Remembering the Life and Scholarship of Ebere Onwudiwe

I was pleased to join friends and colleagues today for an online memorial for Professor Ebere Onwudiwe, who fell to COVID-19 on January 9. The event was organized by the Centre for Democracy and Development in Abuja, in collaboration with Comparative and Regional Studies at American University.

The e-banner for the event.

I didn’t meet Ebere until after I read his work in the Journal of Democracy. He taught me a lot about “zoning,” and we had long exchanges about civil-military affairs, and Nigeria’s political economy. At that time I had already contributed a chapter to his book, Nigerian Federalism in Crisis, co-edited with Rotimi Suberu, whose class on “Comparative Federalism” I was teaching at the time (2004). Friends, family and colleagues lined up to honor Ebere’s legacy today. You can watch the memorial (about 75 minutes) here, courtesy of CDD below. You will have to enter the password .IP*F60z

Thanks for the many memories.

A Star beer on his rooftop after a long day always helped keep field work fun. Abuja 2012.
Dinner with Ebere in Abuja, 2010, after he organized a lecture for me at CDD. With gratitude….

Kenya’s Unconstitutional Constitutional Proposals under the Building Bridges Initiative

By Westen K. Shilaho, SARChI in African Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, University of Johannesburg

The rapprochement between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga that happened in March 2018 in the wake of yet another acrimonious election in 2017, is a band aid to Kenya’s deeply divided society and troubled multiparty politics. Informally referred to as the handshake, it culminated in proposals for constitutional changes called the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI). This is a two-man elite pact between Kenyatta, Kenya’s president and the scion of Kenya’s first president, and Odinga, a seasoned oppositionist turned Kenyatta’s ardent loyalist. Odinga is son to Kenya’s first vice president. The entente halted political instability arising from disputed presidential elections where the two were the leading contenders. Like previous elite pacts, the pact expediently sidestepped structural issues at the core of Kenya’s divided polity. It does not address historical injustices specifically land dispossession, impunity, exclusive politics and a predatory political elite disdainful of the populace. Instead it is aimed at politically neutralising Kenyatta’s deputy, William Ruto, who fell out with Kenyatta over the rapprochement. Ruto is openly campaigning to succeed Kenyatta while Kenyatta, intent to unilaterally shape his succession, interprets it as effrontery.

The author, Professor Westen K. Shilaho

Although Kenyatta and Odinga portray BBI as the magic bullet for Kenya’s cyclic fraudulent elections, related disputes and violence, BBI is a cynical power sharing deal between them and affiliated political elite. Insidiously, it contravenes the rule of law and constitutionalism and advances deceit, ethnicity and betrayal emblematic of Kenya’s politics. This constitutional review process is, therefore, illegal. It has no provision under Kenya’s constitution but seeks to amend 13 of the 18 chapters of the country’s constitution. Kenyatta left out his deputy, Ruto while Odinga locked out fellow oppositionists. The irony is that they purport to build bridges while simultaneously demolishing others. BBI is therefore manifestly personality centred, exclusive, and divisive much as it is mischaracterised as an enabler of social cohesion and a bulwark against political instability. The launch of the BBI report was testament to its exclusivity and divisiveness. Ruto was heckled by a hostile crowd loyal to Kenyatta and Odinga when he dissented and questioned the logic behind salient proposals in the document such as equating expansion of the executive to ethnic inclusivity.

This booing smacked of political intolerance. The foreclosure of debate, demonization of opponents, use of security forces to collect signatures in endorsement of the BBI changes, efforts to bribe members of county assemblies (MCAs) to pass the BBI bill, and use of state apparatus to force Kenyans to approve proposed changes through a referendum, vindicate critics who dismiss BBI as a ruse by Kenyatta to manipulate his succession and either extend his tenure or retain power within a tiny incestuous political elite for fear of possible reprisals once out of power.

Shilaho’s 2018 book

An informal pact yet state funded and promoted by state operatives, BBI is embedded in impunity. Ironically its proponents assert that BBI is the antidote for Kenya’s broken politics and society. As evidenced by its conception, process and content, BBI entrenches ethnicity, weakens institutions, and hoists personality cults. It is unstructured (changes were made on the hoof), has been processed through hysterical mass rallies, and town hall like choreographed sessions and suggests constitutional amendments in defiance of the constitution. Flawed, illegal and illegitimate, the process had begotten an outcome with similar attributes.

Kenyatta, Odinga and their supporters insist, unconvincingly, that this initiative will address the winner-take-all politics. Although Kenya’s electoral system is first-past-the-post, this is not the cause of chronic stealing of elections or the ensuing violence. Disregard for the rule of law by a rogue political elite perfected by Kenya’s successive presidents, is the crux of the problem. Counties, the second tier government in place since the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya in 2010, were meant to neuter zero sum politics through decentralisation of power, resources and decision making. However, counties have been denied revenue due to them, and face sustained interference by Kenyatta keen on political centralisation. Popularly elected governors are deferential to either Kenyatta or other tribal warlords because of ethno-regional politics, state intimidation, threats of impeachment and arrest on trumped up charges.

“Although Kenyatta and Odinga portray BBI as the magic bullet for Kenya’s cyclic fraudulent elections, related disputes and violence, BBI is a cynical power sharing deal between them and affiliated political elite. Insidiously, it contravenes the rule of law and constitutionalism and advances deceit, ethnicity and betrayal emblematic of Kenya’s politics. This constitutional review process is, therefore, illegal.”

