The Nigerian Police Force: Up the Creek without a Paddle, By Osmund Agbo

There is no worse time than now to be a police officer in Nigeria. With the wave of quotidian insurrections visited on the officers and men especially in the southeast and south-south regions of the country, the Force could officially be counted among the endangered species of this world. Police officers today have been granted permission to show up to duty in street clothes, acting more like secret agents in the shadowy world of espionage. Once upon a time, it used to be that the mere presence of an officer in uniform was in and of itself considered a deterrent to crime. How things have changed and the hunters have now become the hunted.

Though many in our communities are terrified to death about the prospect of what is to come when the Force is completely decimated, a good number of people see the attacks as a case of sowing the wind and reaping the whirlwind.

In my last opinion piece titled: “Insecurity in the Southeast: Between Scylla and Charybdis”, published in Premium Times of May 7, 2021, I attempted to explain the reason why Nigerians especially those from the southeast and south-south geo-political zones see the police more like an occupation force. Why they perceive the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) as a tribal establishment whose stock-in-trade is to extort money from innocent citizens while providing cover for armed bandits and killer herdsmen. A good percentage of the public are highly distrustful of officers and do not believe they are genuinely committed to fighting crime. Maybe a little history might be helpful here.

The initial effort in colonial Nigeria to establish a police force was by a crown representative known simply as Consul Foote. He wanted a consular guard started in Lagos but the request was turned down by her Majesty’s government for economic reason. It was not until April 1861 that the then acting governor of the Lagos colony, McCaskey established a constabulary of 30 men which became the origin of modern policing in Nigeria.

The personnel of the McCaskey’s constabulary however, were mainly freed Hausa slaves from Sierra Leone. This was intentional since the British figured that deploying armed Hausa Police in a predominantly Yoruba city, would send the message of coercion to the conquered territory. In order words, the colonialist used the police as a tool to bully the people into submission. Unfortunately since independence and even after the Nigerian-Biafran war, this has become the favored model adopted by successive Nigerian governments, civilian or military. Even as I write this piece, of all the five state commissioners of police in southeast Nigeria, none is Igbo.

The practice of policing using outsiders has never been successful even in other climes. Part of the reason behind the constant tension between the police and black America arises from the fact that black communities are mostly policed by white officers who in many cases, have little or no interest in the growth and well being of the communities they are meant to serve.

In an inquiry following the fatal shooting of Michael brown Jr, an 18-year old Blackman in Ferguson, Missouri by a white police office, Darren Wilson, the U.S Justice Department found racially discriminatory practices that severely undermined public trust. These practices, the report revealed were not instituted for public safety, but as a way to generate revenue.

Nigeria in paper is a republic consisting of individual federating units. In practice however, what obtains is a highly centralized system where the Force reports directly to the President. The Governors though constitutionally the Chief Security Officer of their States, have no control over the police. The case of a General without an army. The current arrangement has the hands of the governors tied and unable to tackle crime while the federal Government of Nigeria is busy manipulating the activities of the Force for its gains.

The 1999 Constitution contains 68 Items under the Exclusive Legislative List. Unlike the Concurrent list where powers are shared jointly between the federal and state governments, only Abuja can legislate on the subjects in the exclusive list. Interference by the state in matters in that list is therefore viewed as unconstitutional and could be declared null and void. Listed as number 45 in the exclusive list is “Police and other government security services established by law.”

On Thursday, 17th September 2020, President Buhari signed what was called a harmonized Nigeria Police Force Establishment Bill into law. The goal it stated, was to rejig the erstwhile Police Act of 2004, in order to make the force more efficient, effective, accountable and transparent. It also emphasized on building a partnership between the police and the communities it serves. As laudable as that sounds, the truth is that the 2020 Police bill is simply more of the same. It’s like the current “built on quicksand” constitutional effort to amend the deeply flawed 1999 constitution. The police house does not need a make-over; it needs to be completely re-built.

Though Nigeria’s democracy is modeled after the American presidential system, there is no national police force in America. Policing is organized at the local and state levels. There are the city police that deal with schools and traffics. Others are the county police, transport police, sheriffs’ departments, state police, also called state troopers etc.

