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Does Nigeria Need a New Police Force?

10 Dec 2012

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By Chukwuma Charles Soludo

Over the last 20 years, every new Inspector General of Police (IG) has launched one special ‘operation’ or the other to signal his zero tolerance to crime. Over the same period, the size of the police force has more than tripled, its budget ballooned, and yet the state of insecurity worsens. Nigeria is ranked the “kidnap-for-ransom capital of the world”, accounting for 25% of global kidnappings. The global peace index ranks Nigeria the 6th most dangerous African country to live in; KPMG ranks Nigeria the most fraudulent country in Africa; while the Economist Intelligence Unit ranks Nigeria the ‘worst place to be born’ in 2013. The US Fund for Peace has, for three consecutive years, ranked Nigeria as the 14th failed state in the world (out of a total of 178 countries). Insecurity of life and property is at the heart of these worsening indices.


Anyone who ignores these indices in the quest for investment and Nigeria’s economic transformation misses the point.  Foreign investors certainly do not ignore them. The economies of most states in the South-east and South-south zones have literally stalled and their medium-term prospects look bleak. Most of the investing elite are on the run (from insecurity especially kidnapping) and are in exile in Abuja and Lagos (this is topic for another day). In the North-east and parts of North-west, the Boko Haram insurgency has dealt a huge blow to the economies.  Armed robbery is pervasive. Banks and businesses pay heavily for security. Ordinary citizens are worse-off for the crisis.
Under the constitution, policing Nigeria is the exclusive preserve of the Federal Government. But policing in Nigeria is broken. Numerous substitutes have emerged: state governments and communities have various vigilante groups; numerous private security guards (registered and unregistered), and thousands of other ‘private arrangements’ for security. In South Africa, there are about two million private security operatives. In Nigeria, there is no data.


I have always been a friend and strong supporter of the Nigerian Police Force (NPF).  As Governor of the Central Bank, I had occasions to reflect and sympathise with our police. I had obliged IG Ehindero’s request to address the Bankers Committee, at which he told the pathetic story of the force and requested financial assistance from the bankers. The Bankers Committee bought about 25 armoured personnel carriers for the police.  I recall that one of the foreign banks then visited my office to register its objection to being forced to contribute to Nigeria’s policing which, according to the bank, was the ‘primary duty of government’. We, at the CBN, sent several police officers attached to us to Israel and UK for training.  I also recall the emergency security meeting about November 2006 and chaired by former Vice-President Atiku Abubakar in his office. All service chiefs were in attendance and most people took turns to berate the IG over the ‘increasing insecurity’ especially the threat to Abuja.  I reckoned that the emergency meeting was called ostensibly because Abuja was threatened.  Poor Ehindero: no one wanted to listen to his explanations. In my intervention, I raised a rhetorical question that, in my view, remains unanswered till date: “Can the Federal Government adequately fund and centrally control the effective policing of Nigeria?”


I commend the efforts of the current IG whose dedication and professionalism are evident. But it is not about him. The system is dysfunctional and beyond any IG. There have been several ‘committees’ and ‘reports’ on how to ‘reform’ the police. Each has a litany of the ‘problems’ or reasons for poor performance as well as recommendations for ‘solutions’. My view is that several of these, including the Osayande’s committee report, merely address the symptoms and sketch at the margins, and end up asking Nigeria to do more of the same. I spoke to three former IGs and several people in the security industry, and can appreciate the complexity of the problems. One major conclusion is that the system, as currently designed, has not and cannot offer Nigeria security. As one former IG put it, “the system no longer works and needs to change”. Another former IG assured me that “even if the entire federal budget is allocated to the police, we would still not have security under current arrangements”.


Typical of most public policy discourse in Nigeria, the issue of fixing the broken policing framework has been reduced to a question of state police versus the status quo. Those who oppose state police do not argue that the current system works well, but that Nigeria is not yet ‘ready’ for state policy because it is feared that state governors will ‘abuse’ it. According to this argument, local police was abused under the native authority. The corollary of this argument is that the federal police are not ‘abused’. Sounds funny, doesn’t it? I can cite two dozen examples of crude abuses of the police by the Federal Government. I recall the fight between Jim Nwobodo (then governor of old Anambra) and the Commissioner of Police – one Bishop Eyitene or so. Certainly, it was not the ordinary people of Anambra State who kidnapped a sitting governor, Dr. Chris Ngige, or supervised the burning down of the state. Recall the reasons given by Chinua Achebe for rejecting a national honour the first time. Everyone knows that the first step in running for elections, especially for the office of state governor, is to plead with Abuja to remain “neutral”-- ostensibly in terms of the deployment of the army and police who could make a decisive difference to facilitate or forestall rigging. Let us be honest about it. That a particular president restrains from abusing the force does not mean that there is anything stopping him from doing so if he wishes.