Kenyatta has forcefully taken over Nairobi county and placed it under Nairobi Metropolitan Services, an illegal entity headed by a military man. While addressing his co-ethnics simulcast through radio stations that broadcast in his vernacular, Kikuyu, Kenyatta admitted that he instigated the impeachment of Mike Sonko the flamboyant immediate governor of Nairobi. Other governors implicated in corruption and loyal to Kenyatta and Odinga have been shielded from impeachment. Sonko, formerly a diehard supporter of Kenyatta’s, had resisted this takeover at the centre of which is contestation over control of Nairobi county and its resources. Kenyatta then tried to scuttle a by-election and had a lackey sworn in as the deputy governor with the intention of elevating her to the governor position. By the time Sonko was impeached, he did not have a deputy. In January 2020 and while on suspension for graft accusations, Sonko nominated a woman to that position but he did not appoint her after the court barred her vetting when the legality of the nomination was challenged in court. Following a favourable ruling, this individual was swiftly vetted and sworn in as the deputy governor after Sonko’s impeachment. Kenyatta fears that his preferred candidate would be defeated in a by-election. A possible backlash from supporters of the immensely popular Sonko and infighting within the ruling party would complicate his quest to control the capital city. At the time of writing the Law Society of Kenya had petitioned the court to declare the filling in of the position of deputy governor in the absence of the governor unconstitutional and rule that preparations for a by-election must proceed.

It is disingenuous of BBI proponents to suggest that the winner-take-all electoral system accounts for Kenya’s perennially adversarial politics anchored in ‘us’ versus ‘them’ binary. Kenyatta, like his predecessors, is insensitive to Kenya’s diversity, habitually ignores court orders, does not uphold the doctrine of the separation of powers and is not bound by constitutionalism. Historically, the office of the president is a seasoned incubator of divisions in Kenya. Cyclic electoral violence is triggered by perennial electoral fraud enabled by a politicised bureaucracy, malleable institutions foremost being the electoral body, and the judiciary and resort to state violence to suppress protests and intimidation to thwart redress. Self-servingly, BBI had proposed that the credibility of elections could be restored by giving party leaders the prerogative to appoint commissioners to the electoral body. It was subsequently expunged following condemnation. In Kenya, political parties are no more than tribal enclaves and this provision sought to place election management under tribal barons. Through BBI, Kenya’s political elite are conniving to hoard power by tearing down accountability mechanisms and restricting the populace to pawns in low stakes politics. Upon co-opting Odinga and other oppositionists, Kenyatta believes that he could count on a cross-ethnic support to overhaul the Constitution and reset the presidential two term limit as is becoming normative across Africa. BBI has received priority amidst a stifling debt crisis, poverty, inequalities, joblessness, the coronavirus pandemic among other challenges. Crass tribal barons, their overzealous supporters and pliable institutions, are Kenya’s existential threats not the Constitution.

What BBI apologists have elected not to appreciate is that democracy entails competitive elections under agreed upon rules enforced by robust institutions. Political competition, that the elite wants to replace with institutionalised backroom deal making, is not the cause of Kenya’s divisive elections and the ensuing violence. The so called win-win outcome that the BBI report contemplates is unashamedly elitist and bizarrely attributes character flaws seen through pervasive impunity, capriciousness, and politicisation of tribalism to political competition. They conflate parochial interests of the political elite with the collective wellbeing. Following credible elections, winners and losers emerge. Thereafter, winners ought to govern failure of which they risk being voted out or even hounded out of power through protests. Losers ought to assume their watchdog role as the political opposition, capitalise on the blunders of the ruling party and act as the government in waiting. Regardless of the electoral outcome, the electorate has a right to public goods. Even those who did not vote have a right to hold the government to account. Pointedly those who voted for a regime that subsequently fails them reserve the right to withdraw their support. Substantively, credible elections mean that today’s winners are potential losers tomorrow and vice versa. In Kenya, however, losers are the citizenry held to ransom by conniving, vacillating and predatory political elite bereft of principles. Devoid of ideological commitment, these politicians fragment and coagulate opportunistically depending on positioning in relation to state largesse.

The BBI report (in which signatures of two members are similar) contains a raft of proposals with far reaching ramifications to the structure of governance one of which is to expand the executive with additional positions of the Prime Minister and two deputies appointed by the president and creation of the office of Leader of the Opposition ostensibly to ensure that elections do not produce winners and losers. Needless to say that this is not the answer to ethnic exclusion or intractable governance deficits in Kenya. In fact, it is scornful of inclusivity because it crassly equates creation of positions for tribal warlords to inclusivity. As appointees of the president, these individuals would effectively be his lackeys, further consolidating power in the person of the president, a throwback to the autocratic one party state that Odinga relentlessly opposed and was detained for his stance. Coupled with the proposal to expand parliamentary membership, the expansion of the executive does not respond to questions regarding responsive leadership, accountability, justice and equity. Additional parliamentary seats, that shoot membership in the bicameral House to almost 600, are no more than sinecures that would only increase an already high government wage bill and not rejig governance at all.

The constitution under article 43 spells out social and economic rights that Kenyatta has ignored instead the BBI bill introduces “responsibilities of citizens” which hints at authoritarianism. Kenyatta relates to the state as if it were his personal property, that he exploits to advance personal economic interests in contempt of conflict of interest and the rule of law. Thus he is wary of the seamless transfer of power.

