Going beyond #ENDSARS: Lessons from Haiti and The Black Radical Tradition.
Going beyond #ENDSARS.
Lessons from Haiti and The Black Radical Tradition.
By Theophilus Wellington
For the longest time, I have heard different commentaries about police reforms in Nigeria and internationally, and have kept my mouth firmly pressed shut. I have found that in giving my opinions I am at best, quickly dismissed as being a “dreamer”, “finding solace too much in utopian ideals” and at worst, called “unrealistic and lacking pragmatism”. It took a year of reflecting post-ENDSARS, and the urging on from one of my closest confidants, and co-partner, Ooretoluse Delano, to finally weave my thoughts together and put it all in words. With her help, I realised the imperative need to have a radical approach in our discussions on policing and the ruling class.
“Sometimes people hold a core belief that is very strong. When they are presented with evidence that works against that belief, the new evidence cannot be accepted. It would create a feeling that is extremely uncomfortable, called cognitive dissonance. And because it is so important to protect the core belief, they will rationalize, ignore and even deny anything that doesn't fit in with the core belief.”
I will warn you before you read further, that this essay may create this uncomfortable feeling, an unease if you may; and why wouldn’t it? We are in an era of neoliberalism, a time where it is considered appropriate to slash public welfare, and housing and unemployment benefits. We rationalise these harsh approaches by claiming it encourages individuals to be more entrepreneurial, and take more responsibility for their actions. Neoliberalism fosters a culture of hyper-independence. This essay challenges that notion. In doing so, it links the struggles of our ancestors against colonialism and slavery to our current plight. It also links the struggles of the Global South directly to the Global North and argues that when we cry “Black Lives Matter” and “END SARS”, we are pointing to the same power structures. In following the tradition of our ancestors, this essay takes a political approach that is communitarian rather than individualistic, inventive rather than imitative. I feel that for exactly these reasons, this essay may be rejected by some.
This essay will be divided into three sections. The first, interrogates our understanding of the police as “protectors of the people and their property, preventing crime and civil disorder”. It argues that the pillaging of resources done by African elites and their western partners is maintained through the use of force by the police. The second part of this essay examines the Haitian Revolution of 1791- 1804. The reason for this is two-fold, firstly, to counter white constructions of black resistance as non-violent. Secondly, and albeit, even more importantly, the use of voodoo by the Haitians to achieve liberation sheds a light on the Black Radical Tradition; a resistance rooted in the complete rejection of anti-blackness and white supremacy. This nicely leads to the final section of the essay, which examines the need for radical thinking during our protests. To be radical is to get to the root of real problems, this type of thinking is often overlooked for assimilationist strategies. Abolition, on the other hand, requires more work. It requires not only the resisting and dismantling of white power structures but re-imagining and reconstructing them. I argue, however, that without a radical decolonial lens, our movements to bring about change will be insufficient and ineffective.
The role of the police
History haunts the debate of policing. To understand the roles of the police, and the police in Nigeria, we must examine its origins. The institution is generally thought to have originated from the British monarchy in keeping the king's peace. Kings maintained their rule over their subjects on the ideology that their kingdom was their household. In 1769, William Blackstone stated that the king, as the head of the nation, directs the public police, exercising how the individuals of the state, like members of a well-governed family, are bound to conform. The police were the king’s men. This is a point that should not be taken for granted. The first glimpses on the roles of the police are not centred on protecting the people and their property, but as the King’s watchdogs. This practice lasted for centuries. Furthermore, policing did not work well in England, as the average constable was ignorant, and knew little to nothing of the law. Nonetheless, the police became more widespread, and rich men began paying the poor to protect their interests.
In Nigeria, in examining the origins of the police, a good place to start is the official national webpage on the history of the Nigerian police.
