Can the Nigeria Police Force truly be reformed?

Promise Eze
By Promise Eze

Nigerian journalist and Liberalist Centre fellow.

Posted on Tuesday, 25 October 2022 10:57

A protestor reacts as she holds a placard as Nigerians mark the one-year anniversary of the EndSARS anti-police brutality protest in Abuja, Nigeria October 20, 2021. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

In Nigeria, the police can get you arrested for flimsy reasons. You could be locked behind bars for crimes, such as moving about alone at night, being found with a laptop in your possession, and using an iPhone – which according to rogue police officers could mean that you’re an internet fraudster.

On most occasions, it simply means the person ‘who had been caught’ had refused to grease the palm of a police officer. Bottom line is you could be thrown in jail for years without trial and/or access to lawyers or family members. An even worse scenario is you could be shot dead at the spot of arrest.

The Nigeria Police Force is infamous for all manners of human rights abuses, including brutality. This was highlighted in a 2016 report by Amnesty International, which chronicled how the now disbanded Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a special branch of the Nigeria police that was created to fight crimes, handled detainees in a manner that violated human dignity. The report claimed that many detainees were subjected to physical abuse: they were brutally beaten, hanged, starved, shot in the legs and threatened with execution.

The Nigeria Police Force, however, faulted and rejected the report, labelling it “a clear misrepresentation of facts”.

In Nigeria you blame God for just anything

It’s not unusual for Nigerian government agencies to not own up to their failures and misdeeds.

For instance, Nigeria is currently going through one of its worst flooding incidents since 2012. Rather than accept responsibility for the non-completion of works at a proposed dam, which would reduce the effects of flooding caused by released water from another dam in Cameroon, the government instead accused God of being responsible for the carnage.

In 2017, during the meningitis outbreak, then Zamfara State Governor Alhaji Abdulaziz Yari declared that ‘fornication’ was the reason God was punishing Nigeria with the disease. Yari did not see the connection between poor government funding, mismanagement, corruption, etc., and the health sector. He did not see that these factors were unhelpful in the fight against the outbreak.

Not just brutality

Should Nigeria police reform stop at only ending brutality? There are many other areas that need to be reformed.

The Nigeria Police Force is heavily underfunded: police officers are not entitled to leave allowance and even their meagre salaries are not paid on time; police officers work in poor, unfit conditions; they live in dilapidated and poorly maintained barracks; the police force is heavily under-staffed... I could go on.

With these kinds of conditions how can officers from the force function optimally?

These factors, coupled with impunity and a lack of accountability and transparency, have indeed made the police one of the most hated and ineffective institutions in Nigeria.

The average police officer considers himself above the law. He who is meant to be enforcing the law partakes in breaking the law. On your part, you dare not tell an officer to obey the traffic law. By doing so, you may just as well be signing your death warrant.

The police are semi-gods to the poor of whom they are supposed to protect, and at the same time puppets in the hands of politicians and wealthy individuals. In Nigeria today, police and politics have become dangerously intertwined. Police officers are being used to keep the lofty dreams and grand lifestyle of politicians alive.

Police officers are also victims

However, police officers are not just perpetrators of violence, they too are victims. In September this year, gunmen attacked the convoy of a senator in Anambra state killing at least six police officers.

In 2021, credible reports disclosed that about 964 officers of the Nigeria Police Force were gruesomely murdered in combatant attacks within one year in what appeared to be a festival of bloodletting.

This year, about 138 policemen have been killed in the last eight months across the country.

#EndSars

There have been several calls urging the government to reform the entire police system.

In October 2020, Nigerian youth angered by persistent police brutality took to the streets in Lagos calling for an absolute reform in the police service and the disbandment of SARS. They also called for improved welfare for police officers. The protest powered by Nigerian youths would later be known locally and internationally as the #EndSARS protests.

The #EndSARS movement subsequently rocked major cities and gained global attention. In response to the series of protests, the Nigerian Police Force announced that it had taken the decision to disband the unit with immediate effect. That move was widely seen as a triumph of the demonstrations. However, many took the announcement with a pinch of salt because similar announcements had been made, simply as an attempt to pacify the public without any action being taken in fact.

His [Ibrahim K. Idris] words ‘remained in the cloud’

Over the past three decades, the Nigerian government has repeatedly vowed to reform the police force that is mired in corruption and brutality. These problems have sadly persisted or exacerbated.

In 2017, after a petition signed by 10,195 people was submitted to Nigeria’s National Assembly calling for a total disbandment of SARS, the Inspector General of Nigeria Police Force, Ibrahim K. Idris ordered the reform and reorganisation of SARS, but his words ‘remained in the cloud’ as nothing really happened.

Nothing changed

The same year 2017, President Buhari signed into law the Anti-Torture Act, which criminalised torture. Even so, to date, not a single police officer has been charged under that Act despite widespread reports of misdeeds by overzealous officers.

In 2018, Nigerian Vice President Yemi Osinbajo made similar calls, but yet again, nothing changed. Dissatisfaction and protests are bound to continue.

Lekki massacre

Remarkably, what should have been a threshold of victory for the millions of young Nigerians desperately yearning for a positive change in their country became a nightmare.

On the night of 20 October 2020, members of the Nigerian Army allegedly opened fire on dozens of unarmed #EndSARS protesters at the Lekki toll gate in Lagos State. 11 people were reported to have been killed and dozens were injured, and many are said to be still missing.

The government denied the killings and the protests died naturally.

#EndSARS ended SARS, but not police brutality

Despite promises of ending police brutality and improving police welfare by the concerned authorities, innocent people are still harassed, arrested, imprisoned and killed without trial. Police officers are still under-paid, and nothing is getting any better.

Recently, a solidarity walk was held at the Lekki tollgate in Lagos. The procession was to mark the second memorial of the Lekki shooting that took place at the tollgate and to honour those who had lost their lives to police and military brutality.

Protesters displayed coffins (not to bury the dead), but as a symbol that their dreams and aspirations had been buried. Just hours later, in reminiscence of the past, police swooped down and shot tear gas on the protesters. Some were arrested. A few were manhandled.

Another record of police brutality for historians to tell.

It is always during and after such tragic incidents that Nigerians ask: Would the Nigeria Police Force ever be reformed to become a bastion of protecting the public, protecting dignity, and protecting the sanctity of life? Would it ever happen in this life or in the world to come?

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