Of concern also is that BBI reduces the judiciary to an appendage of the executive through the Judicial Ombudsman, a presidential appointee, which would obliterate what remains of a severely weakened judiciary yet to recover from the legacy of one party dictatorship. This proposal is in furtherance of Kenyatta’s sustained assault on democratic tenets, particularly the bill of rights and the doctrine of the separation of powers. Previously, Kenyatta had attempted to morph the judiciary and oversight bodies with the executive by an executive order which elicited a backlash. For over a year now he has inexplicably refused to appoint 41 individuals as judges following a recommendation by the Judicial Service Commission, a breach of the Constitution that the immediate Chief Justice, David Maraga, decried and over which he called for Kenyatta’s impeachment.

Uhuru Kenyatta

A proposal that the president appoints some of the cabinet ministers from among members of parliament ostensibly to ensure that cabinet ministers are accountable to parliament is meant to entice politicians to support BBI and weaken parliament further. The constitution, approved in 2010, outlawed selection of cabinet ministers from parliament for parliamentary independence. Previous Kenyan presidents abused the prerogative to appoint cabinet ministers from parliament to further weaken the legislature. Kenya’s history, however, shows that whether cabinet ministers were appointed as technocrats or not, parliament tended to be subservient to the executive owing to strongman politics, ethno-regionalism and opportunism. Effective 2013, cabinet ministers do not double as MPs yet the current bicameral parliament is beholden to Kenyatta and does its bidding. The constitution provides for checks and balances, ethos and its implementation obviates BBI. However, a rogue executive has encroached on the legislature, judiciary and independent oversight bodies. The media too is timorous and uncritically propagates Kenyatta’s views almost in a propagandist fashion instead of probing in the public interest. Civil society is equally tame.

A suggestion that the police be placed under a presidential appointee in the Ministry of Interior was shelved but that does not imply that the Kenya police, as currently constituted, operates as stipulated by the law. It is politicised, corruption riddled, and epitomises impunity and lawlessness. The police are an extension of the executive thus integral in suppression of political opposition, dissent and commission of extrajudicial executions. The old order resists security sector reforms which are meant to place the police under civilian oversight and infuse ethos into its operations. The police are a metaphor of an unreformed Kenyan state.

The political fallout between Kenyatta and his deputy, Ruto, over BBI, disregard for the constitution, and refusal to implement statutory reports with recommendations for redressing Kenya’s historical injustices underscore amnesia. BBI does not provide redress for land dispossession, poverty, inequalities, endemic corruption, mass atrocities against communities, and fraudulent elections and the resultant state violence. Kenyan politicians have learnt nothing from its tempestuous, if not tragic, history. BBI is opaque, non-participatory, divisive and bodes ill for Kenya’s political stability. Fearing that Kenyatta is using it to undercut him politically and possibly derail his presidential ambition, Ruto has embarked on a whirlwind populist campaign against BBI and to position himself as Kenyatta’s successor and upend Odinga, who is also angling to succeed Kenyatta.

Ruto has framed his messaging within an evocative “hustlers” versus “dynasties” dichotomy tapping into mass poverty, joblessness, state neglect and inertia, and the resultant frustrations wrought by successive regimes. Consequently, Ruto has yanked off a chunk of Odinga’s constituency historically associated with redistributive politics.

The “hustler nation” or the “wheelbarrow movement”, whose symbol is a wheelbarrow, identify themselves as a disenfranchised lot who, against great odds, eke a living from the margins of the Kenyan economy through sheer native cunning. They bear the brunt of state violence and neglect and see themselves as the oppressed pitted against their oppressors. Some of those who smashed the class ceiling and entered the elite group identify themselves as hustlers too and role model the hustler nation. Ruto consistently states that he rose from petty trading in chicken to his current position. . He emphasizes this background to present himself as the foremost hustler.

Contrastingly, dynasties are seen as a hubristic, self-entitled and exclusive political elite that draws its political and economic power not from grit, tact and acumen, but lineage, corruption, larceny, plunder and deft manipulation of tribalism. Dynasties are inheritors of the oppressive and extractive colonial state. Privileged, and alienated from the plight of the majority of Kenyans, dynasties have no regard for the rule of law, constitutionalism and equity. Ruto holds that this system is rigged against him and fellow hustlers in the sense that despite being the deputy president, dynasties perceive him as an interloper in Kenya’s power matrix only fit for the kingmaker role. On different occasions, he previously supported Kenyatta, and Odinga for their presidential bids and their political mentor, Daniel Moi, before them.

On the strength of his humble background, Ruto has dismissed elitism surrounding BBI. He insists that his opponents are scheming to constrain political power within a tiny plutocracy by expanding patronage opportunities through creation of additional cushy political offices for themselves and acolytes at the expense of the poor – hustlers. Jolted by Ruto’s astuteness, Kenyatta and Odinga have pressed the default mode of Kenya’s politics – the maelstrom of tribalism – to politically neuter Ruto. The hustler versus dynasties debate is arguably an unprecedented awakening of class consciousness among the urban poor and peasants for years condemned to the fringes of Kenya’s economy and decision making. The Kenyatta-Odinga axis fears that class consciousness could snowball into mass resentment against them and eventual political whipping were a referendum to be held over the BBI changes and subsequently come elections slated for 2022. Ruto argues that competing visions and leadership acumen must pivot Kenya’s elections not the “lottery of tribalism” and that the wellbeing of the masses must take centre stage in governance and policymaking.

 Kenyatta and Odinga counter that the presidency has to rotate to a different “tribe” other than Kikuyu and Kalenjin although they do not have concurrence on which tribe should be next in the queue. Odinga believes it has to be a Luo, himself to be exact, while Kenyatta is simply fixated on succeeding himself. Curiously, having succeeded a fellow Kikuyu, one wonders when Kenyatta realised that Kenya needs rotational presidency and that this approach would cure its upheavals.

