Zulum and extortionists in death valley
It was a refreshing but temporary sigh of relief from the crass impunity gradually enveloping many parts of the country when the Governor of Borno State Babangana Zulum came out, the other day, to reprimand security operatives extorting money from travellers near the Borno State’s capital.
Reports had it that the governor caught some soldiers and policemen extorting money from travellers on the Maiduguri-Damaturu highway under the guise of some unclear security checks. It was gathered that travellers were forced to part with N1000 each if they did not provide the national identity card. The governor, who was on his way to a village just smarting from terrorist attacks, found thousands of stranded passengers, forced to be in that state by a heavy gridlock from roadblocks. The commuters were allegedly being extorted by security operatives. This is saddening as it is sadistic.
Although a senior military officer who spoke on behalf of the security operatives had adduced a different reason for the painful gridlock on the highway, comments from witnesses and victims of extortion suggested that extortion of money from travellers was a major event there. While Nigerians would not want to believe that the governor acted the way he did because he was also commuting on that road and as such trapped in the gridlock, the visibly angry governor should be commended for his timely, hands-on intervention.
We believe it is sad and insensitive that weak, disadvantaged Nigerians were further emasculated by security operatives who ought to protect them. There is no justification whatsoever for anyone to subject traumatized travellers to the undignified treatment meted out to them by the security operatives. Perhaps the security operatives were themselves weary victims of an unending war with insurgents, or frustrated auxiliaries of a disorganised security structure, and were only acting out reactions from displaced aggression. Whatever the case may be, it still did not permit the criminal extortion carried out in the name of national security.
Several issues are thrown up by this ugly event. First, without undermining the constitutional duties of the military to protect the territorial integrity of the Nigerian state, it is clear that the indiscriminate involvement of soldiers in civil affairs is a development that exposes them to the dangerous influences of everyday civilian life. Granted that security checks should be carried out to ascertain whether travellers have their national identity cards, is it the Nigerian military that should be saddled with the task of carrying out such surveillance checks? If soldiers assume the duties of mounting roadblocks on the highway and demanding national identity cards from travellers, what then is the job of the officers of the Nigeria Immigration Service and the Police?
It is such ad-hoc duties and assignments that often bring the military to ridicule and unwarranted reprimands. To uphold the respect and honour, which the military institution deserves, soldiers should be confined to their constitutional responsibility. They should be withdrawn from national assignments that are constitutionally reserved for the police, namely internal security.
Second, this scenario calls for special attention to be given to the police. Rather than being condemned to relegation, the police should be given more muscle to handle internal security. As this newspaper has often highlighted, the primary step to diligent and effective policing is the recruitment process. Quality candidates with sound mental and moral character, a high sense of responsibility and respect for dignity of persons should be considered as requisite candidates for the police service. Besides, proper motivation and adequate equipping and periodic training should be intensified.
Third, the prompt response of the governor is worthy of emulation. Apart from being a genuine demonstration of authority, it is also a strong message that puts impunity in abeyance. Elected officers and public officials should see in Zulum’s action a quality of leadership from which they can draw inspiration. Nigerian governors ought to take charge of their constituency with every sense of responsibility and commitment it requires. Without being unduly confrontational to other authorities, they should endeavour to safeguard the people, through whose choice and trust political office holders were elected in the positions they occupy. In this way, they build confidence in the people and earn their trust. Accountability is not only about judicious and transparent management of resources, it also entails being liable for the state of those placed in our charge: how they fare, what befalls them and the predicament they are thrown into.
To guard against future occurrence, authorities of both the Nigerian Army and the Nigerian Police should give a stern warning to their officers in far-flung locations or elsewhere to treat people with the dignity they deserve. Nigerians are very much aware of the growing state of lawlessness and impunity in the country. Undoubtedly, when those who should protect the law are themselves the greatest culprit in lawlessness, a strong signal is being transmitted to the general populace that respect for constituted authorities does not matter. If powerful public officials could trample on law and public morality, what moral right do they have to reprimand others who do the same thing? What seemed to have played out on the Maiduguri-Damaturu highway was the expression of cascading lawlessness and impunity that plays out every day in our social and political life.