Nigerian Police

As a Federal Republic, Nigeria is hugely varied, as are its security challenges. So one-size-fits-all policing may have its problems. At the same time, top-down legislation that all states must have their own police could be equally problematic, and would go against the ideal that Constitutions should be basic enabling laws and statements of principle, rather than prescriptive blueprints. Perhaps minimalism is one way forward, experimenting with regularising the powers under which parallel security outfits assist the police in maintaining law and order?

The debate about reform and decentralisation of policing in Nigeria dates back to before independence in 1960. Since then, advocates have repeatedly contested over the need to either maintain a central structure for the Nigeria Police Force or adopt different models of decentralisation and devolution of police powers. Now the debate is once again in the news, having been visited by a number of high-profile political actors; but it appears that there is no ‘silver bullet’ solution. This is because it invokes a range of sometimes tricky subjects, including constitutional limits, the sensitivity of the debate and the politicised nature of the discussion, dwindling national and state finances and rising insecurity, insurgency and high-tech criminality in Nigeria. The issue has therefore become a political football – but if we look closely the strongly-held positions often lack corresponding strong evidence to support them.

Recently in Abuja, a high-level gathering of scholars, policymakers, activists, retired officers and other stakeholders from across the country came together to remedy exactly that. Rather than supporting any particular position for or against state policing, the meeting, hosted by CLEEN Foundation and supported by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, sought to bring out the full range of perspectives and pull together an evidence base for the debate as it moves forward. The meeting took place under Chatham House rules to enable the distinguished participants to freely articulate their views.

The day of debate took in Nigeria’s own historical experiences ranging back to the Native Authority police forces of late-colonial times, to the establishment of vigilantism as part of the landscape; then discussed the wide range of informal and hybrid policing arrangements by which localised security stakeholders work with federal security forces, from Lagos Security Trust Fund to the Civilian Joint Task Force in Borno; and finally looked at the variety of ways forward, in the light of the ongoing review of the Police Act and other legislation.

…in an era in which some police divisions with a handful of officers supervise vast areas and populations, and in an economic situation which does not allow for huge expansions of federal manpower, Nigeria cannot be policed effectively without collaborating with such outfits, and with communities. In many areas of Nigeria, the NPF has developed a mode of interacting with vigilante groups in such a way as to supervise them while accessing their wide spread and powers of intelligence-gathering.

A few things quickly became obvious through the discussions. First, a huge array of security forces, whether informal, hybrid, supplementary, or however they are termed, already work in parallel form with the Nigeria Police Force and other federal bodies at the local level. Some states have already gone down the route of uniformed bodies for ‘soft’ policing tasks such as traffic control, while others fund and equip task forces drawn from federal bodies. In many cases these have worked well, but these successes have depended on strong governance and management structures.

Second, in an era in which some police divisions with a handful of officers supervise vast areas and populations, and in an economic situation which does not allow for huge expansions of federal manpower, Nigeria cannot be policed effectively without collaborating with such outfits, and with communities. In many areas of Nigeria, the NPF has developed a mode of interacting with vigilante groups in such a way as to supervise them while accessing their wide spread and powers of intelligence-gathering.
Third, the police themselves are highly aware of demands for local responsiveness and have taken their own steps, in spreading such practices as community policing, and by posting many newly-recruited rank-and-file officers ‘back to state’ in order that front-line staff should have more in common with the communities they serve.

And fourth, huge scope already exists within the law for states to supplement existing federal arrangements – the limits being defined by the Constitution and by the NPF’s success in taking Kano State’s Hisbah Corps to court in 2006 to define their powers. And there is more scope for collaboration: For instance, is there yet any state where the state government mandates the police to research security challenges, sets targets, provides resources to meet them and then evaluates performance in any formalised manner? More often the police are only remembered when they are needed to react quickly to an emergency.

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Those who see State-run forces as the solution also need to consider the risks of creating new security outfits in a country already replete with uniformed bodies. Not all states may wish for their own police, in part due to the costs involved… In some places they may work well, but we could see in the worst-case scenario the creation of uniformed paramilitary bodies who are not trained well enough or paid properly, itself a recipe for corruption, predation and instability.

However, the debate has two drivers; it’s not just about police performance, but also politics. As the police in previous eras had become embroiled in political disputes, some State executives developed a mistrust of policing controlled from the centre which they fear might be used against them. At the same time, if policing powers were simply to be devolved to States, political oppositions at those levels might develop exactly the same concerns. Many of these concerns might first of all be addressed within the current discussions over the governance of the NPF itself, in ongoing debates such as reforming the accountability structures of the police and the role of governance bodies such as the Police Council and Police Service Commission in order to be more inclusive, to insulate policing from the negative effects of politics, and to explore ways of exploring broader-based accountability at state levels.

Those who see State-run forces as the solution also need to consider the risks of creating new security outfits in a country already replete with uniformed bodies. Not all states may wish for their own police, in part due to the costs involved. However once enabled by law, few governors might be able to resist pressure from unemployed youth to create such bodies for job-creation purposes. In some places they may work well, but we could see in the worst-case scenario the creation of uniformed paramilitary bodies who are not trained well enough or paid properly, itself a recipe for corruption, predation and instability.

That is beside the fears of minorities in states where indigene-settler disputes are prominent – what checks and balances would ensure that state police did not become ‘indigene police’? Beyond that, who would ensure representative recruitment, training and standards? And how radical would advocates of state policing want the changes to be? Would it follow current modes of interacting with community vigilance institutions, whereby arrest and the arming of licenced members is permitted, while suspects must be handed over to the NPF for detention and prosecution, or would states want to go further and press for the full range of powers to be devolved?

A major output of the meeting will be a peer-reviewed publication on the subject of decentralisation of policing. It is hoped that the publication and follow up activities will contribute a much-needed evidence base to ongoing dialogues on the reform of Nigeria police.

As a Federal Republic, Nigeria is hugely varied, as are its security challenges. So one-size-fits-all policing may have its problems. At the same time, top-down legislation that all states must have their own police could be equally problematic, and would go against the ideal that Constitutions should be basic enabling laws and statements of principle, rather than prescriptive blueprints. Perhaps minimalism is one way forward, experimenting with regularising the powers under which parallel security outfits assist the police in maintaining law and order? But with such an array of concerns, it is clear that more research into the options is needed as a basis for clear-headed policymaking. Further, that policymaking itself should be an inclusive process in which the voices of the public and civil society actors should be heard clearly.

A major output of the meeting will be a peer-reviewed publication on the subject of decentralisation of policing. It is hoped that the publication and follow up activities will contribute a much-needed evidence base to ongoing dialogues on the reform of Nigeria police. Such reform should be responsive and acceptable to the generality of Nigerians who have expressed interest in the need for a security architecture that promotes the rights of us all to live in secure environments.

Contact at twitter @cleenfoundation and @MrOllyOwen.