The aim of the “rotational presidency” notion is to delegitimise Ruto, a Kalenjin, much as the implication is that all potential Kalenjin presidential aspirants and their Kikuyu counterparts are disqualified for now. Ironically, Kenyatta and Odinga are in alliance with Gideon Moi, a Kalenjin and son to a former president, who also harbours presidential ambition. Since independence in 1963, Kenya has had three Kikuyu presidents and one Kalenjin. Kenyatta and Odinga did not include the idea of “rotational presidency” in the BBI bill.

 As such, theirs is populist and divisive tribal mobilisation meant to clawback support lost to Ruto’s newfound class politics that seems to resonate with the poor across ethnic divides. Ruto is so adept in messaging that despite his immense wealth whose source is just as dubious, he has recast himself as the embodiment of pro-poor policies and their aspirations. This has reduced his formidable opponents, although backed by state apparatus, to reacting to his message.

Ruto’s opponents accuse him of inciting the poor against the rich that could spiral into “class war” yet Kenyatta and Odinga reinforce tribalism, a constant axis during cyclic election related violence.

 This is a fight to the bottom among cynically capricious political elite regardless of how suave or crass either camp appears to be. Kenya’s politics is still base, tribal, predatory and lean on programmes much as the introduction of class politics, hinged on dignifying work and unemployment, poverty, inequalities and an inclusive economy, is long overdue. Ruto’s attempt to reset Kenya’s politics and shift political competition and discourse away from visceral tribalism, if successful, could embed accountability and issue based politics in the body politic and accord him an unrivalled status in Kenya’s political history. If it assumes a life of its own, it could vanquish him and fellow tribal barons. Kenya’s inability to institutionalise compromise and manage democratic transition accounts for cynical elite pacts, ephemeral ethno-regional alliances and politics of deceit and betrayal. In this polity, politicians are soaked in impunity and are oblivious of the fact that sovereignty reposes in the people. BBI is political chicanery. Its proponents purport to infuse ethos in public life, yet the constitution spells out national ethos one of which is inclusivity and integrity in leadership which they have trashed. Kenyatta ought to uphold the constitution and should desist from tinkering with it for selfish ends because it could potentially plunge Kenya into further political instability.

Nigeria’s 2023 Elections: In Pursuit of Electoral Reforms That Serve the Common Good

By Samson Itodo
Nigeria’s 21 years of democracy was tested with the conduct of last year’s 2019 general elections. The elections presented an opportunity for Nigeria to consolidate on the gains of the 2015 elections and deepen her democratic transition, but the polls substantially failed to do so. The Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) introduced reforms to deepen electoral integrity and citizen participation before the elections, yet the elections were fraught with the same shortcomings that marred previous national elections in Nigeria. As in past elections, INEC’s logistical challenges coupled with misconduct on the part of political parties and candidates undermined the elections‘ integrity. Not to mention the assault on voting rights by desperate politicians who recruited thugs and security agencies for voter suppression. The judiciary was no bystander. In most cases, it determined the final vote by substituting justice for legal technicalities with its logic of constitutional finality. The Supreme Court suffered a reputational setback when it declared a candidate who came fourth in an election the winner, despite computational inaccuracies and disputed results from polling units where elections did not hold. 

The landscape for electoral reform looks promising. Over ten proposed electoral amendment bills are under consideration at the National Assembly. Although these bills are at different stages of the legislative process, they contain proposals that can potentially fix Nigeria’s pressing electoral challenges, especially the predatory behavior of the political class. The bills include proposed amendments that promote the independence and impartiality of INEC by strengthening the legality of INEC regulations, guidelines, and manuals and prohibiting the employment or appointment of members of political parties into INEC. Also contained in the bills are proposals for electronic voting and transmission of election results. Comprehensive amendments were proposed to Section 87 of the Electoral Act on the nomination of candidates. They introduce new procedures for direct and indirect primaries and provide thresholds for party nomination fees. It restricts parties to the qualification criteria fixed by the 1999 Constitution as amended for elective offices, thereby stripping parties of the power to introduce additional measures often used to disqualify unfavoured candidates.

Recently, INEC released its agenda on electoral reform. The Commission is proposing amendments to strengthen the electoral Commission’s financial autonomy, confer power on INEC to suspend elections under certain circumstances, and the power to disqualify candidates. Other proposals include new timelines for campaigns and candidate nomination, review of election results declared under duress, diaspora voting, and improved oversight on political parties, amongst others. Civil society groups have also proposed amendments to the electoral legal framework. Signals from the National Assembly thus far shows that the electoral amendment process may be concluded by 2021.

Voting during the Coronavirus pandemic, 2020

A cost-benefit analysis of public expenditure on elections is an essential component of the electoral reform agenda. This analysis is highly recommended given the country’s economic recession due to bad economic choices, disruptions in public finance, and negative externalities. Political scientists will argue that the high costs of elections are an investment in democracy; therefore, countries should earmark adequate resources for election conduct. This seems like a plausible argument, especially for nations still evolving with a democratic culture. But what happens to equity and efficiency? What is the benefit of expending scarce resources on elections that fail to maximize utility or promote happiness for the greatest number in society, or elections that yield just outcomes?

