What Manner of Police?

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By Eniola Bello

“The police is (sic) your friend.”

As you enter any police station in any part of Nigeria, the first thing that would likely catch your attention is the above quote pasted or scrawled on the wall in bold prints. But then that is as far as it goes. The reality of the complainant becoming the victim, the arbitrary arrest and detention without investigation, the beatings and inhuman treatment of crime suspects, the limitless demand for money the police need to carry out investigations from complainants and suspects, and the extra-judicial killings bely the slogan the police have so popularised. Even for those who have no reason to visit the police station, the sight of badly dressed and badly behaved policemen constantly begging, or demanding, for money from motorists in what is no more than stop-and-ask-for-bribe operation on Nigerian roads buries the idea of friendship with this specie of people. To borrow a popular local parlance, with police as your friend, you don’t an enemy.

However, the idea captured in that quote is not so frivolous as the behaviour and conduct of policemen in this country has reduced it to. It came out of a policing ideology on which the London Metropolitan Police have been operating since the 19thCentury. In what has come to be known as the PeelianPrinciples, Sir Michael Peel, appointed British Home Secretary in 1822, developed the ethical principles of policing in what has come to be known as policing by consent. Peel’s theory of policing by consent places priority on legitimacy of policing in the eyes of the public, a legitimacy hung on general consensus of support from the public, and the application of transparency, integrity and accountability in the police’s recognition, knowledge and exercise of their powers. In summarising this line of argument, Peel avers: “The police are the public and the public are the police”.

He thereafter identifies nine principles of friendly policing; for the purpose of this essay, I will, in summary, limit myself to four:
• To exercise its powers, the police depend on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect;
• To secure respect and approval, the police must have the public willingly co-operate in observing the laws;
• Public co-operation greatly reduces the necessity for the use of excessive force; and
• Public support comes from service and friendship, courtesy and friendly good humour, and sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
Peel concludes his argument by asserting that effective policing is not the number of arrests but the lack of crime.Therefore, developing a people’s police, one the public will trust and see as a friend goes beyond mere sloganeering. It is for the police to initiate and sustain the environment for friendship with the public. And this can only come from hard work, one akin to seeking the love of a woman, requiring care and attention and service and patience and friendship and good humour.

Unfortunately, the Nigeria police are not equipped to create that friendly environment, to make the people as partners, to be at one with the public. The reason for this is simple. There’s nothing in the history of its establishment in 1820 and its evolution over the years in which there has been any attempt to build a people’s police. The British colonial authorities, neither in their establishment of 1200 men Hausa Constabulary in 1879, the Royal Niger Company Constabulary in 1888 and the transformation of both to Northern Nigeria Police in the 1900s; nor in their creation of the Niger Coast Constabulary, Calabar in 1894, the Lagos Police in 1896 and the fusion of the two as Southern Nigeria Police also in the 1900s, was the interests of the “natives” any of their concern. Even when the Northern Nigeria Police and Southern Nigeria Police were merged to become the Nigeria Police Force in 1930, shortly after the amalgamation of Northern and Southern Protectorates, the colonial authorities were more concerned with their economic interests. Their policing ideology was not about friendship with the public, nor about detecting, preventing and investigating crime. Theirs was a policing ideology of occupation, safeguarding their economic interests, harassing, arresting and detaining labour leaders, farmers and women protesting unfavourable trade practices and excessive taxation, or clamping in jail early nationalists demanding freedom, social justice, greater political inclusion, and self-government. The colonial authorities, with their Indirect Rule system, left social crimes for traditional rulers to handle.

