President Goodluck Jonathan is notorious for moving at slower than the speed of a snail when called upon to address issues that rather demand alacrity. Yet, Nigerians are besieged by a terrible plague that Mr. Jonathan can—and should—address immediately. It’s the plague of the “privatized,” lawless police.

Last week, a friend telephoned me from Lagos. Alarmed by his dispirited tone, I feared that something grave had happened. He acknowledged that he was downcast. “It’s about the way that the police are now used,” he explained. “Anybody with some money or political contact can buy himself a few police officers. They then use these officers to harass people everywhere, including in traffic.”

He described how commuters in Lagos trapped in the city’s hellish gridlock are constantly beset by the blare of police sirens. “These sirens go off so frequently, and you are expected to make way for the police-led convoy. Mobile police men hang out of the doors of the blaring vehicles, brandishing guns and koboko (horsewhips). If you don’t get out of their way fast enough, they can smash your car’s windshield or beat you up. Here’s the most annoying thing: more than 90 percent of the time, they’re not escorting any government official. They’re clearing the traffic for some private individual with money or connections.”

I was quite familiar with that nightmare scene. During my last visit to Nigeria, I spent time in Lagos, Calabar, Awka, and Enugu—and I saw that ugly scene play out numerous times in each city. I came away with the impression that police officers, whose orientation ought to be the combating of crime, had been deployed to serve as mai-guard (private security guards) for the country’s well-heeled—including those who had accumulated their huge nests in illicit ways.

Indeed, one saw two classes of police officers in Nigeria. One class—those on private deployment whose job is to harass the rest of us on behalf of their wealthy “owners”—struck me as clean and well dressed, their boots shiny, a sheen to their skins. The other class—who stood in the sun worrying motorists for bribes of N20 or more per car—appeared scruffy, their uniforms dirty or torn, their boots dusty or spattered with mud when they did not wear flip flops.   

This misapplication of police power compounds the atmosphere of lawlessness in a country where might frequently usurps the place of what’s right. Each police officer in Nigeria is paid from the collective resources of all Nigerians. It is bad enough that the Nigerian police are scandal-prone, that they hardly know the first thing about solving serious crimes, that their training equips them to view Nigerians, not with any sense of civil regard, but as legitimate sport for all manner of violent impulses. To now “privatize” police officers, especially the dreaded ones called mopol (for mobile police), to lend these police officers to do the bidding of private citizens who happen to have mortgaged their senses for a haul of cash—to do this is to worsen Nigeria’s state of anarchy.

Mr. Jonathan ought to order the police to immediately stop the practice of deploying police officers on private duties. There’s a precedent for such a directive. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who was no great custodian of law and order, saw fit to instruct the police to pull officers who were seconded to non-government officials. President Jonathan should tread the same path.

Like the country’s National Electric Power Authority (NEPA)—re-baptized the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN)—the Nigerian police have an awful image. Billed as an electric power company, NEPA spent years earning a reputation for plunging Nigerians into darkness. Years before the government officially changed NEPA’s name, Nigerians had creatively refashioned the acronym, making linguistic games out of it. When in a generous mood, they rendered it as “Never Expect Power Always.” In moments of forlorn exasperation, they called NEPA “Never Expect Power At all.”

Nigerians’ most benign epithet for the police remains “Wetin you carry?” It grew out of the lazy question that police officers pose to hapless motorists they stop at ubiquitous police road blocks all over the country. These road blocks are ostensible crime-fighting devices, but any Nigerian kindergartner knows that they are, in reality, bribe-collection points.

In fact, Nigerians know that their police are allergic to fighting crime. Quite often, the police seem enamored of criminals. There are accounts of criminals who menaced their innocent victims with guns supplied by the police. Many Nigerians would say that, frequently, they can’t tell the police apart from criminals: both are so deeply, so inextricably embedded.

Nigerians know or tell some version of a joke that’s the product of despairing experiences. The kernel of the joke goes like this. A horde of armed robbers descends on a neighborhood, shooting sporadically into the air whilst going from apartment to apartment to haul away cash and valuables. A distressed victim makes a frantic telephone call to a nearby police station, breathlessly describes the harrowing event, and asks that police officers be sent to combat the robbers.

“Is that right?” says the police officer at the other end, his tone calm and manner unhurried. The officer sucks his teeth, as if he’d just worked through a heavy meal of spicy goat meat escorted by two large bottles of Guinness. “We fit come now now, only say vehicle no dey. If you can fit to bring car, we go follow you there quick quick!”

In some countries, the point is made that the police are the citizens’ best friends. Suggest that to Nigerians, and you’d provoke guffaws. The Nigerian police are nobody’s friends. Some Nigerians would say their police are friends only of criminals. The Nigerian police offer little or no help to law abiding citizens. Some Nigerians would contend that ruthless criminals receive plenty of help from the police.

There’s—to cite one example—the case of Lotachukwu (Lota) Ezeudu, a 19-year-old accountancy student at the University of Nigeria who has never been seen since he was kidnapped on September 26, 2009. The main suspects in his abduction include Sam Chukwu, a divisional police officer (DPO), and Desmond Chinwuba, a sacked police officer who was standing trial in an earlier armed robbery. Both men have been on the run for several years. Some believe that Mr. Chukwu was the mastermind, that he ran a criminal ring whose nefarious menu included assassinations, armed robbery, and kidnapping. Among those in custody are Ernest Okeke, fired alongside Mr. Chinwuba, and Nnaemeka Chukwu, the DPO’s son.

Rogue officers like the fugitive Sam Chukwu further taint the already unflattering image of Nigeria’s police. They are one reason some took to calling the country’s law enforcement agency the Nigerian Police Farce.

Nigeria’s police are trapped in a crisis that demands long-term remedies, addressing in a fundamental way how police officers are trained, equipped and paid. For now, however, President Jonathan has a duty to spare Nigerians from some of the excesses of the police. He should order that no police officer should be seen working “private” shifts for Nigeria’s deep pockets.   

 

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