Zombie No Go Think, Unless You Tell Am To Think
Updated: Mar 1, 2021
From Nigeria to Columbia, Black solidarity to end police brutality.
By Victor Omojola
Content warning:This piece includes descriptions of police brutality.
Fela Kuti’s “Zombie,” from 1977, is a breathtaking musical manifestation of the unadulterated rage and numbing frustration of watching the military of one’s country mindlessly slaughter its own people. A brisk beat lays the groundwork for the brass-brimming twelve-minute track in which the Afrobeat pioneer cries out, “Zombie no go unless you tell them to go,” and “Tell them to go kill, a joro, jara, joro,” decrying the Nigerian military as politically driven and sorely amoral. In response to the song, the military only doubled down on its tactics of oppression in carrying out an infamous and deadly attack on Fela’s Kalakuta Republic commune. “Zombie” was inspired by and inspired brutal incidents of state-sanctioned violence in a 1970s Nigeria governed by a military dictatorship. Recent scenes from October could just as well have been Fela’s muse.
Sorrow Tears and Blood
In 1992, Simeon Danladi Midenda, the police sheriff in charge of Lagos, was one of many law enforcement officials who witnessed the crisis of armed robbery sweeping through Nigeria. Indeed, Midenda had legitimate cause for concern: Data published by the nonprofit CLEEN Foundation shows that in 1992 there were 1,568 instances of armed robbery, an increase of 32.7% from 1991. In response, he formed the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a special police force tasked with curbing armed robbery. In 2017, Midenda spoke with the Nigerian newspaper Vanguard about the squad:
We were fully combatant and combat ready at all times. We stayed under cover while monitoring radio communication of conventional police operatives. As soon as robbery was reported anywhere in Lagos, we went out with speed, each team to a predetermined location. At our various locations, we patiently waited while the conventional policemen continued to chase the robbers around Lagos. In their bid to escape, the robbers almost always fell into our traps and met their waterloo.
Midenda believed that his creation would effectively employ clandestine strategies to quell the threat of violent theft and other crime in his country. In practice, however, SARS fell short in two significant ways. The first is that it did not work: more recent research has found that armed robbery cases have only increased since 1992. In fact, in 2013, rates nearly doubled from the year of SARS’ founding. The second is a recurring theme in the story of Nigerian government failures: corruption. As SARS expanded from Lagos to the whole country, its members expanded the scope of their power. The squad added, for example, the extortion of money from innocent citizens to its nominal crime-stopping duties. To make matters worse, SARS has been cited for countless human rights abuses, including, but not limited to, arrests on baseless accusations, torture, and murder. Indeed, those meant to quash robberies and stop crime have become the robbers and criminals.
The squad’s abuse of power, unsurprisingly, aroused anger and bewilderment among Nigerians. Citizens successfully pled for the force’s disbandment in 2014, 2015, and 2017. (Readers may note the oxymoronic nature of that statement). The success of these pleas can only be represented through hollow press releases that came with no real action. And so the police brutality continued. The tension reached a fever pitch in the fall of this year after a nearly two-week-long protest erupted into what is now known as Black Tuesday, seemingly catalyzed by a video of a man being shot and robbed by police in Ughelli, Delta State. The police who drove off with the victim’s car were part of a certain three-times disbanded police force. The fortnight that followed saw perhaps the most cohesive demonstration against the government in Nigeria’s history.
Illustration by Mwandeyi Kamwendo
Nigerians of all ages, genders, sexual orientations, religious affiliations, and ethnic backgrounds demanded once more that SARS be disbanded. Even more striking, the support for the movement was remarkably international. The hashtag #EndSARS flooded the usual social media networks and celebrities—Nigerian and otherwise—utilized their platforms to share the details of the crisis with their followers. The Nigerian government agreed to disband SARS for the fourth time on October 11, but, unsurprisingly, protesters remained skeptical, and demonstrations continued. On October 20, at the Lekki Toll Gate, officers (including former SARS operatives) began shooting at peaceful protesters, killing upwards of 40 people. The videos that circulated on social media were harrowing. For Nigerians, Black Tuesday and the month of October 2020 have become synonymous with the stench of blood, images of death, and overwhelming grief.
