The Police is Not Your Friend: #EndSARS and the Forceful Exertions of Friendships in Nigeria
While the recent viral #EndSARS in Nigeria may have been successful, the issues it raises impel us to rethink the famous motto of the Nigerian Police, The Police is Your Friend. For those who did not notice, #EndSARS was a citizen-led social media campaign against police brutality and violence in Nigeria which was, at a point, the top-trending topic globally on Twitter during the past week. Although the demands of the protesters are pertinent, what interests me here are the conceptual implications of an avowed friendship between state agents and the citizens whose daily encounter with them is an unending song of the precarious and traumatic.
The Police is your friend, which itself was part of a rebranding response to public perception of police as a foe, may then be seen to be a rhetorical strategy that commands sociation, which attempts to remap real perceptions of state violence. Through the online protests, we come to see that the Police is Your Friend misreads how friends are ‘called into being by the pragmatics of co-operation” (Zygmunt Bauman 1991, p. 54), something the policing in Nigeria desires of citizens but also undermines through its own brute display of force and organized vindictive practices that impose fear on citizens. The affirmation of friendship is itself pertinent, as it ironically offers what should be self-evident as a condition for public trust.
The enunciation of friendship that is marked by The Police in Your Friends also means we examine the Nigerian state through an analytical frame that recollects Bauman’s phenomenon of strangerhood. ‘There are friends and enemies. And there are strangers,’ Bauman writes. ‘The stranger disturbs the resonance between physical and psychical distance: he is physically close while remaining spiritually remote.’ The stranger represents an incongruous and hence resented ‘synthesis of nearness and remoteness ‘ (Bauman 1991, p.59–60, italics original). The paradox is evident in the assertion of friendliness by state agents who give reasons to mistrust the state. To accept the friendship of the state is both to misrecognize the troubled morality that undercuts its exercise of power and to refute the perspective of the postcolonial state as a site of estrangement.
This idea of the postcolonial state in Africa as a stranger is prominent in a section of Tejumola Olaniyan’s writings in which he imagines the postcolonial state constructed by modernity for Africa as a site of aporia, imposed strangeness, and oppressive illusion. Following from Bauman, Olamiyan notes that productively reshaping the state in Africa demands encountering it as ‘a stranger,’ rather than as a friend or even an enemy (Olaniyan 2016, p.12). Olaniyan calls for a neutral, unprejudiced starting ground that enables us ‘to come to terms with the stranger, the postcolonial state in Africa’:
The stranger is seen and known, but is neither friend nor enemy. Such an attitude takes state estrangement as neutral normative, and procedurally demands a valiant suspension of our admittedly justified — because experienced — prior assumptions of state enmity or friendliness in the fulfillment of its obligations and in the staking of claims by citizens.… Whether as citizen, scholar, politician, or state agent, to approach the state as a stranger is to foreground and make possible open and equal possibilities for everyone in dealing with the state, on the basis of citizenship as level ground (Olaniyan 2016, p.12).
Some may immediately locate a problematic here, arguing that the state in Nigeria, as its police apparatus indicates, rather materializes itself to citizens through the crippling grip of domination and antinomies which make it a known foe that is untamable and must be accepted as a necessary evil. The fact that the state has failed to facilitate good governance and has been repressive by that fact lead to its enemy status in the imagination of an average citizen. The state is then seen as a prized category to be cheated at every point possible because it is not a friend who is interested in citizens’ wellbeing.
Consistent with Olaniyan’s claim that ‘friends and enemies are on the same terrain of the known and decidable’ (Olaniyan 2016, p.10), a motto such as “police is your friend” enacts the possibility of a state that can be known and knowable; it also demonstrates the ironic affirmation of friendship by state agents whose duty to protect and serve is eclipsed by the often tragic vexations it visits on citizens. People know the police is neither friend nor enemy, and they do not want it to be either of these. Although the likelihood of Tejumola Olaniyan’s idea of the postcolonial state as a stranger that is potentially composed of the possibilities of friendship and enmity may be undesirable and undesired, equally important is the response of citizens who understand the state as an ambivalent mix of nearness and remoteness they cannot avoid.
When we consider that friendship itself is shaped by the politics of vulnerability — understood not in its recent elastic articulations that foreground the condition of destigmatized victimhood but through the politicization of injury and suffering (Alyson Cole 2016), there is the sense in which the friendship the state and its agents offer subjectivizes citizens as a vulnerable class endlessly susceptible to the workings of arbitrary power and brutality. To reject the identity of the vulnerable dictated by the state’s avowal of friendship is to embrace, not enmity, but the notion of the strange.
Even if those who provide public service are not expected to be friends, they can at least be friendly. Even that is illusory as the official response to #EndSARS showed. The Police is Your Friend encroaches violently upon the public through barbaric police acts and culture from which proceeds limitations rendering life bare and disposable. Giorgio Agamben’s notion of the bare life of homa sacer as sacred yet extinguishable through violent acts of politics does not even overstate the present conditions of impunity that provoked #EndSARS. What Agamben calls the sovereign sphere as where ‘it is permitted to kill without committing homicide’ (Agamben 2016, p.53), becomes operable as the very character of police brutality in Nigeria, a fact that galvanized celebrities and other young people to protest both online and on the street. Nigerian Policing, as we find with the case of George Floyd and many others in the US, generates the condition for the operationalization of sovereignty. In these avoidable killings in Nigeria, ‘the life caught in the sovereign ban is the life that is originarily sacred — that is, that may be killed but not sacrificed — and, in this sense, the production of bare life is the originary activity of sovereignty’ (Agamben 2016, p.53). The Police is your friend in this framework can be read as an empty signifier, a meaningless idiom that obfuscates the actual subjectivization of life as bare and barren.
Thus, when Olaniyan writes that the ‘state ought not to be anybody’s enemy or friend, but a stranger — a stranger is structurally and substantively composed, in a chastening way, of the possibilities of both’ (Olaniyan 2016, p.13), one wonders how this meaning of the state as a stranger — both in the abstract and dual sense Olaniyan’s argument mandates comes across to people who have experienced real violence. In other words, precarious dealings and forced encounters with state agents often propel cynical relations that produce traumatic and numbing relations with the state. This is the core of the #EndSARS protest, and it is one that speaks to a larger culture of human devaluation in Nigeria. To mobilize against this larger oppressive culture is to see #EndSARS as symptomatic of social malaise in the body politic, one whose change we seek not only in our own faces but also in those of strangers and the institutional ‘friends’ that force themselves on the rest of us.
Agamben, G & Heller-Roazen D 2016, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
Bauman, Z 1991, Modernity and Ambivalence. Polity, Oxford.
Olaniyan, T 2017, ‘Introduction: State and Culture in Africa: The Possibilities of Strangeness’, in Tejumola Olaniyan (ed) State and Culture in Postcolonial Africa: Enchantings, Indiana UP, Bloomington, pp.1–24.