Tackling All Sides of the State Police Debate

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Segun James considers the implications of a discentralised policing system on the polity

An overwhelming opinion in the public space about most Nigeria’s Police Force paints a picture of widespread corruption, crime and extrajudicial murder. It is also believed that the security agency is open to political machination. The police, to many discerning members of the public, is the embodiment of all that is wrong in the Nigerian system.

Last year, the people, especially the youths rose up against police brutality in a nationwide campaign called #EndSARS. It resulted in killings, disruptions, arson and vandalism of private and public property. It was a move against the official actions or inactions of the police across the country.

Following the outcome, several states set up panels to determine the remote and other consequences of the protest. In the end, several complaints were filed against the police, mostly for assault and murder. But several months into the probe, the trail seems to be cooling and the interest in it waning.

Meanwhile, in the political sphere, the call for state-controlled police service is becoming strident. Recently on Aljazeera, a cable television network, both Governors Aminu Tambuwal of Sokoto state and another governor from a state in the North joined the call for the creation of state police in the country. They insisted that Nigeria is the only country with its population and size that still operates a centralized police system.

They claimed that this centralized police system is not only inadequate but cannot meet the security need of the country and the people. They insisted that the police should be under the control of the state governments since they are closer to the people instead of the Federal Government.

This is where the problem begins. Will state police be apolitical? Will it not be used as a tool by unscrupulous state governors? Will it not be used as an army of occupation in the event of a political disagreement between the federal and state government? That is the fear the Federal Government habours.

During a rare moment of truth, a former Inspector General of Police once conceded that every year, several hundreds of Nigerians are not only brutalized by unscrupulous police officers but are indeed maimed and killed in cold blood by policemen without repercussions. Many innocent bystanders were also shot dead and sometimes accused of being armed robbers by policemen.

One police unit that was accused of being notorious for such action is the Special Anti Robbery Squad (SARS) which was accused of the assassination of scores of suspects and innocent people and the focal point of the Endsars protest. According to most of the Endsars protesters, the rate of killings by the Nigerian Police is among the world’s highest.

Corruption is rampant and “normal” within the police system given that the salary of the average police officer is nothing to write home about.

But will a state police right the wrong in the system? This is the question.

When, on the eve of the New Year in 2018, intelligence got to Governor Samuel Ortom about a possible attack on some communities in Benue state by armed Fulani herdsmen at night as the predominantly Christian people of the state go to church for prayers to usher in the New Year, he became alarmed. This was not the first of such intelligence he had received, and on every occasion, it has proved correct.

He immediately alerted the state police commissioner and the head of the army formation in the state – both of whom are members of the state security council – of the possible attack asking them to mobilize to the areas to forestall such attack, his calls were ignored.

By the morning the nation woke up to the grim news of the bloodbath that had taken place. The people had been massacred their communities razed and properties worth millions of naira destroyed by the rampaging killer-herdsmen.

At the mass burial of the victims, Ortom cried. Seventy-three persons, including women and children, were killed in the attack. Yet, Ortom is the chief executive and supposed chief security officer of his state, but he had to beg the president and security chiefs each time crisis occurs in his domain; it was a pathetic situation.

Governor Ortom’s case is not peculiar. The same situation is replicated all over the country. All the governors go through the same problem each time they are faced with an urgent security situation.

It was in the light of these that the call for the creation of state police that will be under the control of the governors has become strident in recent times. The call gained more strategic converts in the Chairman of the Nigerian Governors’ Forum (NGF), Dr. Kayode Fayemi, tired of having to beg each time there are emergency security situation in his state created the Amotekun security outfit to deal with situations the Nigerian police will not take on in time. Ortom has also thrown his weight behind the idea that has been variously thrown up as the panacea for the worsening insecurity in the country.

But hope that a rethink of the issue was gaining ground rose last week with the Tambuwal and his colleague governor’s positions. Even the Vice-President, Prof. Yemi Osinbajo at the opening of the security summit in 2018 made a strong case for states to establish their police, saying it holds the key to reducing the high level of violent crimes and insecurity in the country.

Can state police be properly funded and maintained in Nigeria? Will it affect the unity of Nigeria as a nation? What means can be used to curb the excesses of the state governors/politicians? Is the general public in support of it? Are there ways of restoring the people’s confidence in the Nigerian Police Force to meet the security challenges of the country? These and other questions are what must be answered as the debate for the creation of state police continues.

According to Mr. John Bulus, in his paper, State Police: The Unending Debate: “State policing has been defined as a police force under State authority rather than under the authority of a city or county in the state. It has also been defined as the police organized and maintained by a state as distinguished from those of a lower sub-division (as a city or a local government council) of the state government. However, in the Nigerian context, state police is a kind of sub-national police force, to be organized, maintained and under the jurisdiction of a particular state government.”

