Wednesday, 6th December 2023

Reopening the unfortunate case of the Nigerian police

Any Nigerian child with a fair level of social-awareness can tell you one or two negative things about the Nigerian police. The Nigerian Police Force is perceived as the primary symbol of corruption, administrative inefficiency....

Any Nigerian child with a fair level of social-awareness can tell you one or two negative things about the Nigerian police. The Nigerian Police Force is perceived as the primary symbol of corruption, administrative inefficiency, and state brutality in Nigeria. Bribery is seen as the official language of the uniform; investigative procedures are often dismissed as unreliable; and it is not unusual for armed gangs to claim police patronage. The efficiency of the Nigerian police as an organisation and its capacity as a public service inspire pessimism. Any manageable level of security in some parts of Nigeria has been in spite of the inefficiencies of the police, and not because of it.

In fairness, the average police officer is treated no better than an armed slave. Officers spend hours in inhospitable physical and psychological working environments. Their sacrifices are ignored while their failures are magnified. There are no monuments to officers who died in the line of duty. The average police officer is paid in ‘gun-power’, and not in welfare. It is unsurprising, then, that they are quick to use this power against citizens. In short, the government treats the police contemptibly, the police engage the people viciously, and the people respond with hostility.

But the inefficiency of the Nigerian police is primarily rooted in the historical form and philosophy of our policing system. The Nigerian police has not quite departed from its source template. The Royal Niger Company (and later the British colonial government) created the first native policing teams. This policing team had the primary responsibility of protecting the officers of the Royal Niger Company (and, later, the colonial government) from hostile natives.  The role of the police was not to serve the needs of the native communities but to ‘pacify’ them –maintaining some sort of peace – so that the colonists could conduct business with ease.

Early native police teams were generally recruited from alienated members of the African communities. It was natural that these folks would wield colonial-invested power against their traditional ‘oppressors’. It was also usual for the British (in typical divide-and-rule fashion) to import recruits from a different ethnicity to ‘pacify’ the natives of an offending tribe. It was common for these first police personnel to tyrannise the early Nigerian communities because they often had no stake in the community they policed. The police served the British government, not the Nigerian communities. And, when the nationalists took over from the British, the police served the new rulers and not the people. Over the decades, succeeding administrations have maintained this philosophy that the Nigerian police works for the Nigerian government, protecting government against the citizenry.

Yet, policing ought to be, first, a community-level citizen issue. A national police force should only be a scaled-up version of a community-level police.   This is not the case in Nigeria where the average police officer is physically and emotionally alienated from the community they patrol. This causation loops into its own consequence and a measure of social ostracism automatically follows a decision to join the Nigerian police.

It is, thus, unsurprising that bits and pieces of what ought to be policing services have been ‘usurped’ by other public and private entities. Unregulated vigilantes and neighbourhood watches handle basic community policing. State traffic agencies have been more effective at traffic management. The Federal Road Safety Corps supervises highway safety. The EFCC handles economic and financial crimes. The Department of State Services handles intelligence gathering. The military, ordinarily meant to deter foreign aggression, also handles domestic aggression including election violence, vehicular checkpoints, and suppressing civilian protests and demonstrations. Meanwhile, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps deals with public vandalism, protection of public installations and the licensing of private guards.

And so, the Nigerian Police does not actually provide any typical policing service to the Nigerian masses. It seems that their only monopoly is the investigation and prosecution of violent and proprietary crimes. Otherwise, as a public service, the Nigerian police – other than being the visible presence of government intimidation – has been relegated to the role of security guards, drivers or personal assistants of public officials and high net-worth individuals. These services, of course, tie into Nigeria’s patronage system. Therefore, it is not surprising that the national government does not invest much in an organisation whose real services – the physical intimidation of the populace – does not require much expenditure.

The solutions to this dysfunction are glaring. The entire police structure has to be pulled down and rebuilt, not just renovated superficially. Community policing should be the foundation of the policing template. The community police should be funded by direct household taxes plus voluntary contributions from the communities they protect and they should report to local councils. State and national police agencies may then complement this basic police work with intercommunity and interstate policing respectively. But this type of reform – distinct from the police reform bill currently undergoing legislative process – requires national restructuring and a shift in the autocratic mentality that has plagued successive federal governments. Until then, the Nigerian police as constituted will never function fine, no matter how often we change the Inspector General or how many new recruits we admit.

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