State Police: Testy debate returns, amidst security crisis
The recent heart-rending slaughter of citizens by suspected herdsmen has compelled a reflection on the foundations of Nigeria’s security. Beyond the marching orders being dished out by the Federal Government to the effect that the barbaric assault on lives be halted, the task is to understand why the current security system has so terribly failed in protecting citizens. Is the problem one of a systemic disconnect of the security agencies from the very people they are meant to protect? Or is it the fact that by its structure, policing in Nigeria is not designed for the goal of shielding the people from the kind of threats that have convulsed the country in recent times?
One trend discernible from the relentless wave of slaughter is the fact that the time it took for the Police to respond to the distress of victims was hopelessly long. The killings in Ukpabi Nimbo, a rural community in Enugu, just like the earlier savagery in Agatu, laid bare the soft underbelly of Nigeria’s current policing strategy.
The challenge presented by a police officer taking orders from bosses, so far away from the scene of a violent crime, calls for an urgent rethink of the system. The current system kills the initiative and spontaneity needed to save lives in testy moments. More so, that the top brass of the police needed Presidential marching orders before responding to the crisis, several days after precious lives were lost, raises fundamental questions about the objectives of Nigeria’s current policing system.
These are some of the very deep questions agitating the minds of Nigerians as the upsurge in herdsmen terror, preoccupies the national debate. Fears are becoming rife that herdsmen terror could replace Boko Haram as Nigeria’s most violent challenge of Nigerian state authority. While the Boko Haram insurgency has largely been pinned to the North East, where serious gains are being made to subdue the terrorists, the threat of the herdsmen is much more diffused across the country. In a national space, where separatists’ sentiments are no longer matters for whispers, the containment and total eradication of provocative attacks in the nature of what has been seen from the herdsmen, is about the survival of Nigeria.
Crucial, therefore, is the task of interrogating the glaring flat footedness that has been the hallmark of the security agencies, especially the Police. In past debates about the advertised deficiencies in securing the country, there are those who have insisted that the current centralized policing system does not suit the Nigerian reality. The point has been made repeatedly that over-centralization has been the nation’s Achilles heel. This is even becoming apparent in the failed efforts at policing Nigeria. Within three decades from 1980, Nigeria has had to deal with major uprisings like the Maitasine problem of the early 80s, the militancy in the Niger Delta, the ongoing Boko Haram insurgency, emergent herdsmen terrorism and many other forms of violent crimes.
The recurrence of these serious national security threats has been met by indifference in the methods and strategies for securing the country. It is instructive to note that the seeds of these monsters of insecurity were planted and nurtured right under the nose of Nigeria’s centralised police behemoth. As a creation of the 1999 Constitution, the Police Force, has struggled badly to make the nation crime free. In fact, the logic of a monolithic police system with a command centre in Abuja, which would ultimately determine the fate of lives and property in a remote rural community in Enugu, has been repeatedly thrashed.
Such a big force is not nimble enough to adjust to extant threats. The conditions of insecurity in Nigeria, eloquently demonstrate the futility of using the current model to secure the country. These realities have tended to strengthen the position of the proponents of a State Policing system. The loudest argument of those who have vehemently rejected the idea of State police is that state governors would abuse it. Whatever the merit in that argument, its logic is anchored on the notion that as a people, Nigerian leaders and citizens, can only get worse in the social conduct, not better. That curious logic also suggests that states, which also have institutions like their own judiciary, are serially abusing them.
If that conclusion were allowed to stand, it would then imply that the current court system in the states should be scrapped. It therefore stands to reason that if a state can have a judicial system to play its part in the justice system, the logic of kicking against a state police system, on account of projected abuses, is thoroughly warped.
All systems created by man, are susceptible to abuse; what makes systems work is the readiness to work to prevent or deter such abuses by creating mechanisms for checks. Coincidentally, the heavily centralised, but inefficient system of policing currently in place in Nigeria has been serially abused for the purpose of regime protection. The abuse of this system has now precipitated a unique kind of apartheid. It has spawned a culture that clearly makes no qualms about the impression that the life of the elite Nigerian is sacred, while that of the ordinary citizen can be treated as next to nothing. So when a former Senator, minister or someone close to them is kidnapped for instance, the police will quickly swing into action. But when marauding herdsmen mow down scores of citizens, it takes waves of public outrage and presidential directives for the police to get moving.
This disconnect between the supposed protectors of the common space and citizens, is at the heart of the quest for a system of state policing. If Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi of Enugu state had a state police at his command on the day the herdsmen unleashed terror in Ukpabi Nimbo community, instead of helplessly shedding tears, he would have ordered his Police helmsman to go after the attackers. In fact, the head of a state run police, set up for the sole purpose of securing Enugu, would have had his ears to the ground to pick intelligence about the impending attack. Instead, what Nigerians saw was a distracted Commissioner of Police getting orders from Abuja, and trying at all cost to be in the good books of some ogas in the nation’s capital. This kind of divided allegiance hobbles the business of fighting crime and securing lives and property.
Understanding the disconnect and the existence of serious policing gap, many communities across Nigeria are putting in place measures to secure themselves. In several suburban areas, self-help initiatives that go by various names have practically assumed police roles.
The implication is that in addition to the taxes that citizens pay to government, they also have to cough out additional sums to get the services of these quasi-policing outfits. In spite of these realities, there are those who still spin tongue-in-cheek arguments that there is no need for a state policing system to meet the security needs of Nigerians at the grassroots. Curiously, while this debate on state policing raged, some of the political actors who could have advocated for a better model for securing the country chose to dwell on sentiments.
In 2013 when the Nigeria Governors Forum deliberated the issue, it was played up as the usual North vs South squabbles. While all the governors in the South backed the idea of de-centralizing the police, majority of the Northern governors kicked against the idea. That opposition by the Northern governors at the time did not mirror the chronic state of insecurity in the North, especially with the Boko Haram insurgency. Unfortunately, the Northern governors at the time were more interested in political calculations than in seeing the merits in using a state policing model to fight insecurity.
Nonetheless, another opportunity to critically examine the benefits in a de-centralized police system presented itself in 2014. Former President Goodluck Jonathan convoked a National Conference to discuss the many intractable political and governance issues affecting Nigeria. In the very exhaustive conversations at the Conference, the question of state police came up again.
The Confab reached a very wise conclusion, when it decided that for “any state that requires it, there shall be a State Police at the State level to be established, funded and controlled by the State.” The Confab went a step further to present a veritable platform for effectively securing Nigeria, by deciding that “State Law may also provide for Community Policing.” With these powerful decisions on State Police, which took into consideration the diversity of Nigeria and the vagaries of its security threats, it was thought that the absence of a consensus at the level of the political and ethnic elites had being overcome.
However, the defeat of Goodluck Jonathan at the Presidential election of March 28, 2015, meant that the Confab Report with all its laudable recommendations would be kept in abeyance. As he packed to exit the seat of power, President Jonathan pleaded passionately with his successor, President Muhammadu Buhari, not to jettison the recommendations of the National Conference. It is one of the ironies of politics that those who had been the most vocal about the need to restructure the polity now have power, but have so far been silent on issues like State Police.
The creation of a system of State Police was one of the campaign promises of the All Progressives Congress (APC) in the build up to the 2015 electoral contest. Should the party forget, the savageries in Agatu, and Ukpabi Nimbo, would always serve as tragic reminders of a promise not kept.