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Our dream police

Our dream police

Tunji Adegboyega


I have always said it in this column that there is virtually nothing new under the sun concerning any topic in this country, and that the same piece written two decades ago on any topic in Nigeria can be repeated today; all that would change are the dates and perhaps the magnitude.

Let’s use the Nigeria Police Force (NPF), the institution that triggered the EndSARS revolts across the country in the better part of this month as example, starting with police recruitment and training.

In January 2013, Channels Television did an award-winning story on the police training college in Ikeja, Lagos. In that documentary, the squalor in our police colleges was vividly driven home, with about 50 trainee policemen sharing one fish head! It’s incredibility made many Nigerians think it was an exaggeration. But Channels used motion pictures to support the story, for the benefit of the doubting Thomases. Some of the trainee policemen were captured bemoaning their plight.

But, instead of the then President Goodluck Jonathan thanking the television station for a job well done, his concern was how Channels could “penetrate” the police college to dig out such mess. In other words, he was not surprised at the Channels’ finding. And if he didn’t know, that documentary should have jolted him to action. That translated to N150 per day per police trainee.

It was not only the meals that the station focused on; it also exposed the untidy halls they were accommodated, the bad toilets  in some of the colleges, which made many of them prefer doing it in the bush to using the toilets. There is a lot more to say on the documentary, but permit me to stop on the meal because that is embarrassing enough.

Most of our leaders behave like the dog that knows how to breastfeed its own but is ever ready to bite others at the slightest opportunity. Did the country’s leaders who approved N50 per meal per police trainee feel that was adequate for a child, not to talk of adults whose crime was that they wanted a job in the Nigeria Police Force? I hear policemen bribe their way all through the processes: to get uniform, to get posted to ‘juicy’ areas like checkpoints, etc. What do we expect from products of such a system?

When you give guns to people that were not trained in a manner that suggests blood flows in their veins, and you look forward to having compassion when they pass out, that would be a miracle if you get it. I said this because we still have some policemen who, in spite of all odds, try to keep their heads while several others are losing theirs. Those are the miracles in the force.

Virtually everyone, governments inclusive, agree that maintenance of peace and security is the raison d’eter of governments. Thus, countries have armed forces comprising the navy, air force and the army to combat external aggression, while the police essentially maintain internal peace alongside other para-military organisations. Much premium is placed on security because of the larger consequences for investment, among other factors, as no reasonable investor wants to invest in places that are not secure.

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Unfortunately, in spite of the importance of the police, successive Nigerian governments have largely been paying lip service to making them effective. The problems of the police have largely remained the same over the years. Although some efforts are said to have been made toward improving the lot of our policemen by the President Muhammadu Buhari administration, most of the ills associated with the police remain: officers and men of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) are still largely ill-motivated, ill-equipped, ill-funded, etc.

And, if you have ever been to police barracks and military barracks, the difference has always been clear. It is like comparing Maroko or Makoko with Ikoyi or Victoria Island, all in Lagos. The better environment in the military barracks couldn’t have been a function of the neatness of the soldiers in all the situations. The funding disparity is clear.

Even in countries where policemen are better equipped and better motivated, we still see criminal tendencies in some of their policemen and officers, as in the case of George Floyd’s ‘I can’t breathe’, in May. Perhaps the difference between those climes and ours is the fact that the system swiftly punishes such criminal acts. But here, we usually see police brutality as routine, unless there is public outcry. Even then, many of the cases are swept under the carpet as soon as the public fury goes down.

It was the urge for better life that led the Nigeria police men to go on strike on February 1, 2002, the first such ever in the country since the force was established in 1930. What the then Olusegun Obasanjo administration did was the usual military mentality: deploy soldiers to what it called sensitive places instead of addressing the issues of deplorable conditions of service and stagnation on a rank for years that the policemen went on strike over. Police affairs minister Steven Akiga said at the time: “The Federal Government wishes to state emphatically that we do not regard the action of the policemen concerned as a strike but mutiny, the implications of which are very grave.” He added that ‘’In recognition of the fact that some policemen have abandoned their duty posts, all sensitive points will be manned by the military. Similarly, all essential escort duties that need to be performed will be handled by the military.’’ The New York Times described the scenario appropriately as ‘a big gamble’. This was barely 32 months after returning to civil rule.