“The British merged Lagos colony and the southern and northern protectorates in 1913 and named the new colony Nigeria. The Northern and southern regional police force were later merged, in 1930, to form the colony’s first national police – the Nigeria Police Force (NPF)”
From this, we immediately establish that the Nigerian police as we know it today was established in the colonial context. Whilst mechanisms of maintaining law and order before colonization did exist, these methods were largely overwhelmed by colonial encounters and replaced by the colonial system of law and order. Law was central to the recognition of these ‘colonisable’ spaces. It allowed for the non-recognition of the indigenous people in their land, hence allowing the development of terra nullius – no man’s land. Law was used to create a system that was established on dehumanization. The police enforced these laws. Nevertheless, those subject to it resisted the colony constantly. These resistances were a thorn in the side of colonial governments; the economic advantages of colonialism were not to be undermined by the few Africans who assumed they could rule themselves. Thus, the creation of what constituted criminal behaviour in the colonial states was often not an affront to the public order, but the colonial order. Africans were to be prevented at all costs from seizing control and asserting their humanity.
By 1910, 27% of the expenditure in northern Nigeria went to securing the colony against internal dissent. Resistances were curtailed with the might of the colonial government. However, it just so happened that the might of the colonizers was the might of the colonized, the police. This means that the police institution by independence was one of the more greatly developed institutions. There were few schools, some hospitals and transport links, but the organ of law and order was strong. Post-independence, the police only went through superficial changes. Much of the culture of brutality, exploitation, suppression and oppression, remained within the system.
Both the colonizers and the colonial African rulers benefitted from keeping the people in their place, through the police. The African bourgeois class have found themselves in a sociological and economic situation not of their own historical making. They were placed in these positions as a result of the departure of the English servants of the Empire. The colonial administration in Africa worked hard to ensure that the exploited proceeds of the empire were efficiently harvested before being shipped back to Her majesty. However, the vast profit-making enterprise required assistance. This resulted in the training of African locals through missionary and colonial schools, creating a new class of individuals exposed to European culture, yet still in touch with their local ethnic culture.
The function of the members of this new class was to facilitate the continuing exploitation of Africa’s resources in partnership with the already entrenched neo-colonial empire. Today, Africa’s elites all enjoy a quality of life that rivals the wealthiest individuals in the west. This pillaging of resources of the state by the neo-colonial bourgeoisie leaves nothing for the masses that are victimized by the lowest salaries in the world. As scholars of the English, the African bourgeoisie use the same tactics of violence to maintain their rule over their people to continue pillaging. The police instead of being the king’s men have now been transformed to become the bourgeoisie’s men.
“Opigi and his headmen must be supported at all costs at this present stage, or they will be unable to control their people. No decision by them should be reversed, if possible, even at the risk of occasional injustice. A little oppression even need not be a bad thing”
E.L. Scott commenting on the leadership style by Traditional Rulers.
“A thing can never do a thing that the thing was never designed to do”. To say that the problem with policing is a few bad eggs in the system, as opposed to the system itself, fails to address the historical legacy of the police as an oppressive force. A tool of the ruling class. The best people with the best intentions, doing their utmost, cannot make a system do what it was never intended to do. From this, it is quite easy to see why protests like #ENDSARS quickly evolve to #ENDBADGOVERNMENT. In the subconscious of the governed, there is an awareness that the police do not have our best intentions at heart and were not created for us; they were created to keep us in line, to protect the peace of the rulers. They are the King’s men.
The most successful revolt by oppressed black people.
The Haitian revolution of 1791- 1804, is considered the only successful revolt by enslaved black people in history, leading to the creation of the second independent nation in the Western Hemisphere, after the United States. No greater change could be made manifest than slaves becoming masters of their destiny within a free state. In other revolutions, U.S., France, Latin America, what occurred was simply a reshuffling of the political elites, the ruling class before were still essentially the ruling classes afterwards.
In 1789, the French colony of Saint Domingue (Haiti) was the most successful plantation colony in the Americas, supplying France with 66% of its tropical produce and accounting for 33% of French foreign trade. Haiti’s slavery population was not, however, self-producing. The enslaved people of Saint Domingue were worked too hard, and this was deliberately done, as many masters considered it cheaper to buy slaves than to breed them. As a consequence, the colony was forced to import Africans at a high rate. By the time of the revolution, it had grown to at least 40,000 each year. In turn, Stoddard recognized one of the most important considerations for the history of the revolution in Saint Domingue, is the fact that a majority of the Negro population was African born.