Sixty years after independence, and despite several structural changes, Nigeria’s policing ideology has not changed. It is still an ideology of occupation and exploitation. The Nigeria Police Force, NPF, website has in its Vision Statement the first sentence, “To make Nigeria safer and more secure for economic development and growth…” Although the Vision Statement carries an addendum of creating “a safe and secure environment for everyone living in Nigeria”, one could safely deduce that the first sentence is the most important and therefore that the policing ideology is more about the nation’s economic interests than the people. To advance this thesis, the NPF in its code of conduct identifies the primary responsibility of a police officer thus: “A police officer acts as an official representative of government who is required and trusted to work within the law. …” The phrase, “official representative of government”, rather than that of the people,already creates a disconnect, it makes the setting up of a people friendly police, in line with Peelian principles almost impossible.

Then Section 4 of the Police Act and Regulations 2020 list the functions of the police as prevention and detection of crime; apprehension of offenders; preservation of law and order; protection of life and property; and enforcement of laws and regulations. These are no more than primary policing duties. Bereft of any ideological underpinning to mould the officers, shape the Force’s direction and guide its leadership, it ends up being mechanical, a machine without a soul.

In more ways than one, the Nigeria police have, over the years, grown to become an organisation without a soul. In police colleges, maltreatment, abuse and poor menu are mistaken for training. Officers are poorly paid, poorly kitted, poorly equipped and poorly housed in barracks that are no better than pigsty. Police stations lack minimum comfort. Patrol vehicles are mostly run down and battered. Merit and performance count for little in promotions and postings; godfatherism and ethnicity count for more. Officers pay for uniforms, for appointments, and for promotion. Police welfare is next to nil; officers on transfer have no boarding allowance and many are forced to sleep at police stations. There is no insurance, and no provision for housing loan. So lousy are the conditions of service that a great number of those who get recruited into the police did not make the choice for love of the uniform or as a matter of duty or service, but because it was something of a last resort. The system inevitably transforms some of its officers into monsters contemptuous of the people, whom they abuse, defraud, profile, frame, illegally imprison and extra-judicially kill.

What then is the way forward? Should policing in Nigeria still remain national, or should state police be allowed? Centralised policing, some scholars have argued, allows for efficiency arising from co-ordination and savings in training, organisation and service delivery. Those scholars have obviously not extended their study to Nigeria Police. Western democracies, particularly the United States, and to a lesser extent, the United Kingdom, have for centuries championed decentralisation because of the believe that the centralised policing system concentrates too much power in the hands of the political authority and a few police chiefs, power that is easily susceptible to abuse. Indeed, Nigerians would easily relate with that, particularly with the way the ruling PDP (Peoples Democratic Party) from 1999 to 2015, and the ruling APC (All Progressives Congress) from 2015 till date have used the police for electoral fraud, and to harass and intimidate critics and political opponents.

This has led to the growing clamour for decentralization of policing in Nigeria. States, particularly those in the south, have long been agitating for a restructuring of the federation to allow for state policing. Since political culture to a large extent determines if the system of policing should be national or zonal, there seems to be a general consensus that countries like Nigeria, whose diversity makes them to settle for federation, are better off with decentralised policing. The US policing system is so decentralised that it has a combination of federal, state, municipal and county police, resulting most times in contest for jurisdiction, and at other times conflict in exchange of intelligence. The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Japan and Brazil equally run decentralized policing with different degree of power relations between the central police and the regional police. However, most countries in central Europe like France, which developed the original model of centralized policing, Italy and Sweden, and Eastern European countries typified by Russia, prefer national police.

In any case, the system in itself does not an efficient policing make. Serious countries decide on a system or mix of systems well suited to their political culture, the needs of their people, and that would serve the country well. There is a general consensus that the Nigeria Police, as presently constituted, have failed the country. Whether it is a modification of the centralized system in operation, or decentralization, or a mix of different systems, accountability should be an irreducible minimum. This is because there is a likelihood of abuse since the law empowers the police to compel action. It is for this reason that some scholars have argued that to ensure accountability, the police should be subordinate to civil authority, courts must guarantee due process, and a public audit through the Police Complaints Commission must be institutionalised.
But first, a policing ideology, and one that is people friendly. That is the only way the police slogan at the beginning of this essay can have purpose.