Colonial Legacies of Policing in Nigeria: Why We Need Abolition Everywhere

Over the past week, we have witnessed a global uprising in response to violence against Black lives. Black people everywhere have rightfully expressed their rage and the rawness of their grief. While downright exhausting, the release was necessary for our survival.

Within the last week, mayors have committed to reducing police budgets, white supremacist monuments have been taken down and conversations on abolition have taken centerstage. While there is still so much work to be done, I have savored each step forward and rejoiced for all of the Black people who have labored to make such change possible.

Watching these events happen across the globe, I have oftentimes forgotten that I am geographically located in New York. Mentally and spiritually, I locate myself over the Atlantic, monitoring matters in the U.S., U.K. and Nigeria simultaneously.

I have sat in awe watching tens of thousands of people protest in London. I have also sat  in awe watching protests of less than a hundred people in Lagos. Regardless of the physical size of the protest, the magnitude has been great. As I read protest signs for  George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, I imagined how many other people the person holding the sign dreams of justice for. I thought of all of the names of people who were recently murdered by the police both in the U.K., like Sarah Reed, and in Nigeria, like Tina Ezekwe. The sign in the hands of the protestor gained extra weight.

For these reasons and more, I believe that the movement for police abolition should not be restricted by the myth of borders. In order to talk about abolition as it pertains to countries like Nigeria, it is important to analyze colonialism and its legacies.

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During the colonial era in Nigeria, a system of indirect-rule was enforced — the British ruled Nigerian people through pre-existing traditional rulers. This wasn’t the case in all colonized countries. For example, the French directly ruled their colonies, which meant that they placed themselves at the top of governing structures and only allowed indigenous populations to participate in the lowest tier of the colonial government.

In Nigeria, the British framed indirect-rule as a means of respecting indigenous cultures and traditions. However, if we look beneath this illusion of benevolence, we see that indirect-rule meant that the colonized were used against each other while colonizers slid behind a veil of invisibility.

To uphold colonialism in Nigeria, law enforcement was tasked with policing labor. This included suppressing worker strikes, enforcing direct taxation and clamping down on profitable indigenous industries. From that time to the present day, there has been a justifiable association with the police and subjugation rather than safety.

Today, the British hypocritically assert that Nigeria is corrupt. We respond that colonialism is its source. The West laughs, armed with the weapon of indirect-rule, and says that it was never there.

Conditioned to believe that our enemy is within, it becomes easier for some to believe the concept of the Western world as a sanctuary. Indeed, many Black immigrants migrate to the Western world in search for safety only to realize that they have arrived at the source of the violence that they were escaping from. For some, this realization has just set in this week. For others, it was a realization that they were born into. In either case, realization brings us closer to the abolitionist work that is necessary for our liberation. 

This realization is at odds with forgetting.

When we grow into this realization, our knowledge of local, indigenous practices that were used to resolve conflict in precolonial Nigeria overshadows the fact that we are conditioned to believe that this form of policing always existed. This is not to say that our previous methods were without their flaws – violence and other forms of policing existed in precolonial Nigeria too. However, it is to make us remember our history and how the police were used by colonizers to ensure economic gain…that colonialism, capitalism and corruption are married.

A deep hope of white supremacy is that we will not step into the realm of our imaginations. If fully tapped into, our imaginations are playgrounds that would allow us to dream of and implement the community-based safety practices that will save us.

Truthfully, many of us are unable to articulate a single moment where we received safety from, or felt safe around, the police. Similarly, when we ask our parents of their experiences with police back home they meet us with blank stares or nervous laughter. Behind these seemingly dismissive responses, there may be memories of bribery, sexual assault, kidnapping, and, or murder.

Intergenerationally and globally, we struggle to think of positive interactions with the police and yet they absorb incomprehensible amounts of money that could be used to meet the needs of our people.

So, when we talk about police abolition in countries like the U.K. and the U.S.,  we also have to talk about uprooting it from countries that were formerly colonized and that are still navigating colonial legacies. We get free by realizing that our freedom is indivisible from the freedom of Black people everywhere.

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