Police Reform and the #ENDSARS Movement in Nigeria

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By Dr. Benson Olugbuo

Slow and Uncoordinated Police Reform

Police reform in Nigeria, has been a winding journey since independence. It is instructive to note that, the #ENDSARS protests took place during the year when the Nigeria Police Force Act 2020 was signed into law by the President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari. The truth is that, Police reform has been slow and uncoordinated, lacks political will and unable to meet with the yearnings and aspirations of young Nigerians who have borne the brunt of the excesses of some officers and men of the now defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).

No Capacity for Criminal Investigation

Police brutality in Nigeria has been a subject of discourse and has continued to elicit concern among local and international human rights groups, media and the general public especially in the last decade. We have noted the increase in the use of torture by security agents in Nigeria, generally. This is largely attributed to the lack of capacity for criminal investigations, the historical antecedent of the Police being used as agents of oppression, the arbitrary use of force, lack of effective internal and external accountability mechanisms, as well as lack of public confidence in the Police and other security agents.

The defunct SARS has been noted as a major perpetrator of human rights violations, specifically extra-judicial killings, extortion, harassment, torture and other human rights abuses, before and during the pandemic. The public clamour against the detestable activities of the SARS operatives led to the ‘#ENDSARS’ campaign, a national call to disband the unit which gained public support nationwide, through the use of social media. The protests were precipitated by years of brutality and professional misconduct by operatives of this particular Police unit, for too long, derailed from the core mandates of their establishment and became threats to the citizens whom they are obliged to protect by the general mandate of the police under the Nigerian Constitution and other extant laws.

This clamour by young Nigerians led to the disbandment of the SARS on the 11th of October, 2020, and the setup of a new tactical unit called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT). However, while disbanding SARS is a step in the right direction, a lot more is required for sustained reform. In addition, the establishment of SWAT did not follow an inclusive process, thereby prompting the call for the disbandment of the unit by #ENDSARS protesters.

A Tragic Culture of Committees

The Federal Government in the past had established several presidential committees to pilot major Police reform programs, which have proffered several recommendations. These include the Muhammad Danmadami Presidential Committee on Police Reform 2006; M.D Yusufu Presidential Committee on the Reform of the Nigeria Police Force 2008; Parry Osayande Presidential Committee on the Reform of the Nigeria Police Force 2012; and the Anthony Ojukwu Presidential Panel on the Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force 2018.

In addition, in 2012, the CLEEN Foundation in collaboration with the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, coordinated the Civil Society Organisations Panel on Police Reforms which made several recommendations on effective and human rights centred policing in Nigeria. There has not been any noticeable adoption and implementation of these recommendations, except those captured in the Administration of Criminal Justice Act 2015; Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act 2015; Anti-Torture Act 2017; the Nigeria Police Trust Fund Act 2019 and Nigeria Police Force Act of 2020, largely driven by CSOs and other episodic changes championed by different Inspector Generals of Police. The existence of these laws notwithstanding, the problem of police brutality and extra-judicial killings continued unabated.

No Political Will

There has been deep neglect and lack of political will on the part of the Government to implement different recommendations to reform all of or at least aspects of our policing system. For instance, Anthony Ojukwu Panel on SARS Reform 2018 proffered recommendations to improve the accountability of SARS and law enforcement officials in Nigeria, amongst which were the dismissal of 37 Police officers and prosecution of 24 officers found guilty of human rights violation, compensation of various sums of money in 45 complaints, tendering of public apologies in five complaints and obedience to court orders in five complaints, the creation of State Police and renaming of SARS, which will operate under the intelligence arm of Police. Despite efforts to reform the Nigeria Police Force, the institution continues to curry for itself an image of coercion, fear and an institution largely known for gross violations of fundamental human rights. Therefore, it is obvious that Police reform goes beyond cosmetic changes. There is a need for deep rooted reform, based on the principles of democratic policing.

Good Governance is the Key

Police reform has been compounded by internal and external challenges, confronting both the Nigerian State and the Police Force. It also clearly shows that, the hood does not make the monk. Enactment of laws are yet to bring desired changes, in the performances of the men and officers of the Nigeria Police Force. This is because the fortunes of the Police and that of Nigeria, are inseparable. The Nigeria Police Force cannot effectively reform, without the enthronement of good governance in Nigeria.

Dr. Olugbuo, Executive Director, CLEEN Foundation