Oun ti oju mi ri lalagbon bi modele maroyin ile (when I am home, I shall narrate what I saw in Alagbon)
Enu ogbaroyin l’Alagbon… (I am unable to fully describe Alagbon)
Ti won ba mu e de Alagbon (When you are taken to Alagbon)
To wo Alagbon ba te e (When Alagbon lays its hands on you)
Orisirisi iya ni won a fi je e… (Various punishments will be inflicted on you)
Won a fi detention gba e lori (You will be detained)
Long long protocol l’Alagbon (Long protocols in Alagbon)
Long investigation l’Alagbon (Long investigation in Alagbon)
Enu o gba iroyin lalagbon… (I am unable to fully describe Alagbon)
To ba wonu cell tan… (When you are in the cell)
Orisirisi asa ni won nda (They engage in multifarious unscrupulous practices).
- Orlando Owoh
Highlife titan, Orlando Owoh, was an unwitting ethnographer in Alagbon, one of Nigeria’s most notorious detention facilities in the late 1980s. The official explanation for his arrest was possession of illicit drugs although there were suspicions that Orlando Owoh sang himself into trouble with the Ibrahim Babangida administration. Orlando Owoh recorded an album titled “Experience” upon his release from gaol.
The album chronicles what he went through and witnessed in jail. Orlando leaves the listener with vivid descriptions of what he witnessed: The range offences constituting grounds for detainment (fraud, bunkering, narcotics, etc.), authenticity of human misery in Alagbon, the apotheosis of denial of freedom and shocking bracketing of human rights.
Orlando Owoh was not an ordinary inmate. He had considerable name recognition which would have presumably guaranteed him some privileges while in custody. Nonetheless, the Alagbon experience clearly shocked him. Orlando states perhaps his strongest indictment of the Nigerian police between 4:40 – 4: 48 minutes of the album:
…OC Torture l’Alagbon (OC Torture in Alagbon)
Awon ti mo da’ruko lalagbon Towo won ba te e
(If those whose names I mentioned lay their hands on you in Alagbon)
Oririsi iya ni won a fije e (They will punish you severely)
He makes unambiguous reference to “OC Torture” in Alagbon. The idea that torture is being routinely inflicted on suspects and that many police stations have an officer in charge of torturing suspects in police custody has therefore been around for some time. Beyond an individual’s account (and the usual reliability, validity and generalizability issues), generations of Nigerian criminologists, including Femi Odekunle, Etannibi Alemika, Abdulrahman Dambazau, among others have documented troubling policing practices in Nigeria. In addition, the Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report in 2005 titled “’Rest in Pieces’: Police torture and deaths in custody in Nigeria”.
HRW stated that 36 of the 50 persons interviewed in the study claimed to have experienced torture. The study also gathered information on deaths of 23 men in police custody between 2002 and 2005. HRW cited a witness who claimed to have observed a police man shooting a suspect to death like a “lizard”. The execution without trial in 2009 of Mohammed Yusuf, Boko Haram’s chieftain, also demonstrates the rather insouciant attitude of law enforcement in Nigeria. This incident is believed to have exacerbated the Boko Haram crisis.
The September 2014 report “Welcome to Hellfire: Torture and other ill-treatments in Nigeria” released by Amnesty International has brought back torture by state agents into focus. The report notes the presence of “OC Torture” in Nigerian police stations and the ill-treatment of suspects.
The response of the Nigerian Police Force was strong and uncompromising: The police criticized the “blatant falsehoods and innuendoes contained in that report. “For one, it smacks of indecency and intemperate language to liken our dear nation Nigeria, to hell fire…I dare say that some of the issues raised have since been dispensed with and settled…Of a truth, torture or ill-treatment is not, repeat, NOT an official policy of the Nigeria Police.”
Torture is not official policy in the Nigerian police. It is, however, laughable to argue that torture is not being routinely practiced. Torture is an unspectacular part of police occupational culture in Nigeria. That is precisely what makes it more dangerous than formal policy: Unthinking day-to-day extra-legal use of torture as part of the repertoire of law enforcement.
Therefore, the response of the Nigerian police to Amnesty International’s report is rather fact-free, amateurish and ultimately disappointing. A more reflexive and sober reaction was required but the police once again was too “forceful” rather than thoughtful in its approach.
An aberration in a federal state, the problematic constituted by the unitarist organization has been subject of both lay and academic analyses. The colonial hangover of the police, its historical brutality and resistance to change are well charted characteristics.
