The Police Paradox



In the heat of the ENDSARS campaign, the National Economic Council resolved in an emergency meeting that states should establish judicial commissions of enquiry to investigate the alleged brutalities carried out by some members of the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police. All the governors of the 36 states are members of the council. Some states are already implementing this important resolution, which could be an avenue to provide justice for the victims of gross violations of human rights.

The government of Niger State has set up its own commission of enquiry with a remarkable difference.

In Niger State, the terms of reference of the commission have been widened to include allegations of attacks on the police.

In other words, apart from the petitions from the victims of atrocities perpetrated by the bad eggs in the dissolved SARS, complaints are also welcome from the police personnel who also fell victims of violence unleashed in parts of the country by those who hijacked the #ENDSARS peaceful and legitimate protests.

It has been suggested in well-informed quarters that the government should investigate nationally the attack on policemen and the police institution by criminals.

The police institution, which harbours the culprits, is also a victim in the tragic context.

Indeed, the place of the police in the whole story is paradoxical in many respects.

For instance, while peaceful protesters rallied against the brutality of some policemen, criminals exploited the situation to attack the police institution itself. Whereas some elements of the police have been accused of brutality, some others have also fallen victims, in the course of their legitimate duty, of the brutality of criminals.

The policemen, who are expected to protect the public, are themselves in dire need of protection against grand assaults by criminal elements in the same society.

Nothing, perhaps, captures this hidden paradox in the #ENDSARS story more than the footage of a visibly pained Inspector-General Mohammed Adamu asking his officers and men to “reclaim the public space” from criminals. You cannot fault the inspector-general when he reminded the nation that in the fight for human rights the police should also be treated as humans. The police also have human rights guaranteed by the same Nigerian constitution often quoted by advocates of human rights. That is the point at issue.

The enormity of the attack on the police has been such that the inspector-general has set up another committee to count the police losses and document the disaster. No fewer than 22 policemen and officers were reportedly killed during the orgy of violence with over 200 police stations destroyed. The criminals escaped with weapons, equipment and kits of the police. What the police have faced in the last few weeks is more than the usual occupational hazard. It was an unprecedented assault on the institution.

The immediate task is how to restore the morale of policemen, some of whom currently have no stations from where to operate. On the part of the public, the trust must be rebuilt in the slogan that “the police are your friends.” Come to think of it, one moment you become hyper-critical of the police and, in fact, write off the institution. The next moment you are won’t to call the same police when under attack by criminals.

The climate of insecurity that has enveloped the country should ordinarily make obvious the imperative of police being a friend of the public and vice visa. Internal security is squarely the job of the police. Broad aspects of the present insecurity include terrorism, banditry, kidnapping, armed robbery, assassinations and ritual murders.

The dissolution of the special squad formed to specifically fight armed robbery (because of the abuse of the unit) does not mean that armed robbery is no more a menacing dimension of internal insecurity. While armed robbery remains a major violent crime the campaign is against the special unit of the police meant to tackle the serious problem.

Yet, the police are still expected to combat armed robbery in the interest of public safety.

As the policemen are encouraged to return to their beats, the perennial question of police reform should now be reframed in a more urgent tone and tenor.

It is significant that part of the five original demands of the #ENDSARS protesters was the increase in the salaries of the police personnel. Doubtless, the welfare of policemen should be central to any meaningful reform of the police in the circumstance. The good news amid the national disaster of the past few weeks is that, in response to the demands of the protesters, the government has accepted the imperative of police reform. The challenge now is how to ensure that the reform is carried out speedily and comprehensively.

The element of speed should be emphasised for some reasons. Matters have indisputably got to a boiling point. The institutional decay has turned into a crisis. The topic of police reform has been on the table for decades. But successive administrations have only paid a lip service to the reform.

This is despite the fact of many official panels set up on police reforms and volumes of reports and recommendations gathering dust on the shelf of officialdom. Seminars and workshops have been held in the last few decades. Non-governmental organisations have conducted scientific researches on the most effective ways to police Nigeria. Theses have been written on the organisation of the police. Books have been published by those who are well-informed on the subject matter. Take the aspect of community policing. With an intellectual depth, a former inspector-general, Mr. Tafa Balogun, articulated more than 15 years ago the concept and how it could work in Nigeria.

