Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari recently announced that the murderous and corrupt police unit SARS, for Special Anti-Robbery Squad, would be disbanded.
The action followed an intensification of the long-running #EndSARS protests, both at home and internationally with its fair share of stars. #EndSARS scored a rare victory. Like in most of Africa, the problem of police brutality and corruption runs so deep, dismantling a rogue unit offers only limited relief.
Still, anyone who’s followed the brutality of the Nigerian police, and especially SARS, for long will agree that it is in a class of its own. And thanks to it, it has alerted us to something that is happening around a couple of countries around Africa where criminals and gangs are better the police – bad police are actually driving innovation and norm changes in society to cope with their excesses.
On Tuesday, Kenyan tech website Tech Moran had an interesting story about a curious innovation by Nigerian fintech start-up bank Kuda. It reported that Kuda created a feature on their app that would enable users set a fake amount on their account. They call it the “panic balance”. They designed it specifically to protect Nigerians from the Police, whose dominant engagement with the public is extortion.
So, when the Police stop or arrest people, they see the you have little or no money in your digital wallet and let you go. The feature is also supposed to help in encounters with robbers. It is like a zombie M-Pesa app on your phone that shows you are broke, with the real one where your matatu fare and grocery money hiding underneath it.
Other banks, intrigued, are now jumping on the bandwagon.
Even more fascinating, is the impact of police extortion in cryptocurrency adoption in Nigeria, which has skyrocketed in the giant West African since the Covid-19 lockdown.
In August, there was a striking story, this time on cryptocurrency specialist website Coin Desk. We will let it speak for itself:
“Nigerian programmer Adebiyi David Adedoyin hears knocking at his apartment door. He’s just woken up and headed to the bathroom. He decides to take his time. He’ll answer in a minute.
“But the knocking grows louder – and more urgent.
“Inching open the bathroom door, Adedoyin sees someone clawing open his apartment window.
“Someone’s there,” a voice says.
“It’s probably the police trying to break in, he realises, from all the stories he’s heard.
“Adedoyin is sure he hasn’t done anything wrong. But with the Nigerian police, that doesn’t matter.
“As he thinks through what to do next, Adedoyin is thankful a chunk of his money is stored in bitcoin. His crypto wallet is in a hiding spot the officers probably won’t think to check. That means they’re less likely to steal it.
“While there are many principled police officers in Nigeria who help tackle crimes, police corruption is pervasive. Many Nigerian police are known for extorting and even sometimes torturing citizens rather than helping them solve legal quandaries.
“Corrupt police officers take their detainee’s phone. They scan through it looking for SMS or email messages signalling how much money the detainee has in the bank.
If the police officer finds the detainee doesn’t have any money, they’re less likely to waste their time.
“Locked in the bathroom, Adedoyin rapidly scrolls through his most recent messages, deleting any bank statements or emails showing how much money he has.
“The bathroom door lock breaks.
“Adedoyin is confronted by four police officers, all carrying guns. One slaps Adedoyin and asks him why he didn’t come open the door. As Adedoyin expected, another officer snatches his phone and scans through for any grain of evidence that Adedoyin has money.
“Adedoyin didn’t have time to delete everything. The officer finds some evidence of how much money he makes. They finally let him go once he pays.
“It was a bad experience. But Adedoyin is happy that his bitcoin trick worked – most of his money is still safe.
“…he’s not putting his money into bitcoin as a safeguard because of its decentralisation properties. Rather, he just thinks police officers are far less likely to look for a crypto balance than a fiat balance to see if he’s ripe for extortion.”
In East Africa we have run the gamut of adaptations; hiding our loot under a body in a coffin, so superstitious cops at the roadblock don’t shake you down. The money-in-the-bra and cash-in-shocks tricks have been around for donkey’s years, seem they don’t work any more. We too will have to go digital.
So, how did it get to this? With governance and democracy deficits, many of our governments first put the police (with their complicated histories dating back to the colonial period) between them and the people as a shield. Then, incompetent and corrupt states, unable to pay the police, let them pay themselves through extortion and robbing the people.
Then it devolved into an autonomous extractive structure at the heart of the state, and the rest is history.
The author is a journalist, writer and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. Twitter@cobbo3