In 1983, the novelist Chinua Achebe published a short treatise called The Trouble With Nigeria. With characteristic acuity, his very first paragraph answers the question posed in the title.
“The trouble with Nigeria is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the Nigerian character. There is nothing wrong with the Nigerian land or climate or water or air or anything else. The Nigerian problem is the unwillingness or inability of its leaders to rise to the responsibility, to the challenge of personal example, which are the hallmarks of great leadership.”
Decades later, these words ring just as true. This month, Nigerian citizens have risen up in their tens of thousands to protest against the brutality with which they are treated by state security forces. The specific target of their anger was the notorious special anti-robbery squad (Sars), which has been implicated in routine harassment and intimidation, torture, assault and even extrajudicial killings.
These protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. But, as if to prove their point, the response of the state has been anything but.
At least 56 people have been killed over the past two weeks, according to Amnesty International. Some 38 of those deaths occurred on Tuesday. That day, in Lagos, security forces corralled protesters onto the Lekki-Ikoyi Bridge; and then, when there was no escape, they opened fire with live ammunition. Ambulances and first responders were prevented from accessing the scene.
As tragic as this violence is, it is not surprising. As political strategist Chude Jideonwo noted in an opinion piece this week, for as long as there has been an independent Nigeria, its government has been killing its people. “It killed them in several protests during and against military rule in the 1970s long before I was born, and killed them again in the 1980s when I was just a child. It killed them in the 1990s when citizens dared to step into the streets to demand the announcement of the winner of the historic 12 June elections, and killed them again in my teens, under the presidency of General Sani Abacha.”
This is not, of course, a uniquely Nigerian phenomenon. On this continent alone, we have seen civilians killed this year by state security forces in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa, among others.
For too long, our governments appear to have fatally misunderstood their purpose. Political leaders are supposed to serve and protect their citizens — not the other way round. Brutality on the scale of what we have witnessed in Nigeria this week has no place in any democracy. That it can happen at all is, ultimately, a failure of leadership — exactly as Achebe pointed out all those years ago.