I find the argument that Nigeria is not ready for state policing funny. Implicit in the argument is the sense of a possible time frame and pre-conditions for readiness, but they don’t spell them out. When will Nigeria be ready? Well, many Nigerians still doubt whether we are ripe for independence or democracy. To complete the satire, perhaps we should invite back the colonial masters since our leaders at all levels have serially ‘abused’ the powers to govern since independence.  Perhaps we should go the whole hog: stop giving states any allocation from the Federation Account. Or, tell me in how many states that such allocations are ‘not abused’. Some even go to the extreme by resorting to a scare tactic—that state police will lead to the break-up of Nigeria—without any proof.


Nigeria is a country of extremes. The Gobir Panel set up by Aguiyi Ironsi observed that the local police (under the Native Authority) were abused by traditional rulers, political parties and governments in power in Northern and Western Nigeria, and thus recommended its closure. Instead of the hard work of seeking ways of strengthening the system and stopping the abuse, we took the easy way out: the centralisation of police and prisons. Today, states enact laws but depend on the federal police to enforce and prosecute offenders. State governors are chief security officers of their states but without the legal instrument to ensure security of life and property. Deployment of police personnel is at the discretion of Abuja.


State governors fund the police in ad hoc manner by buying vehicles and equipment. A state could train some police officers only for them to be redeployed the next day to another state. If extreme insecurity is the number one threat to economic activity and wellbeing of a state, the governor is literally helpless. How can we hold governors accountable to create jobs and prosperity if they are not responsible for security in their states? I recall the state of anarchy in Anambra State when Mbadinuju took over as governor. Nothing else could have happened without the restoration of security. In the absence of state police, he deployed the ‘informal force’ popularly called the ‘Bakassi Boys’. It was said then in Anambra that you could drop your wallet on the road and it would be there when you come back to pick it. Of course, there were some ‘abuses’. Instead of building upon it and correcting the lapses, we demonised and disbanded them. Societies don’t develop that way.


The fundamental issue is whether Nigeria wants a federal structure and prepared to allow the evolution of the requisite institutions to make it prosper or continue with a federation in name and unitary system in practice. Let me be clear: state police may not be the silver bullet but the arguments against it are patently silly. In a multi-ethnic, multi-religious federal system such as Nigeria, it is difficult to see how effective policing can happen without competition, multi-stakeholder ownership, and collaboration. No institution comes ready-made and matured. Every institution is work in progress, and only matures with experimentation. Democracy as we know it today in the US and the Western world was not always like this. It has evolved over time, sometimes requiring drastic overhaul based on experiences and ‘abuses’. The only way to perfect institutions is to try them.


The proposal for ‘more funding’ or ‘financial autonomy’ is pedestrian. Yes, the police needs all the money it can get. But it is not just about money. Literally every agency of government believes it is so important to deserve ‘financial autonomy’. Some even propose special taxes on corporations akin to the education tax fund. I am of the opinion that Nigerian companies are already being over-taxed. Under the current structure, even if they pay more money to government for security, they will still not have one. Policing is under the exclusive list: you cannot ask the states to fund a federal agency that they don’t control. Of course, we know that the Nigeria Police Council (as a merely advisory body) is literally dead.


Let us get serious and stop being in denial. Those organising to defend the status quo are taking Nigeria backwards. We must use the opportunity of the constitutional amendment to think boldly and outside of the box. A new system design, consistent with a federal structure, is needed. Competition in policing by various tiers of government will create and broaden ownership, unleash innovation, and peer learning across states might ensure greater national effectiveness. Local knowledge is critical for effective policing, and the current centralised national monopoly seems to be a road to nowhere.


We need to come together, and armed with lessons of experience under the two failed experiments so far (Native Authority police and centralised national command), craft a new police system, with all the internal controls. For a start, policing should be in the concurrent list of the constitution, and left as an optional tool for states that need it. The coordination and supervisory relationships between state and federal police should be spelt out. If we don’t trust the executive branch, perhaps we should start with a stringent joint institutional oversight by the executive and legislative branches. For starters, why should the IG not be confirmed by the Senate and only removable by two-thirds of Senate, and similarly for state commissioners? There is room for creative thinking, but playing the ostrich is not an option!

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