During this time, Europe was in the era of “Enlightenment”. Questions haunting this period included “what is man?”, “What is truth?” and “What are the ideal social and political institutions for self-realization and the pursuit of happiness?”. For the thinkers of the Enlightenment, the paradigm of humanity was twofold. It was based on the premise of European citizenship, and masculinity. Women, and non-whites, especially slave communities, were excluded from the Enlightenment’s paradigm of humanity. However, the questions provided during this period allowed for the diaspora to grapple with their agency and black identity. It helped in shifting individual and collective consciousness from slave communities to black people, an almost non-existent category prior to the Haitian revolution.
Voodoo cosmology provided the religious unity, common destiny, and the conviction of universal humanity that made the Haitian revolution successful. Voodoo cosmology derives from the slave’s celebration rituals for their ancestors; an attempt of the enslaved to grant meaning to their subjective experiences in the New World. Voodoo was a collective creation, it did not exact the rejection of one tribal deity in favour of another. Slaves had to rely on religious and social memory to reproduce the rituals without the input of the spiritual leaders and the elders.
Voodoo gave the slaves an awareness that their values were different from those of the whites, allowing them to express their negritude. Finding common identity and social destiny was inherent to the practice of voodoo during slavery. The elaboration of voodoo as an African based cosmology in the new world allowed for the slaves to overcome their barriers of tribal differences and provide resistance to the colonial mandate. Formulating a common identity forced the individual practitioners to embrace the ‘we’ as a marker of the collective, instead of the ‘I’, a classic marker of western subjectivity. Voodoo became one of the most cohesive forces among the slaves and one which the whites tried to suppress.
The birth of Haiti and Haitian citizenship depended on several key factors rooted in voodoo cosmology. First, on the general level, participating in the activities of the religion provided emotional support for members who were forced to live in a world that they often perceived as hostile. This allowed for the possibility of collective action. Secondly, it provided the heterogeneous slaves with a sense of common socio-political destiny, and confidence in their African based national identity despite the restrictions of slavery.
The Haitians destroyed the entire colonial socio-economic structure that is the raison d’etre for their importance; and in destroying the institution of slavery, they unwittingly agreed to terminate their connection to the entire international superstructure that perpetuated the practice of the plantation economy. The revolution was violent, it lasted for 12 years killing almost 200,000 former slaves and 350,000 people in total. The occurrence of the Haitian revolution became a major critique of the European Enlightenment and its ideals. It exposed the inherent contradiction in advancing freedom for humanity, whilst excluding non-Europeans.
Moving beyond #ENDSARS - Radical Imaginings
“Awake, awake, millions of voices are calling you! Your dead fathers speak to you from their graves”
The Haitian revolution and their insistence on the practice of voodoo in overcoming slavery is important as it gives a prime example of the black radical tradition; a complete rejection of anti-blackness and white supremacy. To them, there was nothing more imperative than liberation. The Haitians did not ask for better slave conditions, they did not ask that their slave patrols (aka police) treat them better, they went to the core, asserting the complete overthrow of a capitalist system that depended on their domination to succeed. The Haitians envisioned a black nation, free from the clutches of western superpowers. Haiti is an example of what happens when black people decide to be more than property. The Haitian revolution illustrates the potential of the black imagination, and its aftermath is an example of systemic efforts to kill that. The moment the revolution succeeded, forces of anti-blackness ensured that Haiti would be punished; it has been riddled with trauma and disasters ever since.