Nigeria spent N139 Billion (N1,893 or $9 cost per voter) for the 2011 elections; N116.3 Billion (N1,691 or $8.5 cost per voter) for the 2015 elections; and N189.2 Billion (N2,249 $6.24 cost per voter) for the 2019 elections. All three elections recorded a poor turnout of voters. In Nigeria, the law compels the electoral Commission to use the voter register as a basis for election planning as against the figures for collected Permanent Voters Card (PVC). In the 2019 elections, INEC printed over 427.5 million ballot papers (of currency quality) for 80 million registered voters in the six scheduled elections. Less than 30 million ballots were used in the elections because only 35 percent of registered voters showed up to vote. Billions of Naira went to waste due to a large number of unused ballots papers. These scarce resources plowed to produce the unused ballot papers would have been allocated to health, education, or jobs given Nigeria’s place as the world’s poverty capital. Efficient allocation of scarce resources should be a priority agenda for reformers of our electoral process. This should encompass a clear strategy for reversing the deeply entrenched culture of waste in public finance management. 

No doubt, the current proposed amendments can foster popular sovereignty. Still, it is uncertain whether the ruling political class will pass these laws, given the potential of reforms to limit future chances of electoral victory. The apparent assumption is that most politicians will be reluctant to legislate themselves out of office. Therefore, they employ diverse tactics to dictate the pace and influence the outcome of reform efforts, leaving society to manage the tensions between individual and collective interests.

A just society is one that places the maximization of happiness as a key basis for decision-making. Moral decision making should be premised on maximizing the total happiness of members of society and advancing the common good, not just the interests of a few. As legislators consider decisions on electoral reforms within the ramifications of options available to them, they should be guided to choose options that serve the common good. In other words, in the spirit of democracy, they should pass electoral amendments that promote the common good of the Nigerian majority, in essence, the people and not the political class. After all, political authority is expected to serve the interests of the people, not individual interests. As Xunsi puts it, ‘Heaven did not create the people for the sake of the Lord, heaven established the Lord for the sake of the people.’ If an electoral amendment reflects the aggregate of the greater good, it indicates its responsiveness to the will and aspirations of the people.  Suffices to say, the greater the number of citizens who participate in designing a new electoral legal framework, the greater our chances of producing just outcomes and advancing the common good.

Citizens bear the burden to hold the ruling political elite to higher standards. Electoral policies should place a premium on moral principles, ethics, and maximization of happiness. The 9th National Assembly will be judged by the extent to which the proposed electoral amendments promote happiness for the greater number and not just the political elites. Any piece of electoral legislation that will not guarantee the people’s participation, protect the sanctity of the vote or advance electoral justice may not serve the common good. Suffice to say that there’s nothing special about the ongoing electoral reform process if it does not yield the greater good for the greater number, instead of yielding the greater good for the one percent who control political power.

Samson Itodo, Executive Director, YIAGA Africa
Samson Itodo, Executive Director, YIAGA Africa

Samson Itodo is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He is an elections and constitution building enthusiast. He serves as Executive Director of Yiaga Africa and the Convener of the Not Too Young To Run movement. Send comments and feedback to sitodo@yiaga.org. He tweets @DSamsonItodo

Letter to the Biden/Harris Transition Team regarding SARS

As the Trump administration nears its end, U.S. foreign policy must prepare to reset and revitalize relations with Nigeria. Americans have an opportunity to repair the harm done by leadership that drew upon crude, racialized stereotypes of Africans and that coddled dictators. In the context of a reckoning with police violence against American minority communities, and a movement in Nigeria challenging serious and widespread abuses, it is urgent for the United States to recommit to global democracy and human rights. Yesterday, Chiedo Nwankwor, Patrick Ukata and I joined other African studies professors in a letter to the incoming Biden/Harris administration urging specific policy actions in response to the #EndSARS movement in Nigeria. Our goals closely align with those in an open letter to the international community recently published by NGOs and faith-based organizations, and are crafted to stand in solidarity with core demands of Nigerian protestors.

After Pennsylvania’s electoral college votes gave Joe Biden a majority on November 7, thousands of people went to Black Lives Matter plaza, across from the White House, to peacefully celebrate.

November 13, 2020
Biden-Harris Transition Team
Ted Kaufman
Anita Dunn, co-chair
Representative Cedric Richmond, co-chair
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, co-chair
Jeffrey Zients, co-chair


Dear Members of the Biden-Harris Transition Team:

We are writing to condemn the violent crackdown on non-violent protests in Nigeria, and in support of US assistance for police reform and accountability. As longtime scholars of Nigeria, we have been appalled by the government’s reckless use of violence and disproportionate force against peaceful civilians. We believe these abuses demand unequivocal diplomatic condemnation from the United States. Moreover, such gross human rights violations require additional action by the United States to eliminate any complicity with official actions blatantly at odds with American foreign policy principles, to advance the work of democratic reform in Nigeria, and to reinforce our shared obligations to international human rights agreements.
On 8 October, demonstrations erupted across Nigeria when a video surfaced showing officers from the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) shooting an unarmed man. Nigerian youths organized peaceful protests across the country, uniting around demands known as “5for5,” calling for: the release of protestors being held, justice for victims of violence and their families, the formation of an independent body to oversee investigation and prosecution of perpetrators, psychological evaluations and retraining of officers formerly in SARS, and increasing police salary.  On 20 October 2020, in what has become known as the “Lekki Toll Gate Massacre” or “Black Tuesday,” the Nigerian army shot and killed at least 12 unarmed protesters singing the national anthem and holding the Nigerian flag while over 120,000 people worldwide witnessed this brutality on social media live streams. This pattern of violence by security forces, resulting in the deaths of at least 56 peaceful protestors in different incidents across Nigeria, obligates the international community to act. 
For years, SARS has committed systematic human rights violations. Even before the protests erupted in October, Amnesty International documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial execution by SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. Such abuses continued despite the passage of Anti-Torture Legislation by Nigeria’s National Assembly in 2017. Recurring failures to reform the police over the last two decades have fostered an overall climate of impunity. President Muhammadu Buhari has neither responded to the 5for5 demands, nor taken adequate steps to stop the unwarranted killing of peaceful protesters. In a recent letter to President Buhari, the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus urged him to do so.
The Nigerian government is obligated to uphold the right to non-violent protest and ensure the safety of protestors in accordance with Chapter IV, Section 40 of the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria 1999 (as amended), Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 11 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights also guarantees the right to peacefully assemble, and Article 5 prohibits torture and cruel and degrading treatment of persons.

