The imperatives of police re-orientation
Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo is outraged by the outrageous behaviour of our policemen who maim, kill, traumatise and humiliate fellow Nigerians, as indeed he should be as a Nigerian leader and a very senior lawyer who watches as policemen, as a matter of professional habit, breach the law and violate the rights of fellow citizens.
We should all be outraged too. He gave vent to his feelings when he spoke to reporters at his official residence on October 4. He said, “I am very concerned, in fact very angry about what I see happening to young men and women who are arrested, in some cases, maimed and killed by men of the police force.”
In a reaction consistent with the tradition of eye-service, the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, immediately issued a statement stopping the dreaded men of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad, FSARS, from routine patrols the same day – as if he just learned of the outrageously criminal behaviour of his men who place themselves above the law for the first time.
In case he has forgotten, may I remind him that he had taken similar actions three times before in December 2018, January 2019, and February 2020? This time he added a slew of other police tactical squads to the ban, namely, Special Tactical Squad, Intelligence Response Team, and Anti-Cultism Squad. All in a genuine attempt to confine them to their primary duty of making the country safe for the law-abiding and unsafe for the lawless. As the Onitsha man likes to say, it is not easy.
Every IGP since our return to civil rule in 1999 had found it necessary to address police brutality and order an end to checkpoints. None of them succeeded in enforcing their own order. The checkpoints multiplied and on some federal roads, they are spaced at 200-yard intervals. These checkpoints ostensibly intended to catch criminals have become the most visible face of police corruption. Criminals saunter through them, like the camel through the eye of the needle, hailed by the policemen who man them but who turn to harass innocent motorists, some who have been killed by them at checkpoints in arguments over an amount of money as little as N5.00. Many others have been killed by policemen in what is usually described as an accidental discharge. The gun was never made to pull its own trigger. These accidental discharges are more deliberate than accidental.
Nor should we forget that policemen have been known to be complicit in criminal activities, including armed robberies. That dates all the way back to the first generation of armed robbers, as in Shola Oyenusi and Lawrence Anini. I am unable to convince myself that the steps the IGP has taken would see the emergence of a civilised and law-abiding policeman who is truly our friend. I should give it the benefit of the doubt but the fate of similar bans in the past does not give hope that this would be any different.
In August 2018, as acting president, following deafening public complaints against the SARS, Osinbajo directed the then IGP, Ibrahim Idris, I think, to overhaul SARS. He also directed the Human Rights Commission to set up a panel to investigate all cases of human rights abuse by the police. The immediate solution by Idris was to transfer the SARS from the CID and make it federal, hence FSARS.
The name changed but the attitude of the personnel remained the same. It progressively grew more outrageous. It points to an inescapable fact: the unacceptable behaviour of our policemen and women is more than the sum of individual failures and perfidy. It is a symptom of the deeper malaise and the fundamental problems that afflict the civil force. The problems are complex and complicated. Research after research has established that the Nigeria Police is the least trusted of our public institutions. It is a bad record.
The problems of the Nigerian Police cannot be solved with these occasional cosmetic laying of the cane across their back. It requires an overhaul of the system and the re-orientation of police personnel to reposition the Nigeria Police as the important and credible law enforcement institution it was meant to be. The Nigeria Police suffers from a poor image created and sustained by its personnel. The public does not trust them. People are afraid to take their problems to them because a) they do not expect to be fairly and politely treated, let alone obtain redress or justice and b) in a reversal of roles, the complainant often becomes the accused.
The mother of its institutional problems is a twin one, namely, poor training and a profoundly deficient orientation of its personnel. I grew up, aeons ago, if you insist, seeing the Idoma NA policeman armed with a baton. Despite his limited education, he was polite and respectful of the public. He did not see himself as the punitive face of the law. His colonial orientation did much to form and inform his professional character and his relationship with the public.
I need no one to tell me that things have changed. Our policemen and women do not go through anything that closely resembles the colonial orientation of the Nigeria Police anymore. Young men and women are recruited and processed through the police colleges, uniformed and armed, and sent out there to do the police work with which they have but a nodding acquaintance. This is not how it should be. No serious education, let alone an orientation that makes them respect their own uniform and the public. If a young police constable does not know how to relate to the public, he is bound to make his own rules of professional conduct. If a senior police officer believes he is above the law, those under him will assimilate the tradition.
The police as an institution are the most visible face of a government under all forms of government. It can and does give the government a bad name. Police repression is invariably taken by the public to be government repression. Their excesses and zeal are attempts to demonstrate, even against their better judgment, that the uniform obliges them to protect the government from the people. In the second republic, the Mobile Police was rightly nicknamed kill and go. They killed and they went. Wise men and women learn not to argue with the police. Not many who did live to tell the tale. Once they pin a crime on the victim, the case is closed. Dead men do not dispute lies told against them.
Our policemen and women basically see us as enemies. They also believe that we are all criminals and each of us must prove his innocence before them – unless of course, we are willing to buy our freedom. They brutalise, humiliate, maim, and kill us to make us accept our guilt. If a policeman fails to get an accused, for instance, he arrests his wife or husband or father or mother or child and holds them hostage until the alleged suspect shows up. This is not law enforcement; it is the desecration of the law and their uniform. The uniform ought not to be an instrument of intimidation, a show of power and oppression. Despite the uniform, the policeman is still just an ordinary Nigerian, for crying out loud.
Those who take their cases to police stations have harrowing stories to tell. You are told that bail is free but the tradition requires that you ‘‘drop something.’’ That starts a bargain with the DPO and in the end, you see that a free bail is an expensive bail.
All these lead to one huge challenge: the urgent need for the proper re-orientation of our policemen and women. I am not unmindful of the honest and decent policemen and women in all police formations in the country. But the bad eggs in the force outnumber the good eggs now. A few years ago, worried by its poor public image, the Nigeria Police invented the slogan: The police is your friend. The public refused to be deceived. The police cannot be our friend when its personnel is not friendly; when they brutalise us; when they afflict the law-abiding and protect the lawless; when they make us insecure. We run to our friends; we run away from our oppressors.