As a Nigerian-born American who grew up in the United States, my relationship with my birth country has been, like most members of the African diaspora, complicated. When I caught wind of the protests against police brutality in Nigeria, I was admittedly not particularly motivated to do or feel anything. Though Nigeria is a country I love, it is easy to become numb to the state of affairs there, especially when overwhelmed by the domestic dilemmas we face here in the United States. Nigeria remains haunted by the very same problems of corruption, economic inequality, and poor education that my parents and my grandparents have lamented for decades. Living in the U.S., plagued by its own issues of institutional racism, I often fail to be alert to the outcries of injustice in my birth country. But the #EndSARS movement jolted me out of my numbness. The week of the Lekki Toll Gate massacre, I had conversations with a few Nigerian friends and family about our relationships with Nigeria and how recent events had cast the country in a new light. I then decided to broaden my discussion to the Nigerian population at Columbia.
“As time has moved on, I feel like they’re becoming closer than ever, but there’s definitely a time where it definitely felt like two parts of myself [that] I had to keep separate,” Aishat Tayo, CC ’24, said when I asked her to describe the delineation between her Nigerian identity and her identity as a Black American. Tayo moved to the U.S. with her immediate family when she was about seven, and her opinion tends to be shared among Nigerians living in the United States. Danielle Eregie, CC ’24, has a Nigerian mother and a Liberian father; her parents met in the United States. Her comments reverberated Tayo’s sentiments, but she also elaborated on why the distinction between her identities often does not matter: “It’s not at all right . . . people debating whether Africans—those of direct African descent—have the same struggle or can claim the same things . . . . If somebody sees me, they’re not gonna be like, ‘Oh! Were your parents born here or not?’ It’s ‘oh, she’s Black,’ and all of the assumptions that come with that.”
I tend to agree with Eregie. Race, a social construct, can only be so sophisticated. America’s collective consciousness generally lacks concern for the wide range of backgrounds that constitute the Black community. Police officers who commit acts of brutality do not pause to consider how foreign the names of their victims sound. This is not to diminish the unique struggles of the various backgrounds from which African Americans come. Most African Americans descended from enslaved people, for example, do not know where in Africa their ancestors are from, as slavery virtually severed their connection to the continent. This is a distinctly painful and difficult situation to grapple with. But the one consistency among the identities of the Columbia students I spoke with was how the unintuitive clash of their Blackness and Africanness has, to some degree, elicited a sense of confusion. Many of us share a strong identification with the issues plaguing Nigeria, but must simultaneously combat the innate struggle of being Black in America. It does not help when your Blackness is doubted due to your Africanness.
Why Black Men Dey Suffer
In “The Roots of the #EndSARS Protests in Nigeria,” published in the Washington Post, Abosede George, associate professor of History and Africana Studies at Barnard, traces the history of SARS to the first police squad in Nigeria, which was created in 1861 following the British annexation of the territory. It was made up of 15 newly freed Hausa men (an ethnic group from the country’s north), and it seemed to establish a tradition of loyalty to the government over the people. The tradition continued until 1891 in the form of “Annesley Baba and his 40 thieves,” a group formed and led by British colonial official George Annesley. Annesley intended to use money extorted from locals to finance the force, which was ultimately disbanded after its heinous and violent tactics came to light. Stories like this, repeated and compounded over time, form the oppressive historical underpinnings of Nigeria’s current police force.
Today, these problems have reached such heights as to capture international attention—hence the unprecedentedly global nature of the #EndSARS movement. This new chapter in the story of dissent against Nigerian police corruption likely arises from the universality of its core issues among Black people worldwide. When a non-Nigerian Black person watches police violently abuse their power as they beat an innocent Nigerian, they see themselves. What universalizes the Black experience, however, is not police brutality alone. Rather, it’s the insidious amalgamation of reprecussions from the slave trade, colonialism, and imperialism. None of these historical atrocities could have been accomplished without the inventions of white supremacy and racial capitalism.