We therefore urge the United States to:

  1. Use the authority granted under the Global Magnitsky Act to place targeted sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans, on politicians, officials and other Nigerians implicated in recent human rights abuses. These incidents should include but not be limited to the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre, various attacks on protestors since October 8, and other abuses of Nigerians engaged in peaceful free speech activities. Consistent with the December 2017 Executive Order on “Blocking the Property of Persons Involved in Serious Human Rights Abuse or Corruption,” the sanctions should apply to SARS and other special police units determined “to be responsible for or complicit in, or to have directly or indirectly engaged in, serious human rights abuse.” As scholars of Nigeria, we believe such steps would advance democratic reform efforts and hold abusive security services accountable. As the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has poignantly reminded us, democracy and rule of law cannot flourish amidst impunity.
  2. Suspend security assistance and military sales to the Nigerian police and security forces implicated in or broadly culpable for violence utilized against #EndSARS protesters until the Buhari administration fully complies with relevant laws and policies to ensure accountability for human rights violations.
  3. Support the authorization of a panel of experts under the United Nations Human Rights Council. The panel could investigate human rights violations by the Nigerian security services, identify alleged perpetrators and hold them accountable. Such a process could broadly engage Nigerian authorities alongside other stakeholders in order to achieve a public accounting that would promote truth, healing, and democratic reform.
  4. Support the International Criminal Court’s ongoing preliminary examination in Nigeria by offering assistance to a widened inquiry that includes the Lekki Toll Gate Massacre and SARS-related atrocities. A critical first step in providing such support is for the administration to immediately rescind the June 2020 Executive Order used to sanction the ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and one of her senior officials. Thereafter, the U.S. should offer in-kind support to the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICC in its efforts to gather evidence about individual perpetrators accused of atrocity crimes arising out of SARS abuses.

We, the undersigned scholars, stand in solidarity with the people of Nigeria in their quest to strengthen rule of law and advance democratic reform. We hope your incoming foreign policy administration will fully commit to the above requests, which we believe will both strengthen Nigerian democracy and America’s enduring friendship with a critical African ally and friend. We look forward to hearing from you soon. Institutional affiliations are listed for identification purposes only and do not indicate an organizational endorsement.

Sincerely,

A. Carl LeVan, American University
Chiedo Nwankwor, Johns Hopkins-SAIS
Patrick Ukata, Halsik Group
Rita “Kiki” Edozie, University of Massachusetts – Boston
Olufemi Vaughan, Amherst College
John Campbell, Council on Foreign Relations
Steve Feldstein, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Mojubaolu Olufunke Okome, Brooklyn College – CUNY
Onwubiko Agozino, Virginia Tech
Matthias Chika Mordi, Johns Hopkins – SAIS
Brandon Kendhammer, Ohio University
Omolade Adunbi, University of Michigan – Ann Arbor
Shobana Shankar, Stony Brook, SUNY
Hilary Matfess, Yale University
Cajetan Iheka, Yale University
Adrienne LeBas, American University
David Laitin, Stanford University
Judy Byfield, Cornell University
Richard Joseph, Northwestern University
Matthew T. Page, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Amina Mama, University of California, University of Ghana, Feminist Africa
Deborah Brautigam, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS
Cheryl O’Brien, San Diego State University
Larry Diamond, Stanford University
Daniel Jordan Smith, Brown University
Nathan Hosler, Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, Church of the Brethren
Faith I. Okpotor, Moravian College
Abosede George, Barnard College – Columbia University
Farooq Kperogi, Kennesaw State University
Hannane Ferdjani, former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University
Bobby Digi Olisa, Nigerians In Diaspora Organization New York /Canvas Institute INC
Kara Roop Miheretu, Pennsylvania State University
Rebecca Rwakabukoza, Northwestern University
Beth Evans, Brooklyn College, City University of New York
Jacqueline Copeland, Black Philanthropy Month and The WISE Fund
Chenise Calhoun, Tulane University
Gretchen Bauer, University of Delaware
Oyeronke Oyewumi, Stony Brook University
Funmilayo Agbaje, University of Ibadan, Nigeria
Ousseina Alidou, Rutgers University
Peyi S Soyinka-Airewele, Ithaca College, Ithaca NY
Modupe Oshikoya, Virginia Wesleyan University
Namulundah, Brooklyn College, CUNY
Mònica Cejas, Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana-Xochimilco (Mexico City)
Carolina Bank Muñoz, Brooklyn College
Elias Bongmba, Rice University
Rose Ndengue, Université de Rouen
Zola Makosana, University of the Western Cape
Kathleen Barker, City University of New York: Medgar Evers College
Chika Okoye, Rutgers University
Prudence Cumberbatch, Brooklyn College
Jill M. Humphries, University of Toledo
Mark Ungar, Brooklyn College
Mobina Hashmi, City University of New York
Zachariah Mampilly, City University of New York
Therese McGinn, Self-employed
Amy Kraizman, CUNY The Graduate Center
Anita Plummer, Howard University
Anene Ejikeme, Trinity University
Adryan Wallace, Stony Brook University
Jean Eddy Saint Paul, City University of New York: Brooklyn College
Nasim Almuntaser, City University Of New York: Brooklyn College
Saheed Aderinto, Western Carolina University
Emmanuel Balogun, Skidmore College
Gabriel Bámgbóṣé, Rutgers University-New Brunswick
Naluwembe Binaisa, University College London
Ifeoluwa M. Olawole, American University
Aderonke Adesola Adesanya, James Madison University
T.D. Harper-Shipman, Davidson College
Oceane Jasor, Concordia University
Zandi Sherman, Rutgers University
Rose Ndengue, Université de Rouen
Jacob Olupona, Harvard University
Judith Van Allen, Cornell University
Aderonke Adesola Adesanya, James Madison University
Professor Stella M. Nkomo, University of Pretoria, South Africa
Omowumi Olufunbi Elemo, James Madison College, Michigan State University
Candy Dato, Retired
Laurel Lesio
Kevin Mcgirr, UCSF
Pauline Halpern Baker, The Fund for Peace
Darren Kew, University of Massachusetts, Boston
Barbara M. Cooper, Rutgers
Meredeth Turshen, Rutgers University
Clovis Bergere, University of Pennsylvania
Justin Mullikin, Rutgers University
Oghenetoja Okoh, Loyola University Maryland
Faith Adogame, Rutgers University – Newark
Paul M. Lubeck, Johns Hopkins University – SAIS

