streets this month, may offer the chance of a new beginning.

Source: Howard W. French (worldpoliticsreview.com)

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