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I have since the Second Republic been having this feeling, rightly or wrongly, that the idea of not equipping the police and keeping them permanently demotivated since the years of military rule is probably deliberate.

Be that as it may, Musiliu Smith, the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) at the time of the police strike lost his job for allowing that to happen under his watch. But, has that changed anything? Certainly not. This is why I was not upbeat that the present IGP Mohammed Adamu, must go,  to give the impression that police reform has started in earnest, in line with the demand of the #EndSARS protesters. The president ought to have removed him before now. To the extent that he has not shows that he is still pleased with him and I guess that falls within his prerogative. The truth of the matter is that the problem is beyond the incumbent IGP and would always be beyond even his successors because the problem is systemic.

However, for a country that wants to learn from history, the police strike of 2002 and the #EndSARS protests are enough to learn from to gift us a new, improved police force. The former was initiated by policemen themselves, the ones wearing the shoes and therefore know where they pinch; and the latter by Nigerians who have been at the receiving end of SARS’ (police) brutality. There is no third experience.

Nothing I have said so far should be misconstrued to mean unqualified approval of the ills in the police force. But we need to find out why the same officers and men of the NPF do creditably well during external engagements, as against what we know them to be at home. Could it be as a result of the better motivation during such external outings? Or, could it be that the force authorities themselves deliberately push their best hands forward for external engagements?

Well, whatever we want to say about the Nigeria Police, we should not lose sight of the fact that they live among us; they are Nigerians and can therefore not be immune to what is going on in their environment. If corruption is an issue in the country, we cannot foreclose its possibility in the police force, especially in the kind of atmosphere where the policemen are nurtured. Add that to the advantage of the guns they carry and you will only be deceiving yourself to expect anything different without a paradigm shift in orientation, motivation, training, etc of the policemen.

In essence, what we are reaping by way of police brutality is what we have done or failed to do to beget a better police force. Imagine, as Nigerians down south are calling for the scrapping of SARS, some northern governors say they want the outfit. There are two takeaways from this dichotomy: first is that our policing needs are not exactly the same. And we can understand where they are coming from. As the saying goes, “ a drowning man would not mind clinging to a serpent for help”. The kind of insecurity up north is great that they don’t mind giving up some of their human rights to get secured whereas those of us down south cherish those rights and are not ready to let policemen take them away simply because they want to protect us.

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The long and short of my argument is that effective policing is beyond the ken of the Federal Government and the earlier this point is taken, the better. When policemen went on strike in 2002, funding was central to the strike. #EndSARS also came about largely because of neglect of the police which has led some of the officers and men to vent their spleen on hapless civilians that they are supposed to be protecting. The Federal Government police alone cannot ensure internal security. Many state governments at present spend billions annually to sustain the police.

What is required is a thorough overhaul of the NPF. That is a reason I agree with those who do not see the SARS’ replacement, Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT), as solution to its progenitor’s brutality. The swiftness with which it came is the usual Nigerian knee-jerk approach to solving problems. It did not show rigour or robustness of thought.

In the final analysis, just as a country gets the kind of leadership it deserves, so it gets the kind of police it deserves. But the events of the last few days since police stations were attacked in several parts of the country by those who took advantage of the #EndSARS protests have shown the place of the police in the scheme of things. They have been off the streets for only a few days and we are already clamouring for their return. Yet, we have not started to witness the consequences of the arms and ammunition that were looted from the police stations during the attacks.

But, as I have been saying in the last three weeks or so, the answer to the question of our dream police lies in the same concept: good governance that I have been advocating on this page several times in the past. So, seek ye first the good governance (encompassing state police) concept and every other thing, including an efficient and more professional police force, shall be added unto you.



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