The recent murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, USA by Police Officers, and back home in Nigeria, some of the extra-judicial killings like the 2005 murder of the Apo 6 in Abuja and the 2019 killing of Kolade Johnson in Lagos, also by the Police, has made me ruminate about what exactly the role of the Police should be in society. Undoubtedly, the role of any Police cannot be to murder people at will!
Section 214(1) of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)(the Constitution) provides for the establishment of one Police Force in Nigeria, while Section 4 of our outdated 1943 Police Act sets out the general duties of Police, which obviously do not include the killing of suspects and people generally, with gusto and aplomb. Section 214(1) provides that the main duties of the Police include: the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension of offenders, the preservation of law and order, the enforcement of all laws and regulations which they are directly charged, and the protection of life and property….. Unequivocally, I can safely say whether in USA or Nigeria, one of the main duties of the Police is the protection of life and property, not the taking of it, especially for the wrong reasons like racism, tribalism, intolerance, hatred, torture during investigation and so on.
Section 33 of the Constitution guarantees every person’s right to life, except “……in the execution of the sentence of a court in respect of a criminal offence” of which a person has been found guilty in Nigeria. So, where do the Police get off killing and maiming people the way they do? Is it because, hitherto, they have been able to get away with such abominable acts? Is it because such abominable acts are not frowned upon by the authorities, or even by the society at large? Is it that many law enforcement agents are cruel and may be mentally unhinged, getting their ‘kicks’ from hurting others, or their judgement is impaired by alcohol and drug abuse?
Of course, we are aware that there is racism pervading practically every area of American lives, whereby the African American is discriminated against based on the belief that Caucasians are superior to them, and such prejudice is acceptable to the predominantly Caucasian authorities and a good number of the populace. Where the average African American motorist lives in fear of being pulled over by a Caucasian Police Officer, so also, many Nigerians are scared of being stopped at the checkpoints by Police, and we have been taught that whether right or wrong, not to argue with the Police in case they get violent or open fire, especially as majority of us are unarmed. Is it not ironical that, we live in fear of those who have a constitutional duty to protect us? “Police is your friend” – Indeed!
Javier Ambler: “I can’t breathe”
In 2019, there was a similar case to that of George Floyd which took place in Austin, Texas – that of African American, Javier Ambler. It happened at about 1am on March 28. Mr Ambler’s offence? He failed to dim his headlights! He was chased for 22 minutes by the Police. He crashed his car, and then stepped out of it with his hands up, unarmed. He failed to follow the command, to lay down on the ground. Several Police Deputies then jumped on him. He suffered from cardiovascular disease, and was also pleading that: “I can’t breathe”. He lost consciousness, during the incident. The Deputies then tried to administer CPR on him until the Medics arrived, but it was too late. His death was ruled as a justifiable homicide, and the Deputies still remained in the employment of the Police Department.
Police brutality is a problem that is certainly not restricted to Nigeria alone, and whatever the reasons for this gross abuse of power, it is crystal clear that there is need for global Police Reform. While the reasons for Police brutality differs from one jurisdiction to the other, a common thread that runs through many Police Forces, is simply abuse of power and a lack of accountability or adequate accountability. See Emunwa v IGP 2003 24 WRN Page 153; Fawehinmi v IGP 2002 7 N.W.L.R. Part 767 Page 602. In USA, racism is a major reason for Police brutality; in Nigeria, it is corruption, power drunkenness, lack of respect for the rule of law, penchant of law enforcement agents to take the law into their own hands instead of following due process, and lack of proper investigative skills, thereby resulting in a resort to torture of suspects (sometimes to death), to extract confessions. See the case of Ibikunle v The State 2007 2 N.W.L.R. Part 1019 per Onnoghen, JSC (as he then was).
In tandem with Police Reform, there must be some serious societal reform – if not, the former will be ineffective, as well as a waste of time. If it is acceptable for a society to believe that African Americans are an inferior race, and therefore, they can be treated worse than animals and there will be no consequences for such unlawful actions, why would anyone expect the Police who are part of that wider society with such warped beliefs to do the right thing, or behave differently from the societal norms? Change must come from the society, spearheaded by those in positions of authority. I recently saw a photo that trended on social media, in which two men – one Caucasian, one African American, with exactly the same criminal history, committed exactly the same crime. They were both sentenced, by the same Caucasian Judge. They were both convicted. The Caucasian was sentenced to two years imprisonment in a County jail, while the African American was sentenced to over 20 years imprisonment in a Federal prison! Such blatant partiality, racism and injustice displayed by a person who has been placed in a position of authority and trust to administer justice (a common occurrence in USA), is not only shameful and unacceptable, and cannot be allowed to continue – it is totally antithetical to the essence of justice.