What is increasingly worrisome is the loathsome attitude of Nigerian police to poor people. This is both an inter-class and intra-class phenomenon. The police generally recruit their rank and file from poorer classes. Yet, the same individuals are used by upper class folks to deal with the infractions of the poor classes they came from. This may be the genius of (governing and non-governing) elites.
It appears that police men in particular begin to inadvertently despise their social origins. This is a strange kind of psychology. They help maintain a social order that has largely impoverished them and their families.
There is a salient issue that needs to receive serious coverage vis-à-vis torture by Nigerian police — the institutional and social environment within which the police operate. One of those who first drew attention to this area in the US context is Peter Manning. His book Police Work: The Social Organization of Policing (1997; originally published in 1977) presents a macro-dramaturgical perspective of policing. Manning notes the inherently ceremonial, dramatic and ritualistic nature of police work. Manning finds that what constitutes police work is often a function of who you ask in the chain of command.
The police “job” is often understood in various ways by different levels of actors. Manning argues that the “driving force of policing is not the regulations and policies, law, politics or public sentiment, although all play a role” and the engine of police work is the occupational culture in interaction with external factors or institutional environment. The external environment is a defining variable and often dictates the kind of police a society possesses.
President Goodluck Jonathan’s visit to the Police Training College, Lagos in 2013 demonstrated the embarrassingly inhuman conditions at the colonial infrastructure. If the images Channels Television showed the world and the President observed continue to be the environment in which our police men and women receive their tutelage, then it should not surprise anyone why brutality is pervasive in the force.
The first solution to overcoming torture and miscellaneous police brutality is to improve the conditions of service of police starting with befitting training facilities. Their salaries also have to be commensurate with cost of living and global standards.
For instance, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — Canada’s federal police — notes on its website that: “When you successfully complete the Cadet Training Program and have been offered employment, you will be hired as a Constable at an annual salary of $50,674. Usually, within 36 months of service, your annual salary will have increased incrementally to $82,108.” Entry level professors in the social sciences in leading research universities in Canada earn $65,000 – $75,000 per annum. Therefore, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that a police Constable in Canada may expect to have a standard of living that is not too far from that of a PhD holder.
Perhaps the Nigeria-Canada comparison is an unfair one given the divergent socio-economic dynamics of the two countries. However, Ibanga Isine’s report on Premium Times in April 2014 pointed out that Ghana raised the “monthly pay of a Constable from 140 Ghanaian Cedi (GHC) (N9, 000) to GHC750 (N48,549.31), Sergeant from GHC400 (N25, 892.96) to GHC1200 (N77, 6788.89). An Assistant Superintendent of Police in Ghana who earned GHC600 (N38,839.44) ahead of the review, now earns GHC1, 700 (N110, 045.09).”
In Nigeria, by contrast, the “Consolidated Police Salary Structure, CONPOSS that was released in March 2011…(indicates that a) police recruit earns a consolidated annual salary of N108, 233, 00 and a monthly consolidated salary of N9, 019.42 but when N676.46 is deducted as pension, the recruit goes home with N8, 342.96.” Former IGP, Mohammed Abubakar announced a N50,000 minimum wage for police men and women in 2012, as widely reported in the media. The “improved” package is still quite ludicrous under the current economic climate. The package offered police should make it unattractive to take bribes or engage in human rights violations.
It is important to highlight continuous police training that focuses on use of least force. A non-militarized service orientation to overcome years of militaristic mentality is long overdue. Post-colonial UK police, for example, do not routinely have guns in their holster. A civilian oriented service accompanied by change of philosophy is required. As a relatively benign example, the archaic name — Nigeria Police Force — shows how far behind the police are. Policing has gone scientific the world over. Basic technological tools of policing are available and Nigeria’s widely acknowledged human power may be easily trained to make use of such technology.
Torture by police in Nigeria cannot be decontextualized or de-historicized. A psyche that has developed over the years in our society means that police officers are occasionally hired to collect debts from neighbours and business partners; settle land disputes, guard owambe gatherings, and help to intimidate motorists while office holders are being chauffeur-driven. Police men and women are drawn from society. They embody society; they give expression to the values, attitudes, biases and prejudices — for better or worse — of the society. A society’s trajectories, contours, social relations fundamentally shape the type of police establishment.
One way to go is to continue the politics of denial. The other approach is to accept criticism and make changes. All Nigerians have a stake in policing but the primary responsibility rests with the Nigerian state to ensure that its apparatus of law enforcement is brought in line with the 21st Century. The work must now begin.
‘Tope Oriola is assistant professor of criminology at the University of Alberta, Canada. He is author of Criminal Resistance? The Politics of Kidnapping Oil Workers.