The police? Always on the take, writes Joshua J. Omojuwa

I was recently trying to open an international bank account for a start-up that’d also raise money from investors in the United States. Those investors will only  invest in an American company, so whilst you may be registered in Nigeria and your business model focused on Nigeria, they require an American identity for your business. This dual local and American identity is the norm for African start-ups. When time came to open the account, which until now you could do from Nigeria and as a Nigerian, the platform had blocked Nigeria.

No one needed to tell me why. I knew. You didn’t experience this with me, but you probably already know too. What used to be the most popular digital bank for Nigerian founders suddenly closed shop against the country. What happened? I can take a guess; some Nigerians broke the rules. What did they do exactly? I don’t know. What I do know is that those Nigerians are the minority of the Nigerian users of that platform, but that minority did enough to shape the perception of the entire country and helped to inform a whole new blockage policy against Africa’s populous country.

I tell this story because, when you write about the unwholesome aspects of a population or system, it is not a denial of the presence of exemplary people and good practices in that system. It is an acknowledgement of the few and the far-reaching effects of their ways. Here, I acknowledge the good police officers, those that may be perceived as the outliers but could in fact be more in population than the bad eggs. They exist — I have written about them —and we have heard stories of their gallantry and kindness, even though those stories are not the norm, which is why when we hear them, they are such a big deal.

Years ago, a friend of mine visited Nigeria from Botswana. I played the good host, driving her around Abuja. Everything was going on just fine until we got to a police stop during the day. She could not understand what was happening. She was asking, “why are they there? Is everything okay?” The questions did not register. “What do you mean why are they there?” Then I caught myself. This is not normal in most places around the world, even though it is normal in this situation.

If seeing them was shocking enough to this first time Nigeria visitor, the officers going on to ask for money raised the scale of anomaly. After we went past the police point, I was on the receiving end of a lot of questions. This fellow African had witnessed something that clearly was from a world she had never been in. This experience taught me how a thing can become so normal, you forget how abnormal it is until you experience things differently. Or until you witness the anomaly through the eyes of someone who isn’t used to it. If you are a curious person, you’d immediately realise you were for a long-time part of an anomaly and had gotten so used to it you hardly or never noticed.

We all have that image in our heads, we have depicted it in movies and skits. We have made jokes out of it; the Nigerian police officer on the road, soliciting for money, getting it and immediately pocketing it as if the money would disappear if it spent a second longer without finding shelter in his pocket. Every Nigerian, from the president to the ones who live in the remotest parts of our country know this image. Whilst in the case of top government officials like the president and the vice-president, they do not get to witness this on account of the protocol that accompanies their movement, the good thing is they once lived before they attained those offices, and thankfully, getting sworn into public office does not wipe off one’s memories.

Other officials drive home at night. Whilst they may not have to endure being asked for money by these officers, they witness the activity before they make their own passage. This unwholesome act is so widespread and so normal, you could easily catch it on camera in every major Nigerian city tonight. It is no longer a sign of our dysfunction; it has become such a design, it is hard to see it as one of those, “Nigeria is not working” situations.

Once this became entrenched without push back from government via some policy implementation or even the people, these officers did the most natural thing in their situation; they became more daring.

A young Nigerian professional was stopped by men dressed in police jackets around 9:30pm on the island. They told him it was a ‘stop and search’ operation which he complied with. They found nothing. Then they asked to search his phone, an illegality that the Nigerian Police has itself publicly stated should be refused by Nigerians. Immediately after this, they started accusing him of being a cultist. Next thing he was cuffed and bundled into their Siena vehicle. He soon realised he was on the Third Mainland Bridge, guns pointed at him all the way to Agege. These men demanded N10m to have him released, they eventually robbed him of N2.8m, collected from several POS terminals, after he repeatedly pleaded for mercy. He feared for his life all along, so felt a great relief when they released him at 3:45am.

These men were dressed as police officers, empowered by the Nigerian Police Force and they in this instance were literally armed robbers. This experience isn’t the outlier, it is the norm. We don’t know how many Nigerians didn’t live to share similar experiences.

On the matter of policing in Nigeria, we are at the point of surrender. We all know holistic measures must be put in place to address this subject matter, we also know not to expect any change. At least not anytime soon. That’s more tragic than the tragedy that is policing in our country.

 Omojuwa is chief strategist, Alpha Reach/BGX Publishing

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