‘Nigerians have been victims of serial betrayal from successive governments’
Innocent Chukwuma is a globally renowned advocate for human rights and good governance. He is the Director, Ford Foundation (West Africa) where he is working towards ensuring that people have equal access to economic and social opportunities. In this interview with IJEOMA THOMAS-ODIA, Chukwuma, who holds a Master’s degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Leicester, shares his concerns on the on-going #EndSARS protests across the country, pointing out the flaws in the Nigeria Police Force and the reforms that need to be implemented.
The country has been witnessing widespread protests against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). What is your take on the development?
It validates the provision in the preamble of the universal declaration of human rights, which states that ‘it is essential if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law’ If you are living in a society where the citizens are held down under draconian law or state agencies engage in violations just as the special anti-robbery squad has been reported to have done across the country; it was only a matter of time for what we are seeing today happen. So, in that case, we are not surprised that it is happening; the only surprise will be that it took this long for Nigerian people, especially youngsters who have been major victims of the fraudulent policing strategy that members of SARS have engaged in over the years, to take to the streets.
The protests are mostly in the Southern parts of the country. In fact, in a place like Maiduguri in the far North, there was a pro-SARS protest. Where would you locate this divergence of opinions about the police squad?
Well, I wouldn’t say it is localised in the South alone because Abuja where protest is also holding is not in the South. However, what we need to know or remind ourselves is that abuse of human rights by law enforcement agencies takes different shapes and approaches depending on the part of the country where you are.
In Maiduguri as you have mentioned, I am aware that for years running now, young men who dressed in a particular way – wearing caftan and beards – were targeted at some point in the security intervention in that state. The people in that region also protested when this was happening and the rest of us in other parts of the country were oblivious of this. The same can be said of the Southeast; for years now, young people in the region tagged members of the Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB) have been victims of violations of human rights, including extrajudicial killings, detention without trial, and enforced disappearance.
If you remember in 2013, some people woke up to see bodies floating in Ezu River, which is at the boundary between Enugu and Anambra States in the Southeast, which led to a protest by people in that part of the country. People were not happy about it and made recommendations about where those bodies were coming from with a view to bringing the perpetrators to trial.
So, what has happened is that the Nigerian state agencies have perfected ways of dividing the country in such a way that if one part is grieving about a particular violation, the rest of the country moves on. This dates back to the civil war when the entire Eastern region was engulfed in a civil war and they were playing football league in the rest of the country. The Nigerian league never stopped during the civil war; people were going to the stadium to watch football every weekend. Meanwhile, millions of people were dying in the East. So, it is the old divide and rule strategy or using strangers for policing strangers that has perpetrated this perception that when issues like this arise, it is only one part of the country that is affected and the rest feel unconcerned or organise counter-protests as we have witnessed.
If you look through who the counter-protesters are, you would find out they are those who have been compromised. They are what you call conflict entrepreneurs; they look at a situation and make a living out of it. The violations of human rights, patterns and prevalence of it are widespread across the country, just that it manifests in different ways in different parts of the country.
How would you react to the reported attack on anti-SARS protesters in some states that resulted in the loss of many lives?
Yes, that was surprising and also not surprising. Not surprising because the response of security agencies when Nigerians are on the streets due to the strategy of public order policing that we have in Nigeria is what we call escalated force. The security agents want to show they can quell the protest and often threaten the protesters. Whereas, in a democratic society, you will expect a strategy we call negotiated management where they engage the protesters with a view to understanding their grievances and providing a route for them to express themselves and exercise their rights to protest in such a way that it would not impact on the rights of others. That is why I say I am not surprised.
However, I am also surprised because these violations are happening at a time when the Inspector General of Police (IGP) and the Federal Government have agreed to the demands of the protesters and have recognised the rights of the Nigerian people to protest. So, that these violations are happening calls to question the position of the government and the police that they have welcomed the demands of the protesters. Although another way of looking at this would be that police officers who are involved in these attacks are rogue elements who have no clearance from the police leadership.
Do you see any nexus between police brutality, which is at the root of the protests, and the said poor welfare of the operatives?
Yes, there is a link. However, before I dwell on that, the fact that there are challenges the police are facing are not by themselves a justification for the violation of human rights. Under the international human rights law and even the Nigerian law, abuse of human rights is widely condemned and hardly can be excused under the pretense of not being adequately catered for. So, if people’s rights have been violated, those who are involved need to answer for it.
However, if we are looking at the root causes, we can see that we have a police force that is severely and almost criminally under-resourced in every facet of their work. Their recruitment process is not adequate to prepare them for the enormity of responsibility society imposes on them on graduation. And after being recruited, the kind of environment and working condition cannot produce the best, and many of us who condemn them cannot function in the kind of working environment available to them.