Colonialism, in particular, is at the root of the issues of police violence in Nigeria, as Abosede George brilliantly explained in her piece. I recently had the pleasure of speaking with George about her article and the #EndSARS movement more broadly. She spoke at great length about how colonial mentalities detrimentally linger in modern Nigerian governance. “The idea of the citizens as possibly a problem population that needs to be managed from time to time as opposed to engaged with is continuous from the colonial to the present,” she said. “[T]he whole ideological basis of the relationship between the state and its citizens and the role of the police in mediating that . . . plays out in lived reality and everyday interactions” to this day.
George’s explanation of a sort of rigidness of identity reminded me of Michel Foucault’s theory of the panopticon. Even though there remain no longer any British officers in Nigeria dictating the way life is lived, current Nigerian leaders have taken up the role of enforcer themselves. Whether envisioned as prisoners in Foucalt’s panopticon or victims of Fela Kuti’s state of zombification, Nigerian leaders have failed to escape the ghosts of their colonial predecessors, epitomizing a phenomenon known as “internalization.” As George explained, “I think that that internalization is a function of just habit—this is the nature of policing for generations.” She paused here, telling me to “hold on a second.” She was speaking to me from outside in the heart of New York City. A police siren began to wail closeby, drowning her out. She then continued. “I think, one, there is just this habit—it’s built into the political system. [Nigerian leaders] have been doing this for a long time and it has been sustained for a long time and systems tend to be self-perpetuating. That’s the thing about a system.”
“A system”—that’s the keyword. It is the root of that phrase Americans have become more willing to utter this past year: systemic racism. Systems are built with intention, and as George remarked, they are hard to change. Some even say impossible. This accounts for the aversion of many Black Lives Matter activists to the term “reform”: systems by their very nature are resistant to meaningful change.
Still, the tandem of the Black Lives Matter protests and the #EndSARS movement makes George optimistic. She noted the fairly new awareness among both Africans and those in the diaspora of each other’s unique situations, explaining, “There’s a way in which Nigerians might have idealized Blackness in the U.S., but you see a more critical discourse about it now. And some years ago people in the diaspora might have idealized Africa or Nigeria.” She continued, “We all have just a more critical awareness . . . this year has kind of increased awareness about shared struggles. I think that helps with forming genuine solidarity based on realities and not just fantasies.”
Solidarity may, indeed, be the solution. If the struggles of Black people worldwide are all established through the horror that is white supremacy, then recognition and mobilization of this connection may promise its destruction. Pan-Africanism is hardly a new concept—its origins can be traced back to the turn of the nineteenth century. But aided by the crucial tool of social media, this summer saw uniquely encouraging demonstrations in the united struggles of Black people everywhere.
Shuffering and Shmiling
One of the most important things Aishat Tayo said to me in our conversation was, amusingly, a question rather than an answer. “You know who Fela is?” After I confirmed that I did, Tayo continued, saying that he “was the first thing I thought about because all Fela did was talk about colonization and its impacts . . . and it’s funny because some of the same leaders he was talking about in his songs are still the same leaders today, who are still not doing anything.”
I was struck by the fervor with which Tayo spoke. To see another young Nigerian so passionate about the mishandling of her country and of her people was moving. It echoed the same idea that George offered toward the end of her article, where she wrote, “The #EndSARS protests sought to make Nigerian citizenship mean something tangible and worthwhile for young people.”
The Columbia students I interviewed are among those young people. By embracing the global nature of the Black experience and depending upon the support of the African diaspora as a whole, they aim to break the vicious cycle of abuse to which Nigerians have been victims. Stephen Mgbemeje, CC ’24 said, “I feel like the traditions that we have set in Nigeria puts us in a certain mentality to not do this or do that. Some of them are for the best . . . but some of them are just tryna bottle you up or suppress your views or your view on life or your life in general.”
Mgbemje believes that older generations in Nigeria have often suffered in silence. When they have spoken out against corrupt leaders, their pleas have been ignored, largely because they have lacked the technology and platform to reach a global audience. But the #EndSARS movement’s broad coalition, inaugurated in the age of social media, as well as its ties to the international Black community, provide cause for cautious optimism. Led by a new generation of determined Nigerians, this movement is ready to tell zombie go think.