Cedric Robinson defines the Black Radical Tradition as an “accretion, over generations, of collective intelligence gathered from struggle”. This tradition compels us to examine racial capitalism and neoliberalism that have exacerbated the sufferings of so many black and brown peoples. The black radical tradition defies racial capitalism efforts to remake African social life. Robinson traces the roots of the black radical thought, arguing that the first waves of the African new world were not governed by a critique rooted in western conceptions of freedom, but by a total rejection of racial capitalism. No matter how much they tried to rid Africans of their ways of living, cosmologies, the slaves stubbornly held on and remained adamant in their insistence to revolt, regardless of efforts to reduce them to a commodity. Black radicalism comprises a cultural and intellectual work aimed at disrupting oppressive political, economic and social norms.
The circumstances we face today are largely the result of decades of decisions to solidify the control of the government by a ruling class of wealthy elites. The consequences of those decisions affect ordinary people, our economy, the earth’s ecology and the international black movement. Recent suggestions that young Nigerians use voting to advance their aims have a cynical intent and effect. This thinking sees the poor working class and middle class as a cause of their powerlessness, rather than African elites who engage in wrongdoings such as corruption, nepotism and human rights abuses in collusion with neo-colonial external powers. The black radical tradition represents the deepest of our thinking and most effective solutions for black liberation. It includes a number of people that saw the system around them and believed it should not only be dismantled but be completely transformed.
There will always be forces that fight to kill the imagination of those actively engaged in the struggle, to limit thinking on radical possibilities. What is required is an ongoing and persistent cultivation of our radical imaginings. We must remember the dreams of our ancestors who were the first to fight against colonialism and understand that for us to become liberated, the system under which we exist has to be completely dismantled and then transformed. This will entail thinking in radical terms, getting down to the root causes. It will involve looking beyond the police and seeing our African elites, looking beyond our African elites and seeing western corporations, all this with an acknowledgement of its historical context.
One of my new favourite quotes by Hiram Rivera states that “colonized minds do colonized things”. It is an admission that none of us are immune to the effects of white supremacy, capitalism, anti-blackness and the patriarchy. During the #ENDSARS protests, black feminists and LGBTQ+ activists were often told that they were hijacking, being divisive and distracting from what was important. Black Radicalism entails ensuring that none of our geniuses are left off the table. The Haitian revolution gives a glimpse of our true potential when we come together and unite despite our differences, here, we reach our fullest power.
Haitian liberation was rooted in voodoo cosmology which was a collective creation, ensuring that no man, tribe, gender, sexuality was left behind. The goal was the same, liberation. The lie that black people who are victims of abuse of power cannot be black, queer, trans and woman at the same time must die with the swiftness. That along with the lie that one group of black people is inherently more worthy to be free than any other. The former President of Burkina Faso Thomas Sankara understood that dismantling the patriarchy was intrinsically tied to dismantling the oppression of his people.
When the stories we tell about black people’s experiences of resistance and resilience are incomplete, our movements to transform them too will also be insufficient and ineffective. I chose the violent history of the Haitian revolution to counter white constructions of resistance. White constructions of black resistance remember the quiet dignity of Rosa Parks and the disciplined collective action of the Montgomery Bus Boycott whilst ignoring the confrontations with bus drivers and militant, profane black women who tested the boundaries of bus segregation. “It recalls the passive resistance to fire hoses and police dogs in Birmingham in 1963 whilst ignoring the active hurling of rocks and bottles at police officers by angry black youths that same year”. There is an active suppression of black resistance by the media.
We are confronted in Africa daily with violence. The violence of hunger, poverty, police brutality, and a politics of greed. It is difficult to keep feelings of depression and defeat at bay, but our histories, perceived in all their dynamism, resistance and resilience, can give us heart and direction. “Our pasts are not dead”. Haiti informs us of our ancestor’s traditions. The Haitians chose a radical future for themselves, free from western hegemonies. That is where the black imagination lives. It is in our ability to create alternatives, alternative economies, politics and family structures. We exist in a lineage of Maroons, rebels and revolutionaries who decided to live free or die. This tradition emerged from African culture, languages, beliefs and enslavement. It emerged from a powerful impulse to escape domination. Haiti shows us that radical thinking is not utopian; rather it is about questing for freedom.