By Ayo Olukotun
Sometimes when donations are lacking, the police turn to suspects and those who come to them to report crimes to get funding for their operations – Saturday Punch, Special feature, 13 February 2016.
The opening quote draws attention to the shocking state of the Nigeria Police. The degradation of the country’s pre-eminent security institution into a hand to mouth existence has been copiously documented, discussed and analysed. Police decay, which mirrors the enfeeblement of state institutions in Nigeria has been the subject of several official inquires and presidential commissions. Typifying a pattern of a flurry of activities and enquiries without progress in the period since 1999, the nation has accumulated a library of commissioned reports, which have had negligible impact on an institution travelling constantly downhill.
In 2005, former President Olusegun Obasanjo inaugurated a Presidential Committee on Police Reform, headed by Dan Madami. Three years later, Late President Umaru Ya’Adua empanelled another presidential committee on police reform headed by a Former Inspector General of Police, M.D. Yusuf. Not to be outdone, Former President Goodluck Jonathan in 2012, set up yet another committee for the same assignment under the leadership of Parry Osayande, a retired Deputy Inspector-General of Police. Apart from these lengthy reports, there was the well-publicised Civil Society Panel on Police Reform, which came up with several recommendations for restructuring the force.
It will be interesting to find out why government does not implement the reports of commissions expensively set up by it. This puzzle raises the question of the extent to which motions of governance, such as probes, reform panels and the like, have become substitutes for governmental action that genuinely addresses structural and contingent problems.
What is clear is that while the official evasions and sophisticated procrastinations go on, the problems go from bad to worse, redefining state institutions as comatose and picturesquely inefficient. For example, several surveys by Afro barometer in recent years suggest that the Nigerian police come behind such African countries as Benin, Zambia, Tanzania Lesotho, Malawi, among others, on perceptions of capacity and the ability to carry out assigned functions.
In one recent survey, two of the questions asked are, ‘How easy is it to obtain help from the police?’ and ‘How likely is it that the police and the courts will enforce the law in respect of powerful people?’ Predictably, our policemen have consistently scored low on these important indices of legitimacy and capability.
Statistics do not tell the whole story. In response to my article, ‘Police and Handcuffs of Penury’ (The Punch, 19 July 2013), a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, Mr. Femi Falana, painted the following chilling picture of the police: “Tables, chairs, television sets in police stations are exhibits seized from suspects. To carry out an investigation into criminal offence, complainants and suspects are asked to pay. In most cases, reports of investigations are skewed in favour of the highest bidders. Every police station sends letters of appeal for financial assistance to rich people in the society including well known criminals”. It is significant that this depressing picture painted by Falana has not changed. In some respects, it has become worse in the three intervening years, since he wrote. For example, the recent special feature in Saturday punch illustrates that despite a slight markup in budgetary allocation to the police, the institution substantially depends on donations, usually not accounted for, from corporate organisations, as well as just about anyone, including criminals who can offer succour.
To be sure, the police, in spite of its derelict condition, occasionally rises heroically to thwart or beat back criminals. A recent instance is the impressive outing of the police in Osogbo when it responded speedily to a bank robbery, killing four robbers and arresting four others, in a well-organised initiative. Although two policemen and two bank officials lost their lives during the counter-attack, several people, including the Osun State governor have given kudos to the police for its gallantry. Despite occasional successes at foiling increasingly sophisticated criminal organisations, it remains a sad truth that these successes are few and far between. They are certainly not enough to match much less outpace the surge of violent crime.
One of the reasons for returning to the subject of the rot in the Nigeria Police is that the Buhari administration has committed itself officially to an anti-corruption programme. It is far from clear, however, whether it has given adequate thought to the issue of substantial reform of an undermanned, under-equipped and obviously corrupt institution, whose rank and file exist at the borders of decency. In this connection, it should be made clear, that merely parading high profile suspects, or titillating the public with humungous amounts allegedly stolen by a section of the political class is not the same thing as fighting corruption. Indeed, were the police to have been up and running, with appointments to the position of the Inspector-General, less politicised, we would have made major advances in tackling corruption at source, rather than merely treating its symptoms or seeking to reap political dividends by cultivating the image of a reformist sheriff.
There is hardly any greater indictment of police capacity than the proliferation of private security agencies and militias around the country. Usually, and however lofty the rhetoric of providing the dividends of democracy becomes, citizens have learnt to vote with their feet. Just as parents who can afford it are unwilling to consign their children to a dysfunctional educational system, companies and citizens who can pick up the bill make private security arrangements outside degenerate institutions of security. The question to be asked however is: What happens to those who are unable to afford private security arrangements? This is the question which successive governments, including the current one are yet to answer.
The other burning issue, which has been fingered in successive human rights reports, domestic and international, concerns the routine violation of individual rights by the police. Hardly a day passes, without the newspapers reporting fresh cases of police brutality to the citizens which they are meant to protect. Whether this comes in the form of the so-called accidental discharge or as outright brutalisation of persons, who refuse to give bribes, especially at checkpoints, or of violence, melted out in the course of domestic disputes, these cases have become ubiquitous.
To be sure, these abuses are not limited to Nigeria. And they occur in the advanced democracies, especially the United States where assaults on Black Americans in recent times have been widely publicised. The difference between Nigeria and these other countries is the sheer number and routine nature of these abuses in our country.
What then is to be done? We certainly do not need to set up another presidential commission on police reform; all we need to do is dust up key recommendations from earlier commissions and find the political will to implement them. The goal of any such reform should be to come up with a capable and well-resourced police force that is citizen friendly, decentralised vertically and horizontally and is willing to emphasise intelligence, crime prevention, ‘beat’ specialisation and community policing.
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