Bulus stated: “In Nigeria today, there has been a recent clamour for the establishment of State police force as opposed to what was laid down in Section 214 of the Nigerian 1999 constitution. This is as a result of the deteriorating situation of the security system in Nigeria. Some other reasons for this clamour are that: the geographical area of Nigeria is too large for a Central police command; Policing citizens should be the responsibility of the respective states and not that of the Federal government.”

Bulus said that those who are in favour of the establishment of state police insist that it will help curb the rising tide of insecurity amongst other social vices in Nigeria. That it will reduce the rate of unemployment as more people would be recruited into the State Police in proportion to the population of each state.

He posited that it will help check criminal activities and corruption within the police force and the society, while also helping to curb the attitude of policemen who hardly go to their states of origin to work but go to other states which they consider lucrative for make money.

State policing, he insisted will help prevent the imposition of any religions on the people and it will help abate the ugly trend of kidnappings in the country.

Other reasons given are that it is easier to operate close systems, shorter processes because of fewer loops, error percentage and you know your target. It will help institute true federalism and localize and confine criminal activities.

However, those against the move stressed that the system can be abused by state governors who wield enormous influence on their subjects, already. They said that it is too costly to maintain State police, a position which Chief Parry Osayande, a former deputy inspector general of police also believes.

This position was also shared by former Lagos state police commissioner, the late Alhaji Abubakar Tsav who warned that the creation of state police would split Nigeria as politicians might use it against their political opponents, adding that it might also lead to job insecurity as some state governors would tamper with the institution.

Besides, it could be a ready and standing army that can be used for secession or declaration of independence, those opposed to the idea insisted.

There is the likelihood of a conflict of Jurisdiction between states, especially where the conflicting states are run by different political parties, while the lack of uniformity in the financing may also pose a great challenge. Since some states are financially stronger than others, this can lead to crisis. Besides, they warned that the creation of state police can lead to the diversion of criminals and criminality from one state to another.

But more importantly, they warned that the creation of state police will lead to anarchy, State police will bring tribalism or make it more stronger; and that there may be a conflict of interest between the Federal police force and that of the state, but more especially, it is not financially feasible for any state to own and operate a police system.

A former Assistant Inspector-General of Police, Alhaji Raimi Odofin, is of the opinion that the country is mature enough for the creation of state police to strengthen machinery for tackling security challenges. The Nigerian police as it is presently composed, Odofin stated, cannot meet the present security challenges in the country.

Odofin said that it was time for Nigerians to accept the creation of state police despite the fear that state governors would abuse it. “The state governors, too, must first look at the financial implication of having state police and should restrain from abusing the development. Creation of the state police is not a bad idea but the governors should be mature enough when the police will be under them,” he said.

He said that national police was very effective in the past, but that due to poor management of resources it had begun to face a lot of challenges. “In the past, the police had so many vehicles, communication equipment, guns but now, these things are no longer there as it supposed to be. The police as a security agency should not depend on donation from individuals and corporate organisations,” he said.

The debate over the necessity for State Police has been on for quite some time. Before now, the most vociferous advocates of state police have been members of the opposition as well as notable civil society activists. It is, however, crucial to stress that agitation for the creation of State Police should not be viewed as a partisan or an anti-Federal Government crusade. Neither can it be said to be the handiwork of mischief-makers or ruby-rousers.

State Police is an important component of true federalism and emblem of the authority of governance since sovereignty is divided between the central authority and federating state authorities. It is not a new concept in Nigeria but is rather a clamour for modification to the colonial legacy of Native Authority Police which successfully worked alongside the Nigeria Police Force till the 1970s before it was abolished and integrated into a single Nigeria Police Force by the military.

Though the 1999 Constitution provides for single federal police, this precludes states from taking charge of the protection of lives and properties of their people. It also denies the governors as Chief Security Officer the emblem of authority.

Ironically, in view of recent security challenges posed by such terrorist groups like the Boko Haram in the northeast, militants in the Niger Delta region, secessionist groups like the IPOB in the southeast and Fulani herdsmen, almost all state governments in the country are investing heavily in the diverse security agencies in their respective states.

In Lagos, for example, according to Mr. Tayo Ogunbiyi of the state’s Ministry of Information, the state government has in the last 20 years invested billions of Naira on public security. In fact, the first Security Trust Fund to be established, by any government, in the country was initiated by the Lagos State Government.

Now, will it not amount to a double standard that a state government bears such a huge financial burden on its state police command, which in the first place should be the responsibility of the Federal Government, and yet has little or no control over such security organ?

No matter how much a state government spends on security, the reality is that it has no direct control over any of the national security organs. The current centralized police structure in the country will continue to limit the capacity of states to effectively address security issues.

However, Ogunbiyi opines that “in spite of all the arguments against state police, the fact is that Nigeria is too large and complex to be policed centrally. In an ideal federal system, the issue of state police should not be a contentious matter. If we are serious about overcoming current security challenges in the polity, the time to embrace the option of state police is now.”