State policing in a federation permits to a large extent regional self-rule. For a state police officer, it’s easy to connect with the community with whom they serve. Being that he is likely from the area, he will share things in common such as language and culture, making it easy to earn public trust which is vital to creating an ecosystem where the citizens become willing partners in fighting crime. A cop that was born and raised in one community is likely to show more interest and commitment in the growth and well being of that community.

Early last year, former Deputy Senate President, Ike Ekweremadu introduced the State Police Bill for consideration on the floor of the eighth Senate. Details of the proposed legislation sought to restructure the existing federal police and at same time allow an independent state police in which the governors would be empowered to appoint commissioners of police in their respective states. The senate voted in favor of the bill which even passed a second reading.

Granted that one is neither a lawyer nor a policy wonk, it does appear that some of the provisions of the Bill are a tad complicated and may not have convincingly addressed the current issues plaguing the Force. For example, it advocated multiple policing under the control of both the states and federal government. Although one may point to America as one country where such multiple systems are implemented, we also have to observe that in that system, policing is entirely a function of the states and local governments and not under the control of the United States government. It’s doubtful that our democracy has evolved to the point of successfully dealing with all the legal entanglements that might come with operating multiple police forces. This is a country where everyone waltzes around with over-sized ego and a tendency to usurp every authority there is.

Another area of concern is the proposed role of the National Police Service Commission. The bill has this to say:

“Supervising the activities of the Federal Police and State Police to the extent provided for in this constitution or by an Act of the National Assembly.”

Such provision would work against the autonomy required of a state force, thereby ceding control once again to the federal government which is the bane of the current arrangement.

Even with the aforementioned concerns however, the Ekweremadu Bill has at least provided the skeletal framework for further discussion on this very important matter. One key area that the Bill focused on is how to prevent abuse of the force by the governors which was the reason General Yakubu Gowon’s government gave for centralizing the police force and why the native police force ceased to exist in Nigeria since February 1968.

With all the clamoring for devolution of power to the state, there is a palpable fear that his Excellencies would abuse their power and convert the police under their command to a private army for use in intimidating political opponents. In fact, many state governors through their past and present actions have demonstrated a tendency to gravitate towards autocracy and despotism, with total disregard to the rule of law.

A THISDAY investigation published in January 2020, revealed that as many as 12 states of the federation were still running local government administration without elected officials despite a Supreme Court judgment which about four years earlier expressly forbade them from doing so. While states like Borno and Yobe cited insurgency in the northeast as the reason for not conducting an election, what reason does Ekiti/Oyo in the southwest and Enugu/Anambra in the southeast has? Truth is the governors are using appointed council chairmen as illegal conduits to siphon off monies allocated to LGAs or as an avenue to settle loyal party men.

In another related development, just last month, the Parliamentary Staff Association of Nigeria (PASAN) threatened an industrial action due to the failure of most of the 36 states state governments to implement financial autonomy for its legislative arm. This is coming a little over two years since it was approved by President Buhari. That is an executive overreach that threatens the functioning of a co-equal branch of government. How can our democracy work well when the state legislators have to go cap-in-hand begging the governors for fund. But that’s the arrangement preferable to his Excellencies steeped deep in prebendal politics.

Truth is, nothing works in Nigeria not because of inadequate legislation, but because the laws exist only in the breach. One can argue that all the ills that bedeviled local and regional policing in the first republic obtains in the current centralized arrangement, if not worse. There are way too many vested interests, daily working overtime to game the system. Our statute books are full of lofty checks and balances that exist only in paper.

No doubt, there is no silver bullet that could deliver the lethal shot on the hydra-headed monsters of pervasive corruption ravaging the Nigerian society.  In the face of the mounting security challenges and the threat to men and women of the NPF however, an individual state-controlled policing option is an idea whose time has come.

Dr. Agbo, a Public Affairs analyst is the coordinator of African Center for Transparency and Convener of Save Nigeria Project. Email: [email protected]