I once heard on a radio program that the motto of the Nigerian Police Force is “to serve and protect”. That is, to serve and protect Nigerians. I have always known that, at least, in theory, the Nigerian Police Force has lofty and laudable objectives.

However, it was the first time I heard them stated so succinctly; I was impressed. By every index, the Nigerian Police Force has derailed from these original ideals. And no single factor dramatizes this derailment and the overall failure of the Nigerian police as vividly as the police roadblocks. In the interest of the Nigerian police and the good of the country, these road blocks should be dismantled.

 The setting up of roadblocks by the police was conceived as a crime fighting strategy, but lamentably, over the years, the roadblocks degenerated into menacing enters of aggravation, intimidation, extortion, viciousness and brutality. On a trip from Lagos to Onitsha in November, 2009, I counted 47 police checkpoints. From Onitsha to the Anambara State capital, Awka, a distance of about 20 miles, there are at least 11 police check points. Despite this excessive number of police check points, the crime rate throughout the country remains terrifyingly high. Evidently, the roadblocks have proved ineffective in combating crime.

As of that November, they were, as usual, hubs of police corruption and cruelty. In December, 2009, around Christmas time, their number had increased. It was excessive; and I lost count. This time, the police changed their modus operandi. Instead of playing their regular role of victimizing motorists and squeezing money from them, they constituted themselves into a huge army of beggars. They were out in force, and were just begging from motorists. With so many roadblocks manned by countless police men who stopped every vehicle and asked for money from the occupants, the traffic jam was staggering; it stretched for miles. And, after being held up for a long time, and finally inching your way to the policemen at the check point, they generally said, “Oga, happy Christmas. Your men dey for road. Do you have anything for us”?

Is that parlance significantly different from that of the average beggar on the street? No, it is not. With the hardship that pervades this country, and with so many trapped in desperate, primitive poverty, mendicancy remains an obvious aspect of the Nigerian reality. But the average beggar lacks police powers and does not personify the powers of the government. He cannot mount a roadblock and stop motorists, and consequently, cannot alter the traffic pattern or impede the flow of traffic. He can only adapt his mendicancy to the existing traffic pattern, and as such, constitutes less of a public nuisance and less a source of irritation than panhandling police man and women. Secondly, the beggar is not and cannot pretend to be the sentinel of the people. And he is not, by any stretch of the imagination, expected to be a model of professional discipline and self-restraint.  

On the other hand, begging by policeman constituted a monumental nuisance. It disrupted traffic flow, holding motorists for hours, and causing a journey that would normally have taken 6 hours to stretch for 12 hours.  Secondly, a policeman embodies the force of the law and the powers of the government. He is supposedly the sentinel of the public good and a model of professionalism, self-discipline and chivalry. For thousands of men and women selected, trained, uniformed, decked out in insignia and ranks, armed, buoyed by the power of the federal government and hallowed by the law of the land to throng the streets and highways and plead for money from motorists is totally outrageous, disgusting, despicable – just downright nauseating.

It conspicuously reflects the attitude and approach of the police leadership to their work. Instead of seeing in their work the opportunity to serve and protect the Nigerian public, they discern in it the opportunity to victimize and exploit them. It exposes the shamelessness of the Nigerian police hierarchy, especially, the Inspector General of the Police (IGP). It exposes the moral and ethical collapse of the Nigerian power elite. No wonder, Nigeria, in some international precincts, is considered a failed state.

As we heap blames and hurl invectives on the policemen that stall the traffic and wrestle money from motorists, falsify charges against the innocent and detain them illegally, shoot and kill innocent people, connive with armed robbers, flee from armed robbers to reappear after the robbery, etc., we forget that these policemen are behaving in line with the dictates of their higher ups. The police could not have blocked the highways and byways pleading for alms without the direction of the Divisional Police Officers (DPO), the consent of the State Commissioners of Police and the acquiesces of the Inspector General of the Police. Like the military, the police have a pyramidal power structure. It is a power structure that does not countenance autonomous or semi-autonomous centers of power within its ranks. So, the corruption and brutality of the policemen and women we encounter routinely derive from the mind-sets and methods of the police leadership, especially the Inspector General of Police.

The roadblock has failed as a crime fighting strategy. Do not kidnappers drive their captives through these police road blocks? Do not armed robbers transport themselves, their weapons, and sometimes, their stolen goods through these road blocks? It failed because it was, in the first place, an ill-conceived crime combating strategy and secondly, it became a money making machine for the police. The primary objective of those manning the roadblocks shifted from crime prevention to doing the bidding of the DPOs and the police chain of command, which is to shake down motorists and make returns.

Effective crime prevention strategy demands police presence. A presence determined by the police routinely driving, riding (in motor cycles and bicycles) and walking (walking the beat) through the streets, alleys and corners of the communities and neighborhoods. In so doing, they closely observe and monitor the nook and crannies of the neighborhoods. In this way policemen operating from any given police office discern criminal elements, detect suspicions movements, questionable characters, and places of illicit activities within its precincts. The increased police presence (which can be a major deterrent to crime) within the communities will also make the police readily available to those who need them.

The police road blocks have not only proved cesspools of police supplicating antics, falsehood, viciousness and extortion, but of police violence, brutality and irresponsibility. The police have repeatedly shot and killed innocent persons, especially, commercial drivers who refuse to pay the police bribe, at these checkpoints. In addition, they have caused serious accidents that resulted to the loss of lives of so many at these checkpoints. Trailers unable to readily stop at the check points have on occasions rolled over vehicles held up at the checkpoints; crushing the vehicles and their occupants. Petrol filled tankers trying to stop or avoid the police have been involved in accidents that cause the spillage of petrol and the consequent fire outbreaks engulfed surrounding vehicles, their occupants and anything and everyone in proximity. 

Previous IGP mouthed their oppositions to these roadblocks and had on many instances denounced them as illegal and ordered that they be dismantled; but they remain. They have remained because they are money making engines for the Nigerian Police Force. All segments of the Nigerian Police Force benefit financially from their continued existence. Please, Inspector General Ringim, prove to the long suffering Nigerian masses that you are here to serve them and not to fleece them for your own self enrichment. A superb proof will be the removing of these roadblocks. 

Tochukwu Ezukanma writes from Lagos, Nigeria.

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