Names added since November 13

Jon Kraus, SUNY at Fredonia
Leonard Wantchekon, Princeton University
Beth Elise Whitaker, University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Jean Claude Abeck, Africa Center for Strategic Progress
Susanna Wing, Haverford College
Peyi Soyinka-Airewele, Ithaca College
Nicolas van de walle, Cornell University
Doyin Coker-Kolo, Indiana University Southeast
Laura Thaut Vinson, Lewis & Clark College
Leonardo A. Villalon, University of Florida
Scott Pegg, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
Olajumoke Ayandele, Rutgers University


THE #EndSARS PROTEST CRACKDOWN: THE GOVERNMENT’S RESPONSE AND MATTERS ARISING. By Laz Apir

The #EndSARS Hashtag

Globally, it is no longer news what the #EndSARS hashtag and protest represents, what is now making the news rounds is how the democratically elected Government of Nigeria responded to the peaceful protesters, and how the young Nigerians who led the protest will react. However, for the benefit of anyone who may be coming in contact with the subject matter for the first time, let me give a quick introduction of the #EndSARS protest in Nigeria.

What Is SARS?

The Nigeria Police Force in late 1992 established a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit to specifically focus on crimes associated with robbery, motor vehicle theft, kidnapping, cattle rustling, and firearms. Aside the general decay, bribery, torture tactic and associated corrupt practices of extortion of motorists and individuals by operatives of the Nigeria Police, the last decade witnessed an alarming surge in cases of SARS wrong profiling and brutality of especially young Nigerians.

What triggered the #EndSARS Protest

In early October 2020, a video emerged showing police officers; thought to be from the notorious SARS allegedly shooting and killing a young man in Delta state. Although Nigerian authorities denied the reports, young Nigerians were enraged as once again, the authorities failed to take any concrete steps in addressing police brutality. There was an initial call for protest by a Nigerian Musician by name Naira Marley, after what was believed to be an act of intimidation from some the security operatives, the artist called off the protest. However, on 8 October 2020, nationwide peaceful protests erupted and were peaceful. The Lagos protest was again led by some other top music icons like Falz and Runtown with solidarity from other big Nigerian celebrities like Burna Boy, Wizkid, Davido, Tacha, MI, Tuface, Ebuka. Almost every social media influencer as well as other Nigeria pro Athletes identified with the protest. The protesters all along maintained two characteristics; to be leaderless and nonviolent.

What the Protesters Demanded

The embodying demand of the protest was a call to disband the SARS, but in details, contained five interrelated demands all aimed at reforming the Nigeria police. These were:

Attack on protesters and the knee Jerk SWAT Introduction

The #EndSARS protesters carried on while maintaining the nonviolent discipline. Suddenly, the media started reporting counter protests in support of the SARS unit even after the Federal Government agreed and disbanded the SARS unit. The counter protesters then changed their initial protest in support for SARS into attacking the #EndSARS protesters. These attacks all around the country including Abuja the federal capital territory where cars were burnt and a whole settlement razed. With the attacks on the peaceful protesters on the rise, rumours started filtering in that the attackers were being sponsored by some persons believed to be doing so in support of the regime. Momentarily, the Inspector General of Police announced the establishment of a new police unit called SWAT to replace the disbanded SARS. The protesters clearly saw the move as a knee jerk reaction and quickly doubled up and started a second hashtag #EndSWAT.

International Solidarity with #EndSARS Protest

By day 6, the #EndSARS protest had gained global attention and solidarity from top music icons like Cardi B, P-Diddy, Beyonce, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Meek Mills, and other US and UK politicians, diplomats and professionals. Once the #EndSARS hashtag started trending globally, a lot more people started following the conversation and showing solidarity with the protest given that police brutality is not new to citizens of the world. Nigerian celebrities went a step further in crowd funding to cover supplies for the protesters.  Other men and women of goodwill also would buy meals and take to the protesters in support. The entire time, Government of Nigeria never came out to engage the protesters nor issued an official statement.

