The utility of the Nigeria Police Force has, again, been questioned since the increasing presence of “Fulani herdsmen” marauders in the country. Any Nigerian child with a fair level of social-awareness can tell you one or two negative things about the police. The Nigeria Police Force is considered the primary symbol of corruption, administrative inefficiency and state brutality in Nigeria. Bribery is considered as the official language of the uniform; investigative procedures are often dismissed as unreliable; and it is not unusual for armed gangs to claim police patronage.
In fairness, the average police officer is no better than an armed slave. Officers spend their hours in inhospitable physical and psychological working environments. Their welfare package is practically non-existent. Their sacrifices are ignored while their failures are magnified. There are no street monuments to officers who died in the line of duty. There are no national awards to the policemen who eradicated violent robber gangs. The average policeman is paid in “gunpower”, and not in welfare. It is unsurprising that they are quick to turn this gunpower against the citizens.
In short, the government treats the police shabbily, and the people treat them with hostility. The efficiency of the police as an organisation and its relationship as a public service inspires pessimism. It seems that the manageable level of security in some parts of Nigeria has been in spite of the inefficiencies of the police, and not because of its presence. It is a scenario that requires so many fixes that it has reached the point of near-abandonment.
Nevertheless, the current administration is keen on employing up to 10,000 new police officers to, figuratively, arrest the situation. But there is more to reform than mass recruitment. The inefficiency of the police is not just a deficiency in numbers. Instead, it is rooted in the historical form and ideology of the policing system. The police have not quite departed from their original philosophical template.
The form and composition of the police today reflects its historical origins. The Royal Niger Company (and later the British) created the first native policing teams. This policing team had the primary responsibility of protecting the officers of the Royal Niger Company (and, later, the colonial government) from hostile natives. The role of the police was not to serve the needs of the native communities—that would have been absurd—but to “pacify” them by maintaining some sort of peace.
Early native police teams were generally recruited from alienated members of the African communities. It was natural that these folks would wield colonial-invested power against their “oppressors”. It was also usual for the British (in typical divide-and-rule fashion) to import recruits from a different ethnicity to “pacify” the natives of an offending tribe. It was easy for these first police personnel to oppress the early Nigerians because they often had no stake in the community they policed. The police served the British government, not the Nigerian communities. And, when the nationalists took over from the British, the police served the new rulers, not the people.
Today, the authority that was once derived from the might of the British Empire is now derived from the might of the Federal Government. Over the decades, succeeding administrations have maintained this idea that the Nigerian police works for the Nigerian government. It protects government against the Nigerian citizenry. When policemen guard private citizens, carry bags for politicians or clean their shoes, they are merely executing this traditional arrangement.
Yet, policing ought to be, first, a communal issue. A national police force (if necessary) should only be a scaled-up version of a basic community–level police. In Nigeria, the opposite is the case. The average police officer is physically and emotionally alienated from the community they patrol. This causation, of course, loops into its own consequence. And so, a measure of social ostracism automatically follows a decision to join the Nigeria police Force.
It is, thus, unsurprising that bits and pieces of what ought to be policing services have been “usurped” by other public and private entities. Vigilance groups and neighbourhood watches handle basic community policing. State traffic agencies have been more effective at traffic management. The Federal Road Safety Corps supervises highway safety. The Economic and Financial Crimes Commission handles economic and financial crimes. The Department of State Services handles intelligence gathering. The military — ordinarily meant for foreign aggression — also handles domestic aggression including: election monitoring; vehicular checkpoints; and suppressing civilian protests and demonstrations. And still, the Nigerian Security and Civil Defence Corps deals with public vandalism, protection of public installations and the licensing of private guards.
It seems the Nigeria Police does not actually provide any “proper” policing service to the Nigerian masses. It seems that their only monopoly is the investigation and prosecution of violent and proprietary crimes. Otherwise, as a public service, the Police, other than being the visible presence of government intimidation, have been relegated to the role of security guards, drivers and personal assistants of government functionaries and other high net-worth individuals. This, of course, ties into Nigeria’s patronage system.
Therefore, it is not surprising that the national government does not invest much in an organisation whose real services—the physical intimidation of the populace—doesn’t require much expenditure.
And so the solutions are glaring. The entire police structure has to be scrapped and rebuilt. Community police should be the foundation of the policing template. This should be funded by direct household taxes and voluntary contributions from the communities they protect. They should work directly under local councils. State and national police departments may then complement local activities. But this type of reform requires a shift in the autocratic mentality that has been a staple of successive Federal Governments. Otherwise, the police as constituted today will never function fine — no matter how many new Inspector-Generals are appointed or how many new recruits are admitted.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
Follow @ayosogunro on twitter for more engagement, buy his books, and—if you really like stimulating, if sometimes annoying thoughts on socio-legal philosophy—enter your email in the right sidebar to get notifications of fresh talk on this fine blog.