In the early morning of Wednesday, March 20, 2019, a senior officer of the National Security and Civil Defence Corps, NSCDC, was allegedly beaten to death by police officers in Nyanya, Abuja. His offence was that he made an illegal u-turn in his haste to drop his children at school. The pleadings for mercy by his wife could not dissuade the callous police officers from snuffing out life from the ‘offending’ NSCDC officer. One would think the early morning rush on a weekday is a time to let go of petty traffic offences, in the interest of free flow of traffic. One would also think that the presence of children and the fact of their pleading on behalf of their father would have struck a sympathetic nerve somewhere. Apparently, when dealing with policemen in Nyanya, one would be wrong.
The incident narrated above reminds one of the dark days of the military era, when men were whipped silly in the presence of their families. In those days, the definition of dignity was qualified, and khaki was the symbol of supreme authority in every facet of life. Today, policemen that would not have been fit to eat at the same table with the khaki-clad ‘gods’ of those days have become a law unto themselves.
Anyone trying to wrap their mind around the incident in Nyanya should save themselves the stress. There is no understanding what would have driven the policemen to such outrage. However, what we do understand, as Nigerians, is that there is a serious failure of leadership in the police, one that has endured for many years, under many police chiefs and presidents.
If this was a one off incident, one would be inclined to accept it as an unfortunate mistake. But it is not. First, there is that irritating inter-agency rivalry between Nigeria’s security agencies that is on display quite frequently. It has led to violent clashes between the Police and NSCDC men, in particular, several times in the past. Even in the last elections, there were rumours of clashes between soldiers and policemen, in the course of trying to outdo each other in the questionable activities that went on during the elections. One cannot clearly say that this was a factor in the unfortunate incident on that fateful Wednesday, but we surely cannot put it past our mostly dishonorable men in black, who have become a terror to the people they are sworn to protect.
Secondly, police brutality is something Nigerians deal with on a daily basis, and there are numerous examples. At the end of January, a video circulated on line showing policemen in Benin dragging an unarmed man in the street before shooting him to death at point blank range. On Thursday, March 28, a motorcyclist was reportedly shot dead in similar circumstances by police officers in Kilo, Surulere in Lagos state, when the cyclist allegedly refused to part with N200 bribe during police “stop and search” operation in the area. Just this last Sunday, a 36 year old man was also reportedly killed by a police bullet in Mangoro area of Lagos, while at a football viewing center. The police had allegedly shot recklessly in a busy neighbourhood while attempting to arrest a totally different person.
Everyday, we hear another case of police brutality, with people getting abducted, beaten, robbed and killed for sometimes maddening reasons. Last year, when Nigerians were apparently fed up with the free reign of terror of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, otherwise known as SARS, there was nationwide clamour for the dissolution of the notorious police unit. In response, Ibrahim Idris kpotun, the controversial Inspector General of Police at the time, announced a series of ineffective reshuffles and a ‘federalisation’ of the unit which was reflected in a new name – Federal-SARS or F-SARS. The measure was cynical, as the Vice-president’s directive that forced that lame reorganization was largely ignored. Still dressed like common thieves and thugs, SARS or F-SARS are still operating like they have a license to kill anybody at anytime.
One explanation for the dearth of leadership in the police force is the politicization of promotions and appointments at the top hierarchy. The office of the Inspector General of Police, IGP, for instance, is the most insecure post in all uniformed services in the country. IGPs come and go frequently, usually leading to frequent, mass, compulsory retirement of senior police officers, either to create way for a political appointment or to clear the way for a new appointee to perform his true (political) assignment in the top police job. The effect on the leadership structure is telling, such that the top officers can’t really get a grip of the force before being shuffled away into retirement. It also leads to the likelihood of insubordination.
Like the SARS men have proven, where the personnel are rotten at heart, no change of name or declaration of new uniforms or other such cosmetic measures can lead to any real change in police attitudes, in their engagement with the public or in the performance of their core duty to protect the populace. Even though there are fine officers amidst the crop of misfits that wear the uniform, they seem to be widely outnumbered and their impact is seldom felt by the common man on the street. The locations of the extra-judicial killings by the police cited above are instructive, and it is replicated all over the country. It stresses the point that the best officers are either guarding VIPS or working beats in highbrow areas, where they know how to be careful and cautious in their dealings with the public. As such, there is a design to this ‘madness’.
The present IGP, Mohammed Adamu, seems like one of the better officers that have taken up the post. Adamu’s credentials speak for themselves, having spent a long time working with Interpol where he rose to become Vice-President (Africa). Such a highly decorated officer being placed in charge of a mixed pot of good officers and misfits, coupled with the ever present politics, raises one’s curiosity. One hopes that he realizes the task before him and is able to rise to the challenge. In the mean time, as the news shows, the trigger happy and unruly officers are still at it, and a stellar career as a police officer will not stop Adamu being bombarded by frustrated Nigerians if there is no noticeable change to the terror that has become the Nigeria Police.
One suggestion, especially for the leadership of the police, is to have fixed tenures for IGPs, along with some extra level of decoupling of the powers of that office from executive control. Given the top cop free reign and security of tenure will afford dedicated officers the time and freedom to audit all units and squads and determine their efficiency and usefulness in the wider functions of the police. It will also help the chain of command and bring stability that will slowly trickle down the chain and force accountability on the boots on ground in the streets, who are the face of the police as far as the people are concerned.
Right now, there is too much speculative reshuffling and reorganization within the police, and it is not resonating with the poorly trained men at the bottom of the pile, who mostly think about how to profit from the authority their riffle commands. The orientation of the least ranking officers towards the public is still ‘obey without complain’. The reality is that people will complain, especially with the reputation of the police, and these men have no training to deal with that situation. Because they are poorly trained, they can’t take initiative, even when they are being used to carry out atrocious acts. It is a shame, one that Nigerians do not have to die for.
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