Spread of the #EndSARS Protest

The protest which initially erupted in just Lagos and Abuja quickly replicated across other Nigerian cities and soon spread to other cities around the world; all calling for #PoliceReformsInNigeria and an #EndToPoliceBrutality. Typically, similar protests or agitations of such proportion in the past never lasted more than a week. That the #EndSARS protest was waxing stronger, rumours started filtering in that security operatives were being moved around the country to some of the major hubs of the protest, preparatory for a crackdown. These rumours grew stronger on the strength of the continued attack on the peaceful protesters by hoodlums; believed to be sponsored by supporters of the regime. There was even a prison break in Edo state which many believed was staged to give the #EndSARS protest a bad name and warrant the use of lethal force. How could unarmed protesters overrun a prison facility successfully without fatalities?

The Lekki Toll Gate massacre

On day 12 of the #EndSARS protest, events unfolded routinely across the various protest grounds until about 8:pm on 20.10.2020 when Twitter spiked with cries in short video clips of shooting at the #EndSARS protesters at Lekki Toll Gate in Lagos. This was the most peaceful and organized protest ground. For this reason, it was puzzling what could have gone wrong to warrant the use of maximum force. Eye witness testimonies confirmed that at some point, the lights and the CCTV cameras at Lekki Toll gate were turned off. Momentarily About the time some security operatives in the Nigerian Army attire showed up. On sighting the armed military personnel, the protester started singing the Nigeria National Anthem while taking a kneel. This was when the soldiers opened fire on the protesters. A video surfaced on social media in which protesters being shot at were heard telling the other protesters to sit down and scamper about.

The Ensuing Reaction

The morning after the shooting, and the entire day went by without as much as a statement from the Presidency. While the government of Nigeria was silent, some world leaders, past and present reacted on social media in condemnation of the shooting and called on the Government of Nigeria to open investigation and bring culprits to book. Former president Olusegun Obasanjo even issued a press statement in which stated that use of brute force is historically proven to be unviable in addressing citizen agitations. He called on President Buhari to act fast and not let the situation to degenerate any further. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, UN Secretary General, minsters and foreign secretaries all sent strong condemnation of the shootings which according to Amnesty International claimed 12 lives and injured several others. The governor of Lagos state is his press address mentioned visiting 24 injured protesters. He declared that there were no fatalities but later apologized and confirmed one fatality.

President Buhari’s Address

It was nearly after 48 hours since the shooting, that the President of Nigeria made a broadcast in which he acknowledged the fundamental right of citizens to protest as enshrined in Section 40 of Nigeria’s Constitution and other enactments. In the same breath, President Buhari quickly changed tone and dared the young citizens protesting to not misconstrue his swift response in announcing disbandment of SARS as a weakness. The speech further spiralled into stating the empowerment measures and initiatives principally targeted at youths, women and the most vulnerable groups in Nigeria. Suggestive of the fact that the youths should be grateful and not dare to demand police reform in Nigeria. The incoherence did not fail to add that his administration will continue to improve good governance and the democratic process, including sustained engagement. And how the liberty and freedom, as well as the fundamental rights of all citizens shall be protected under his watch.

President Buhari: re-elected in 2019. His 2015 victory was the subject
of my most recent book, Contemporary Nigerian Politics.

To the international community, Mr President called off their ignorance and advised them to seek all the facts available before taking a position or rushing to judgment and making hasty pronouncements. On this note, he told the protesters to go and apply for Farmermoni, Tradermoni, Marketmoni, N-Power, N-Tech and N-Agro. That to do otherwise will amount to undermining national security and the law and order situation which he will not tolerate. Just after issuing the threats, Mr President asked the protester to clear out the streets and find constructive ways of engaging government.

Next, the President paid tributes to the police officers who lost their lives, and thanked youth leaders who have restrained their followers from taking the law into their hands. he asked all Nigerians to go about their normal lives. No acknowledgement of the shooting at protesters by the security operatives and the victims of the shooting.

Matters Arising

Like many others who have tried to make sense of the events around the shooting of peaceful protesters and the corresponding response of the Government of Nigeria, three questions come to mind that President Buhari needs to answer; either for himself or for Nigeria:

There is a sense in how and why nations exist sovereign yet go into bilateral relations with other nations. And also belong to regional and global communities. Not long ago, Nigeria dominated the debate in calling on Malians military to order. Can the same Nigeria kill its citizens in cold blood and tell concerned potential allies like Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to back off?

Can Nigeria kill its citizens and tell Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton to back off?

Is Buhari expecting a return to normalcy, or is he postponing “the evil”?

Is a reformed Nigeria – the aim of these youth led protests – still possible?

Abuja protesters (photo by Laz Apir)

Nigeria demographics paints a picture of a youth dominated population wallowing in abject poverty as sustained by joblessness. A situation former president Obasanjo once described as Nigeria sitting on a keg of gunpowder. By Mr. President’s address, is he expecting that the balance is restored and normalcy will return or he is simply holding on to anything and postponing the evil for another day?

The sheer commitment, intensity and passion displayed by young Nigerians in the period of the #EndSARS protest; is an eye opener to the power the youths wield collectively. For the moment, it is safe to say these young Nigerians are nursing their wounds and trying to make sense of how a peaceful protest with clearly achievable demands, warranted the raining of live bullets on them. The question on the minds and lips of many others is how the momentum, collaboration and shared vision to see a reformed Nigeria can be further channelled. Or is this the end?

Whilst we await what happens in the next days, weeks or even months, it will be impulsive for anyone to imagine we have seen or heard the last of the #EndSARS agitation which encapsulates an emerging third force in young Nigerians towards galvanizing support to see far reaching reforms across Nigeria. Only time will tell what happens next.

Laz April is an election expert and civil society activist. He writes from Abuja, Nigeria. Follow him on Twitter @lazapir.

Laz Apir