Whether it is the kind of makeshift offices they have or in their homes, the barracks where they are kept as if they are animals, these can only conduce to a certain behaviour which is animalistic.
Also, for a unit like SARS, lack of funding and other resources for criminal investigation to crack down crime are there. Violent crime is on the rise these days and there is societal pressure to deliver without corresponding equipment or preparations for these officers to deliver on these expectations. So, what they do is that if cases are reported to them, if the complainant has no money to fund investigation, it is as good as dead on arrival. However, if the complainant has the money and point at a suspect, the operatives without any investigation, because there is no funding, will only pour their brutality and anger on that citizen. You see this on display on the roads when they encounter people who turn up in flashy cars and they feel pained that they cannot afford the lifestyle of these young people even after spending many years in the Police Force. This predisposes them to all sorts of reactions that often give rise to violence. But as I said earlier, all these do not mean they should violate human rights. To be a member of the Police Force is a special calling.
It is almost like a priest in religious circles, where you are expected to display better judgment than the people ministering to. You are expected to almost be superhuman, turn out the best of conduct and realise that the profession you belong to requires a higher level of discipline than the average person on the street. So, if you betrayall of these to violate human rights, you have no excuse.
Some security experts have warned that the dissolution of SARS would result in heightened crime across the country. Do you entertain such fears?
That is often the claim in police circles that they are the guardian who is standing between the good and the bad guys and so if they relax on their job for a second, crime will increase. I call that police fetishism. The ideological mindset in police organizations that without them society will fall apart. And that is not the truth. Before modern police came into being, which started in England and Wales in 1829, traditional societies have had ways of preserving law and order, preventing and detecting crime without a formal police agency.
So, the problem people have is conflating the term policing with the organisation, the Police.
Policing as an activity has been there from time immemorial. In Igbo land where I come from, people in age-grade took turns to police their communities in the form of communal guards. That will still go on even if the Nigeria Police Force stops. So, it should be separated from the police as an institution, which is a recent thing.
Invariably, as SARS is disbanded, it does not necessarily mean that crime will hit the rooftop because from the informal social control mechanism we have in our towns to security agencies who are still there and other units and departments in the Police Force that are not disbanded; I can’t see why robbery will increase unless it is orchestrated to make a point.
You have extensively researched police affairs in this country. Where do you think the rain started beating us with respect to the present failures of the Nigeria Police Force?
This is something that has been there for a long time, so tracing it dates back to 1960 when we had our independence. The expectation was that all agencies government used to oppress the people during the colonial era would be retrained to understand that they are now serving a democratic society and are expected to treat citizens in a cordial manner and act as servants of the people. But that did not happen.
So, what we inherited, not just in Nigeria but other African countries that experienced colonialism, was an adaptation of the colonial government style of policing, which was more of an occupation force.
So, as early as 1962, if you look at the literature on political conflict in Southern Nigeria especially the Southwest, the police were used in a partisan manner to deal ruthlessly with the opposition elements. In the North too where you had native authority police side by side with the NPF, they were all used in a partisan manner against perceived enemies, same in the South and also in East. This, however, continued during military rule. So, what happened is that the police that were supposed to be an agency of government became a participant in government to the extent that police officers were appointed military administrators; many were appointed ministers and given senior positions in government. In fact, they were members of the Armed Forces Ruling Council, which is equivalent to the national parliament that formulated decrees that they are supposed to enforce. So, they gave themselves extensive power without recourse to citizens to address human rights because the military government had absolute contempt for the rule of law. This festered throughout military rule and has continued up to the present day under a supposedly elected civilian government.
They have not gone through any fundamental transformation to make them understand that policing in a democracy is different from policing in a military rule or colonial era. It was only on September 16, last month, that the president signed the reviewed Police Act that was enacted in 1943.
So, for 77 years we have used the same colonially enacted act. What do you expect to happen?
I hope that this new act, which encompasses the welfare of the police, rights to citizens, and punishment for police offenders, would bring efficiency, transparency, accountability, and partnership with the community they serve if properly enforced.
The Federal Government has accepted all the demands of the protesters and committed to police reforms but there are still concerns regarding the implementation given past experiences. How do you think the government can proceed this time around to achieve successful reforms?
The citizens of this county have been victims of serial betrayal from successive governments. Someone tweeted that between 2017 and 2020, there have been four pronouncements on the disbandment of SARS and they are still there.
So, despite the fact that the government issued a notice on the ban of SARS and agreed to the five-point demand of the protesters, it will take a lot of convincing for young people to fully agree that this time they can have trust in the government. At the stakeholders meeting, I attended to announce the disbandment, it was agreed that members of SARS need psychological evaluations, so we want to see the commencement of that exercise. Although I am aware that they have been asked to converge, I am also interested in knowing whether they were provided transport.
Another is to set up a panel of inquiry on violations of citizens’ rights that officers found culpable will be brought to book as it was done in 2005 in Abuja where traders were killed and relatives of victims were compensated.