The sad persistence of the problem is not due to a lack of clarity of purpose in posing the question. The police debacle continues because successive administrations have failed to provide an honest answer to the question. Perhaps, all that a serious government needs to do is just to dust up one of the several reports embodying practical recommendations to tackle the police question.

It is certainly long that the rains began to beat the police, as they say. The matter is both systemic and political in dimensions. The conscious decimation of the police is often traced by experts on the subject to the military era of the eighties. The Mobile Unit of the Police (also called Anti-Riot Police Unit) was designed to perform essentially the same job for which a riot of task forces, squads, rapid response formations, IG teams, special groups etc. have been established in the last four decades. The mobile unit was reputed to have a specialised training akin to that of the military that could enable them to deal with extremely violent situations. This department of the police was very visible in the national security firmament when Mr. Sunday Adewusi was the inspector-general of the police in the Second Republic. The technical sophistication in terms of equipment and training of the unit ended with the politics of the coup of December 31, 1983 in which President Shehu Shagari was toppled paving the way for a second wave of military rule. Beyond that, while in power soldiers never countenanced the police as rivals in uniform. It was often said that the soldier viewed the police personnel as “bloody civilians.” Military rulers could not, of course, be accused of consciously developing the police as the agency for internal security. The police were not usually favoured in budgetary allocations. In the eyes of soldiers security was really a military thing.

The consequences of the decades of underdevelopment of the police are now manifest in sordid state of police barracks and non-conducive working conditions in the cubicles called police stations. From breaking the teeth of the police by limiting its capacity in terms of acquisitions of weapons and equipment, the organisation today lacks even tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to quell riots.

The welfare of the police is never a priority of socio-economic management. The Nigerian state has failed to equip the police for modern operations. The state cannot even kit the police personnel properly. The police are left to their own devices in matters of provision of uniforms and tools of work including stationery, transportation of suspects, furnishing and maintaining the stations.

The saying that if you pay peanuts, you have monkeys to work for you is apt in respect of policing Nigeria. The wages paid to the police are simply scandalous. Survivors of those who die in active service are hardly paid their entitlements in time. The police are a crucial link in the chain of the justice system; yet the police are unjustly treated in the society. The condition is so poor that a retired Assistant Inspector-General and a Commissioner of Police said on a live television programme that the viewers would be embarrassed if they disclosed the values of their respective pensions. The lamentations of these officers, who undeniably had distinguished careers in the police, would certainly demoralise their successors still in service. The system doesn’t bother about the social security of those who have responsibility for the physical security of the society. The injustice of this mode of organising a society should be obvious to the government and the people alike.

The systemic decay is also symptomatic in the horrible conditions of training at the police colleges. A few years ago, some shocking videos about the Ikeja Police College in Lagos State went viral. The condition of the hostel, the feeding of the trainees and the seemingly primitive culture of training were dehumanising, to put things in the mildest form.

Again, the agitation for the reform did not start with the #ENDSARS movement. In fact, there was even a rhetorical revolt from the ranks of the police about the decline of the police institution. In 1986, a spokesman of the police, Alozie Ogugbuaja, drew public attention to the subjugation of the police by the military governments. An articulate exponent of police reform, Ogugbuaja was critical of the condition of the police at risk of his career. He even advocated the formation of a police union.

In the general matters of socio-political and economic reforms, a consensus seems to be emerging that the administration of President Muhammadu Buhari should look at the report of the 2014 National Conference for solutions to some of the problems of Nigeria.

Specifically on the decentralisation of policing, the 2014 Conference recommended state police for “any state that requires it.” The state police should be “controlled and funded” by the state establishing it, according to the report. Significantly, the Conference resolved that: “There shall be the federal police with areas of jurisdiction covering the whole country on clearly spelt-out matters and offences.” This balance in the proposition of the 2014 Conference is often obscured in the agitation for state policing.

The Nigerian Police Council (of which all governors are members) and the Police Service Commission (in which non-governmental organisations are represented) are already well established in the constitution. Making these institutions perform their constitutional duties and operating effectively should be part of the police reform.

Similarly the Police Trust Fund should also be managed judiciously and efficiently as a way of enhancing the proposed reform.

The government will only begin to take internal security seriously when it decides what exactly it wants to do with the police.
The widely advocated police reform should be that beginning.

The policemen, who are expected to protect the public, are themselves in dire need of protection against grand assaults by criminal elements of the same society