As has been pointed out in various quarters, the Inspector-General of Police’s (IGP) recent “disbanding” of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is the 4th time in as many years, and the 2nd just this year alone. The president, Major-General Muhammadu Buhari (retd.), has also promised further “reforms” of the police force, but I have not seen any details of what that means. It appears many Nigerians are not satisfied with it either, judging by the continued protests across the nation.
Suffice to say that if the authorities were truly sincere about reform and accountability, the officers captured on video are easily identifiable and could be already charged to court. That is literally the lowest hanging fruit. Also, a public hearing where victims of police violence and brutality provide testimony and/or evidence would be set up, along with follow up investigation and prosecution. A SAN (forgive me, I don’t recall his name right now) on Channels television recently noted that he experienced torture at the hands of security agents back in 1993 and likened it to what happens today. As multiple news sources have pointed out, successive governments set up “probes”, “investigations” and “panels”, none of which we can recall as having their results publicised or acted upon.
These are facts we all know so I won’t waste time on them. I only mention them to illustrate the insincerity of the federal government and police leadership which, I think, is plain for everyone to see. It is also, in this writer’s view, why the protests have evolved into a movement against bad governance; it’s an indication that the people are weary of probes, panels and promises that never appear to amount to anything.
Lines in the Sand
Many of the people who have been in the system for donkey years make different arguments that follow the same theme: more money for the police force will reform it. It’s true that the police are grossly underfunded, but I’m not sure that simply throwing more money at this symptom can fix its foundational issues.
But can you really blame them? For years on end, they have been allowed to get away with illegalities by simply waving a magic wand, whether it be microphone or machine gun. The system that birthed killer cops must be uprooted, not redressed.
The calls for the IGP’s resignation are good and valid, but don’t go nearly far enough. As pointed out in this article, one of the top echelons of policemen around the IGP was the SARS commander in Kano state and, according to the lawyer who prosecuted the case, was personally involved in the torture of two young men over a small misunderstanding. One of the boys died, the other is likely still traumatized to this day. And, despite the court ordering an apology, financial compensation and recommending disciplinary action, absolutely nothing has been done and the officer in question is in the IGP’s inner circle. Heck, he might even be appointed IGP someday.
That is why we need to create a system of law enforcement, not power protection. I’ve mentioned in a previous article the famous quote that a system cannot fail those it was never designed to protect. The first Nigerian IGP sitting next to Nigeria’s first military dictator set the tone for those who came after him. It’s politics and power first, the people are naught but tender grapes to be mashed underfoot to make wine to gorge on. Indeed the Nigerian Police Force is considered by many to be little more than guns for hire to the highest bidder. In this way the force has been systematically transformed into a private militia, protecting those who can afford their services while committing untold crimes against the population they’re surrounded by. This is one of the main reasons why “reforms” will not suffice. It is time for the Nigerian Police Force to (metaphorically) get naked, take a hot bath, and re-dress itself as the Nigerian Police Service. And this means a couple of very important steps, some of which follow below.
First, abolish police barracks. This, for me, is a non-negotiable. One of the points used to excuse police corruption (and possibly embezzle public funds) is the dilapidated nature of police housing. Indeed, successive IGPs have spoken about renovating some barracks. I say to scrap that idea. Police officers are probably entitled to join the National Housing Scheme just like every other public servant (and I use the term deliberately here), and they should be encouraged to do so. Unless you are hiring homeless people to join the police services, there is really no need to barrack them right from the off. Deployment to other states and regions, which is a good idea when properly executed, can be done without the waste that is a barracks. I wouldn’t even go so far as to offer temporary housing, rather I would recommend the 28-day accommodation allowance that’s already in the public service so they can stay in a hotel until a suitable house/apartment is found.
Abolishing police barracks does a number of things to the community, all of them good. First it brings better engagement between police officers and the communities they purport to serve, which leads to fewer misunderstandings in the long term. Secondly, the “police barracks” can be auctioned off to property developers who would then invest in transforming them into affordable housing for the populace. Abolishing police barracks also provides the police, as a service, with better local intelligence, leading to fewer mistakes which also means the service saves money by following the right leads. Then you also have the benefit of keeping officers honest, because they have to live amongst the people. Fifth, it rids the officers of siege mentality, the us-against-them that seems to have infected the mind of many an officer. Finally, it will contribute, in its own small way, to other services in Nigeria finally having to actually get stuff done. If police officers lived in all the communities they’re supposed to serve and protect, rather than being clustered in barracks, the Electricity Mafia’s estimated billing would likely have ended long ago. And once the Federal Government becomes responsible enough to … ahh, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
Policing must become local. I’ve mentioned before that security, like politics, is local. For that reason, the legal minds amongst us ought to draft constitutional amendments which not only create state (and possibly local government) police, but also drastically reduce the scope of responsibilities for federal police. This legislation ought also to take the some disciplinary procedures out of the hands of the police and create civil bodies to address public complaints against police officers. Fair hearings must be given to officers, of course, but it’s illogical to expect what has become a cabal of the boys to govern and police themselves. The need for it is evidenced by the terms of reference of the judicial panel set up by the Akwa Ibom state government, which includes recommending compensation but no mention of prosecution or other sanctions, because the power is locked in an Abuja vault. Such legislation, once drafted, will I’m certain find representatives in the National Assembly willing to sponsor it. Now, keep in mind that the constitution sets a number of signatures which, if gathered, can force the electoral commission (INEC) to recall a lawmaker and conduct a fresh election. We, the people, must then ensure that our constituency gathers as close to that number of signatures as possible, not to recall our representatives, but to demand that they support the bill. The final hurdle will, of course, be presidential assent, which is no small river to cross. But if we can keep up this level of pressure, I’m not sure there is much that even this government can do except, perhaps, attempt to buy time until such a bill can be drastically watered down or swept away altogether.