Also, the protesters seek an end to police brutality and improving accountability in the force. Constantly engaging them and reassuring them, which we are beginning to see leaders do across the country is necessary. Over time, the crowd will begin to thin. Also, if their issues are not attended to, protests like this can take a life of its own and widen its goal. So, if care is not taken it will be extended beyond the police as an institution to bad governance in this country.
Do you think the creation of state police is part of the reforms the government should vigorously pursue at this time?
It was not provided for in the new Act, so it will not be possible to implement. And going by the period of time the present Act took to be enacted, it won’t happen in the nearest future. However, getting the police to partner with communities does not require the creation of state police. On decentralisation, the Police Act provides that the minister of police affairs in consultation with the IGP can come up with regulations about the organisation and administration of the police. So, what it means is that they can decide through policy that too many decisions do not have to begin and end in Abuja alone, and with that, the average police officer on the street/local level/area command would feel sufficiently empowered to engage their community members and find solutions to common crimes. It doesn’t have to escalate to Abuja for something to be done.
In all of these, funding is germane. How can Nigeria achieve proper funding of the police?
It is one of the interesting parts of the 2020 NPF Establishment Act. It provides for a police fund where all the budgetary allocation at the national level and complementary contributions from the state, local government, and private individuals who want to improve the police can be deposited. You also have the Police Trust Fund, which is another mechanism for raising resources. So, what we want now is to ensure that all the loopholes are plugged and that the that the National Assembly makes appropriation for the Police and that extra-budgetary allocations that come from the state governments captured so that we can know how much actually goes into policing. It might well be at the end of the day that more than adequate funding comes in, but the loopholes gave rise to non-accountability. Most important is to ensure that police budget is disbursed to all the units of operation of the force and not just Abuja.
How can the police purge itself of alleged corruption and indiscipline and restore its integrity before Nigerians and the global community?
This can happen at two levels. First, full centralisation and capturing of police funding in the budget is a major issue. Before now, police leaders collect money from the state, local governments, and individuals they do not account for, which is a major source of police corruption. With the centralisation of funding, those leakages will be curbed.
Another is strengthening all accountability mechanisms in the force, both internal and external, to ensure that they function optimally to capture officers who abuse power.
We also need to strengthen the office of the Auditor General of Nigeria, because the Act talks about auditing the force to ensure that money coming in is adequately accounted for and utilised.
From SARS to SWAT, what difference would you like to see going forward?
I was a bit taken aback by the way it was speedily announced. One had expected the police leadership to take a little time to study what went wrong with SARS and I thought that a panel of inquiry would have been very revealing even where they did well because I don’t think they were totally bad even as there are quite a number of areas that needed to be corrected. So, an institution with such a report would ask itself what kind of mechanism should be put in place to avoid a repeat and what kind of resources do they need to ensure that they do not go back to the ways of SARS. But the haste raises more concerns about SWAT going the way of SARS in the nearest future.
What is your take on the Lekki Tollgate shooting and destruction of properties across the country?
The crackdown on Lekki protesters by the military was uncalled for, callous, criminal, and needs to be investigated with a view to bringing the perpetrators to justice. The security forces cannot say the protesters at tollgate were violent or unruly. They were seen waving Nigerian flags and singing the Nigerian national anthem, only for people who were paid to protect them to resort to shooting, maiming, and killing some of them. The destruction of property and looting are condemnable and hereby condemned. However, it’s on record that prior to the shooting at Lekki tollgate the protests had gone reasonably peaceful and disciplined across the country. Security forces should learn to use negotiated management strategy in dealing with public order policing issues rather than recurrent resort to escalated force, which often worsens the situation and easily turns an otherwise peaceful protest into violent encounters, deaths, and destruction of properties.
What is your message to Nigerians, particularly the protesters, now that the government has heeded their calls and announced some steps towards reforming the force?
The right to protest is fundamental and expected in a democratic setting. But in exercising that right, we do not need to conduct ourselves in a way that jeopardises or stands in the way of the rights of other citizens to the extent that we hear of blocking of roads such that people who are in serious need of getting to their destinations such as children, women and elderly people are trapped on the road for hours. They need to re-think, in order not to lose the public support they are gaining.
The next is for the police and government to acknowledge the rights of the protesters to protest by ensuring that they are not brutalised, arrested, and detained, or shot as we have read.
Also, stakeholder should have constant meetings with leaders of the protesters to better understand their grievances and inform them about steps that the government is taking to reassure them. This will build the necessary trust and confidence to see through the reform because some of them will take time to achieve.
Finally, the government at all levels should know that the Nigerian youths have woken up. They have reached that point where their backs have touched the ground. We see them beat their chests and dare the police and they can’t be threatened with intimidation and violence again.