Often, the experiences one has at the hands of police make you wonder why they even bother with slogans. Take, for example, the Nigeria Police Force, with its black uniform, renowned for taking bribes, especially those stationed on public roads, with a slogan that proclaims, “Police is your friend.”
Go down to Kenya and the situation would replay itself. The slogan is one that portrays a sense of security and warmth, but it is totally contradictory to what the police do. The Kenya Police’s slogan is, in Kiswahili, “Utumishi kwa wote”, or in English, “Service to all”. Kenyans can tell you about experiences that would turn that slogan on its head.
The police and military institutions of many (if not all) African countries stem from colonialism and served the purpose of repressing the indigenes of a land. The true slogan of those systems of policing would be “Service to the elite, repression of the masses”. Unfortunately, this has not changed and one can trace systemic police brutality on the continent back to colonial rule. This fact also explains the lack of change from a colonial policing system to a more friendly community policing system.
One can trace systemic police brutality on the continent back to colonial rule.
In South Africa, the majority of police were white. The apartheid government installed the police system largely to control the black population. This was done with brutal and unequal force. The Sharpeville Massacre on 21 March 1960, when police shot at a peaceful crowd with live bullets, killing 69 people, is just one place to start from. The Soweto Uprising of 16 June 1976, when the South African Police killed at least 176 children, saw the police continue to cement their legacy in service of the apartheid government. But then came the Marikana Massacre in August 2012, when the South African Police Service killed a total of 47 mine workers. What comes as a surprise is that this operation was led by black policemen. In a documentary by eNCA about the massacre, one of the miners tells a black policeman, “The pain that I feel when I look at you… I only see faces similar to mine. That makes me very sad… when I am killed by another black brother like me, someone of my kind.”
Similarly, there is much evidence on social media and constant news of the Nigerian Police Force, with its “Police is your friend”, killing unarmed civilians – as can once again be seen from the recent killing of the innocent bystander Kolade Johnson. At one point, Nigerians demanded the scrapping of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) unit.
Even in Botswana…
In Botswana, the country widely regarded as having the best police force in Africa, the police slogan is “In partnership with you.” However, in a 2017 article in The Sunday Standard newspaper, titled “Botswana has yet to decolonise and humanise its police force”, journalist Bashi Letsididi writes about “the acquisition of sjamboks – whips made of tapered, hard rubber that inflict painful welts” as one of the ways in which the Botswana Police Service inflicts brutality on its citizens. He further said, “Police brutality in Botswana – as indeed in much of the Commonwealth – is the direct result of a political decision that was made by the British parliament in 1822… When Botho University descended into chaos in February this year, riot police responded with a disproportionate use of force against unarmed demonstrators, chasing and yanking some of those who had fled from parked taxi-buses.” The Botswana Police Service “has yet to democratise itself. In a country with people of different skin tones, no tone group should ever be singled out for discrimination.” The Botswana Police Service’s actions certainly belie its friendly slogan. Bashi added, “The tragedy is writ large: the police service of a black African government retains the basic characteristics of a policing model that was never meant to be friendly to indigenous Batswana.”
As many African governments use the police to bolster their power, the police and those higher up have made no effort to make a distinction between the police force of the colonial era and the police force now. Could this be because, although our leaders are black, their mentality remains colonial?