#EndSARS protests: Time for unionized police service, By Issa Aremu



“Trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism”. – Pope Francis

As SARS protests spread across the country, there is the need to upscale the narrative on national policing. It is understandable that the current protests reflect the  serial historic and contemporary atrocities of some men in uniforms. But the country needs a holistic bird view of the crisis of policing for an enduring police reform.

It is inspiring that the Presidential Panel on Police Reforms agreed to the 5-point demand of protesters against police brutality, namely halting the use of force against protesters and unconditional release of arrested citizens, justice for the victims of police brutality, including payment of compensation, and the psychological evaluation of policemen, including increasing their salaries. The last of the five points of agreement: (the welfare of the police men and women) is of special importance because even the protesters have agreed that police men and women operate under conditions that would make them less than friendly with the best of sanctions for brutalities.

The recognition of the precarious conditions the police operate by the protesters even as they legitimately decried brutalities of the notorious defunct hated Special Anti-Robbery Squad (Sars), is the main take away of the current historic youth uproar.

The point cannot be understated that policemen and women are workers in uniforms employed to protect all under the constitution. It would be recalled that in 2002, under the administration of President Olusegun Obasanjo, the country’s police forces went on strike over a dispute over wages and unpaid benefits. The Nigerian government had to deploy the army to take up duties normally carried out by police officers. That singular police strike caused major disruptions across Nigeria which forced banks in Lagos and other cities closed due to concerns over security.

The appreciation that those who must protect us must also be protected first against want must not be lost on police authorities in particular and governments at all levels in general. Who then speaks for the police as workers and professional security workforce? It was time Police men and women were allowed to improve their conditions of work through free and independent associations and unions instead of the present regimented arrangement in which police unleashed pent of frustrations against the people they are paid to protect.

So far every body speaks for the police, often against them ( due to the brutalities of the few in their ranks) but the police who do the work and wear the shoes can tell their stories better through free associations or trade unions. There’s a consensus of opinions that police men and women face precarious working conditions which include, poor remuneration, forced postings, poor and lack of training among others. The first move to decolonize and reform the police is to allow the ranks freedom of associations as contained in 1999 constitution (with a provision that they cannot go on strike, but they can channel their grievance through collective bargaining) as it is case in democratic countries like South Africa, United Kingdom and United States of America (USA). And that would be in line with the best global policing practices. There are almost one million Police men and women in America. 75-80% of them are organized in trade unions. In South Africa, all service men are members of the South African Policing Union (SAPU) established in November 1993 with workers in Correctional services as members. The beauty of unionized police is that the union can hold members accountable better and isolate bag guys wrecking the profession.

Conversely if the union does not live to expectations, the public can engage the union than agonizing with dispersed individual police men and women. Recently the activists in the move­ment for Black Lives Matter in the US, shifted focus from the atrocities of individual criminal police officers to organizations with most pow­er­ful influ­ences in law enforce­ment such as police unions. So the Orga­niz­ers protest­ed at the offices of two of the nation’s largest police unions recently. Unions are of benefit to member- workers and society at large. It’s time Nigeria considered the British and South African models of allowing police to have a union with a provision that they would not go on strike because they are essential services but they have the right to bring their grievances to the open without the currant coercion .

Certainly police men and women need a platform to articulate their concerns about the jobs and their welfare. There are abundant data about list of police brutalities. But what of the police men and women who have fallen casualties due to the activities of the criminals? Only policemen and women can speak for themselves in a free association regulated by essential services law.

It is commendable the notorious Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) had been disbanded by Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, indicating a sensitivity to the mass protests against the excesses of the outfit. It’s time for the police authorities to push aggressively community policing. Police may  find out later that the communities that desire peace and security would be worthy allies of the police even in advocating for better working conditions for the police service. Any state exists primarily for the security of its people. Is it just the protection of lives and property or more importantly ensuring the socio economic well being of the people inclusive of men and women in uniforms? Scores of state – based institutions abound in Nigeria specifically charged with the responsibility for the protection of life and property. They include the police, state security service agencies, military, civil defence agency, immigration, and prison services. Nigeria already passes for a garrison/police state. No thanks, to the current enormous physical security challenges which undoubtedly make the tasks of these agencies desirable. What with cyber crimes, insurgency,, kidnappings, murders, arms proliferation, political violence, robberies, “religious” crises, high profile corruption,, smuggling and general economic crimes? But as desirable as these institutions are, they are incapable of addressing the more critical dimension of security which is the worsening welfare of the Nigerian people.

It is time we looked outside the physical security box. We must broaden our perspective on national security to include job and income security, social and economic security for the greatest number of Nigerians. With 50 percent open youth unemployment, massive factory closures and 60 per cent gross under employment ( road-side hawkers of God-knows what!) I bear witness that Nigeria remains the most “peaceful” country in the world. Many thanks to Nigeria Federal police force for maintaining the peace of the grave yard. Tunisian revolution was triggered by an unemployed youth, revolution which in turn swept the ancient Mubarak regime in Egypt and Gadaffi regime in Libya. Yet the unemployment rate then in Tunisia was just 14 per cent! Economic and social security of the critical mass is as significant as the lives and property of the few. It’s time for national campaign for a developmentalist state which once ensured almost full employment and youth cooperation for development.. Many factors explain the current vulnerability of youths to protest, , the notable one is unemployment. Policing in a democratic society should be part of the developmentalist state that minimizes physical insecurity through creative engagement of its citizens particularly in value adding activities like industry and agriculture and not crime.. Lastly, I urge the protesting youths to diversify their strategy from the streets to negotiating table, falling which the message would lost and they would lose public sympathy.

Issa Aremu mni

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