Policing Nigeria: the Force of Consequences, By Dele Agekameh
A police force that cannot protect its own men can scarcely protect about 180 million people at half strength.
On Monday, July 2, 2018, about seven policemen were gunned down during a routine stop-and-search operation around Galadimawa area in Abuja. The tragic deaths of the officers added to the many gruesome killings of police men in Nigeria. Although there is news of the arrest of suspects in connection with the incident, one fears that we may never know the truth of that unfortunate episode.
Joining any security outfit, whether public or private, comes with a consciousness of the possibility of real danger. In fact, it signifies a readiness to put one’s life on the line for the protection of others. This is why, in a normal setting, the men of any security service all over the world have always been revered as heroes. The seven officers who lost their lives that day, and the many more policemen that have met their end in untimely manners at the hands of evil doers will live forever in our minds as heroes, absolved of all shortcomings that they might have had in their lifetimes.
Whether it is as a result of the pressures of working very close to danger in a country with many security challenges, or because of the unsettling desperation of having to on take such a job, it is true that many policemen have put themselves and the police force in disrepute and earned the scorn of members of the public. The bad behaviour of some policemen affects people’s capacity for sympathy at a time like this; but the dead officers from last week and many like them deserve the benefit of the very justifiable doubt of their integrity, if for nothing else than to protect our own humanity.
In many ways, some of these errant police officers are victims of the system they belong to. The orientation they are exposed to in the Nigeria Police Force might have turned some into seedy and untrustworthy men, with very low morals. In a system where superiors expect returns from illicit activities and services are by default sold to the highest bidder, including known criminals, there is little hope for any good image or acceptance by the public. Others are attracted to the system for precisely these failings. The force, through its own squalid reputation, attracts criminal types who are more than willing to perpetrate their devious schemes under the protection of the uniform.
The overall objective of the force is possibly warped as well. When the British began establishing a colony in the territories now known as Nigeria in the early 1800s, they came with cunning, wit and the force of arms. After establishing a colony, some of the indigenous peoples were incorporated into the Colonial Police Force that included regional, independent constabularies that later evolved to become the Nigeria Police Force. The essential objective of the force was to protect the British, who held power and control of resources, and not really to “maintain peace and order”.
If the centre cannot maintain a hold of the security apparatus of the police, it is only sensible that the calls for state policing should be taken more seriously than it has. Its benefits include a more localised personnel base, which will naturally involve more pressure for the welfare of the officers within a state, as they would be indigenes of their duty posts.
Today, the colonial masters and British merchants who were the elite of the colonial era have been substituted by politicians and billionaires who control powers and resources of the state. Thus, the colonial mentality remains and the statistics prove it. In February, Rasheed Akintunde, an assistant inspector general (AIG) of police revealed that about 80 per cent of the police force is deployed in the protection of ‘prominent people’, leaving only about 20 per cent to perform core policing duties. He was later backed up by Mike Okiro, chairman of the Police Service Commission, who disclosed that over 150,000 men were attached to VIPs on guard duty.
Also, according to data obtained from the Office of the Accountant General of the Federation, out of about 371,800 police personnel on government payroll, around 80,000 have been uncovered to be ‘ghost officers’. When one does the maths and marries these figures, whichever way one looks at it, the fact remains that there are more police men guarding VIPs than there are protecting the lives and property of everyday Nigerians.
Okiro also spoke about the underfunding and understaffing of the police force. Perhaps this may explain why the police is indistinguishable from a fund raising organisation, where money comes in from paid contracts with large companies and multinationals and high networth individuals. This is not to mention returns from those ‘chequepoints’ and other dividends of extortion through ‘free bail’ and the like. The criminal activities of men of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), which sometimes involves outright theft and intimidation, also falls in this category. A lot of these funds disappear like most ill-gotten gains.
From all indications, the poor performance of the police at its core duty is dangerous to the lives of its own men. The VIP police details are dressed in full gear with sophisticated weapons and sharp, sleek vehicles, while the men, like the Galadimawa seven, conducting stop-and-search on major roads are sitting ducks in their slim gears and civil war era AK-47s. A police force that cannot protect its own men can scarcely protect about 180 million people at half strength.
Meanwhile, even from the stock of officers performing core police duties, a good number are more of a danger to society than most of the criminals that terrorise the populace. The death of the female youth corper not too long ago is a reminder of the double jeopardy that faces Nigerians at the hands of the police and criminals.
It is admittedly a huge challenge to police a population the size of Nigeria’s. There will be gaps and lapses within the fold even at an optimal security state. The important thing for Nigerians is for there to be some assurance of the quality and dedication of the men of the police to their oath to defend and serve.
If the centre cannot maintain a hold of the security apparatus of the police, it is only sensible that the calls for state policing should be taken more seriously than it has. Its benefits include a more localised personnel base, which will naturally involve more pressure for the welfare of the officers within a state, as they would be indigenes of their duty posts. Local knowledge will also enhance intelligence networks and cooperation of the public. It is funny that the local constabularies in the colonial times were localised as far as the local government level and it bore more fruit in higher security than there has been since the force has been nationalised.
Although the Saraki-led Senate is considering a bill to allow state police, it remains a testy issue as it is linked, rightly or wrongly, to the calls for restructuring. As such, it is bound to meet a lot of resistance from those who do not wish to see a restructuring of our essentially centralised system of government. However, if things continue the way they have been, then there is going to be a serious debate about state policing, sooner rather than later.
It is admittedly a huge challenge to police a population the size of Nigeria’s. There will be gaps and lapses within the fold even at an optimal security state. The important thing for Nigerians is for there to be some assurance of the quality and dedication of the men of the police to their oath to defend and serve. It is in the best interest of the police to court public approval and this is exactly the area in which the Nigerian Police fails the most.
The reluctance at the top for decisive action is crippling the system further and the view of the police as instruments of state control rather than the protection of lives and property will always end in disaster for the common man. The police is too belaboured with protecting people that can afford to insulate themselves from the terrible realities ordinary Nigerians face. When their priorities are not set right, common people and the officers themselves are further exposed to these realities and we all share the consequences.
It is no more palatable for us to see seven police officers lose their lives than it is for us to see a young girl cut down in her prime by a police officer. Our human sympathy is not yet lost, even under the fear of oppression that has become a part of our daily lives. We hope that the right decisions are taken at the very top so that we do not also lose our humanity.
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