Likewise, in Nigeria, if rape which is one of the most heinous offences that exists, is not taken as seriously as it should be unless it results in death like the case of Uwaila Omozuwa, or the case involves the defilement of little children, why wouldn’t rape thrive and continue unabated in this country? In Nigeria, rape is almost impossible to prove, unless the perpetrator is caught in the act; the Criminal and Penal Code Acts do not even provide for spousal rape which is quite rampant in our society, and the Police have become quite famous for “pooh poohing” domestic violence and spousal rape, referring to them as “a family matter” which they cannot interfere in! Similarly, it is not a matter of concern here that armed robbers are executed extra-judicially by Police without following due process, since they are vicious and a menace to society. After all, on conviction, they will face the death penalty anyway, so why not save everybody’s time by killing them straight away? See Section 1 of the Robbery and Firearms Act 2004. This unlawful practice of extra-judicial killing which may have begun with armed robbery suspects, has gradually trickled down to innocent citizens, because hitherto, perpetrators have been able to get away with it.
The bottom line is that, for every offence, there is a prescribed procedure to handle offenders, and there are laid down punishments upon conviction; and no one (including law enforcement agents) has the right to take the law into their own hands. Naturally, even the mildest of persons may feel the urge to hurt an ‘animal in human skin’ who has raped a baby, but the law must be allowed to take its course, no matter how difficult it is to let it, if not it will mark the onset of anarchy.
Due to space constraints, I can only look at a few issues relating to Police Reform, as there are many facets to it. However, the goal of Police Reform, is to improve the integrity, function, efficacy and accountability of the Police Force; and also to respond to the ever changing/evolving needs of society.
For me, an important detail is the human resources aspect of such reform, that is, weeding out the bad eggs/undesirable elements from the Police Force, as well as the re-evaluation of the recruitment process of Police Officers. Derek Chauvin who murdered George Floyd had 18 complaints levelled against him in the course of his 19 year career, in which only two ended up in discipline! It is not enough for an aspiring Police Officer to sit for a test, pass it, attend Police Training School, and be adjudged to be physically fit, to be deemed qualified to be recruited into the Police.
Even at the entry level of the Nigeria Police Force, what are the educational qualifications required? The mental suitability of any hopeful is equally as crucial, while periodic evaluations while in the Force, are important. Mental suitability not only refers to the mental health of an individual, but their pre-dispositions/core beliefs. Those who are racists, tribalists, sexists, homophobic, prone to exaggeration, corrupt, hateful, cruel, violent, quick to anger, angry, trigger-happy, drug or alcohol abusers and so on, that is, they cannot pass the reasonable man’s test, have no business being recruited into any Police Force. In Nigeria, there’s a fairly common belief that some Police personnel, most especially those manning checkpoints, partake in the use of hard drugs – and because they are armed, anyone who argues with them could be on a suicide mission!
There has to be a better system of evaluation and recruitment, accountability for actions and transparency of disciplinary procedures for erring Police Officers. There must be better training for the acquisition of skill sets for whatever aspect of policing that Officers are deployed to, in line with international best practices. For Nigeria in particular, remuneration and welfare packages for Police personnel should be reviewed upwards, considering their harsh working conditions and the welfare of their families, should anything happen to them in the line of duty. This will enhance their feelings of job satisfaction, make them less desperate and frustrated, less prone to corruption and less inclined to lash out at people.
It is imperative that the choice of Inspector General of Police (whose appointment in accordance with Sections 215(1)(a) and 216(2)) should be made, taking into consideration such a person’s track record of service, because when such a person is “qualified morally, operationally and administratively, they could bring sanity to bear in the use of Police powers by their subordinates”.
The Public, Human Rights groups, the Media and other stakeholders, must also be consulted, to make useful inputs into any Police Reform initiative. One thing is certain, the American Police Departments and the Nigeria Police Force, are in dire need of reform.
P.S.: Disqualification of Governor Obaseki
In APC v Engr. Suleiman Aluyi Lere (2020) 1 NWLR (Part 1705) 254, Rhodes-Vivour, JSC at 285 said:
“Candidates are expected to obtain expression of interest and nomination forms, present their certificates for verification, and appear before a Screening Committee. This is the stage at which the domestic or internal affairs of the political party, are not justiciable. The courts will not dabble into how a member of the party is screened, or why a member was not cleared by the party to contest the primaries. Put in another way, before a member of the party is cleared, the party has the power to disqualify their member, and is answerable to no one, including the courts. A dissatisfied member’s remedy is to leave the party, and seek his political ambitions somewhere else”.
In view of the recent ‘disqualification’ of Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State as an aspirant for the upcoming Edo State Gubernatorial election on the APC platform, based on “spurious” allegations regarding his HSC and NYSC certificates, my dear Colleagues, does the pronouncement in Suleiman Lere’s case open the floodgates for abuse by political parties to witch hunt and disqualify for nonsensical reasons, members who have fallen out of favour with their party’s leadership? Does the decision in Lere’s case oust the jurisdiction of the courts, which is guaranteed by Section 6 of the Constitution? Kindly, comment on this.
“IN TANDEM WITH POLICE REFORM, THERE MUST BE SOME SERIOUS SOCIETAL REFORM – IF NOT, THE FORMER WILL BE INEFFECTIVE, AS WELL AS A WASTE OF TIME…..CHANGE MUST COME FROM THE SOCIETY, SPEARHEADED BY THOSE IN POSITIONS OF AUTHORITY”