Despite the economic situation of the country, the overhaul of Nigeria’s police force mustn’t be afraid to dismiss errant officers. The fear of increased insecurity is a valid one, but only if you take the view that nothing else in Nigeria should be made to function properly. For those officers who are found to have committed grave, prison-worthy crimes, the law should take its course and the fancifully-renamed Nigerian Correctional Services can take them in as houseguests for however long a court of law decides is appropriate. Prison reform is another matter entirely, one which I hope we will get to soon. As for the officers who, for whatever reason, can neither be kept in their jobs nor prosecuted, they can be provided with business/vocational training and a severance package to start a new life. Police officers have already proven themselves creative (in their sourcing of bribes), experienced in psychology (in their manipulation of the populace), thus it’s not far-fetched that they can start and run successful small and medium enterprises. Many have proven quite enterprising indeed.
If this all somehow feels like it has happened before, it’s because it kind of has. Those of our parents who stood up to the military dictatorships of Ibrahim Babangida, Sani Abacha and their ilk can testify to the atrocities and abuses carried out against them which, to this day, have not been addressed. Indeed one could argue that the military never left and we are only indulged in a facade resembling democracy, but that’s a topic for another article. The point I’m trying to make here is that there is a wealth of experience from among our forebears that we can draw on to ensure that the changes demanded by the citizens are made and, hopefully, we can avoid more bloodshed. Heaven knows it’s hard enough to survive in Nigeria as is, without security agents adding to the chaos.
A Word of Caution
It’s important to make sure politicians don’t subvert the will of the people. We can already see evidence of such attempts with one governor attempting to ban protests, a ridiculous and illegal move which was apparently ignored by both protesters and the police.
Another governor is apparently attempting to hijack the people’s movement by going to the president to negotiate or something, seemingly without being asked. I don’t believe that such a move will end with the demands of the people being met, rather some sort of political compromise may be achieved and said governor’s profile and power increased. This is not what we’re fighting for and it should be vehemently opposed.
Some “leaders” of the National Assembly are reported to be calling for an end to the protests in order to “give the government time to work on the issues.” I don’t know who their aides and advisers are, but they have either been ignored or should be replaced because, face it, the so-called people’s representatives have lost credibility in the eyes of the Nigerian people that many see them as just another branch of the executive. And at this juncture, rather than siding with the people (who, incidentally, marched to the National Assembly), they are showing where their true loyalty lies. It’s so disappointing.
Naturally, there will be “youth groups” no one has ever heard of conducting “counter protests.” This phenomenon has been ongoing for a while, and is partly the reason why some governments have proposed “registering” NGOs. It’s likely because they know that they, and other politicians, get unscrupulous individuals to form such groups, hold paid rallies and bribe journalists to publish their propaganda. Do not be distracted by these groups and, crucially, do not engage with them, lest you give them legitimacy of which they are undeserving. Next, we’re seeing violence by “hoodlums” against protesters and even against the police themselves. Tragic as it is, these acts are indicative of desperation by cowardly figures in the shadows whose aim is not just to dismantle the protests but to cower others who might be thinking of joining, and to give security agents an excuse to violently clamp down on protests. If the government is truly sincere, the police surrounding protesters would have prevented such violence or, at the very least, arrested and charged the perpetrators. But since a great many “hoodlums” begin their careers as political thugs, their invisibility cloaks are probably still working fine.
Finally, a word for the multitude of Nigerians who have braved water cannons, tear gas, machetes and bullets; Nigeria, the real Nigeria, is proud of you. Not the politicians, not the power brokers, not the creators and gamers of the system, but the real Nigeria. This is one of those moments where the course of history sits on a knife-edge and the actions (or inactions) of individuals will determine what happens next.
For those who are paralysed by fear or have reasonable-sounding excuses to not choose a side in this moment of history, I honestly do not blame you. In fact, I wish I could hug you all. I completely understand keeping your head down, staying safe, and not trusting those out on the streets to do the right thing all the time. I wish we could guarantee a 100% peaceful, socially-distant and respectful protest, but I fear that the current levels we see are the best that can be reasonably expected. As Nelson Mandela said, “It is the oppressor, not the oppressed, that chooses the nature of the struggle.”
Now that I’ve spoken my heart, I’m afraid I must add to your discomfort, and leave you with the (modified) words of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, a man who personified the African way of dignity in struggle before it was cool:
“If you withhold from your country [Nigeria] the death from cough or head-cold of which you would otherwise die…you will be rebuked for it by your Creator and will be cursed by your offspring.”Haile Selassie (03/10/1935)
Every generation faces its own struggle, each of equal importance as we build on the successes of those who came before us so that those who come after can have it just a little bit better. Our grandmothers and grandfathers fought colonial oppression, and won. Our mothers and fathers fought military dictatorships, and won. It is now our turn to fight, and to tell our grandchildren one day that we did our bit, no matter how small.