Two years after young Nigerians protested against police high-handedness across the country, there hasn’t been a significant change. All the authorities did was simply rename the rogue unit and reshuffle other police units with the same rogue operatives, basically spitting in the faces of young Nigerians, living and deceased, who demanded an end to police brutality in all forms.
Two years on, Nigerians are still subjected to the ugly experiences they protested against. They are still intimidated and extorted on highways and deserted areas, with many getting unjustly arrested and detained. At the risk of being victims of extra-judicial killings, or left to rot in prison, these everyday victims have to part with their life savings to regain their freedom.
In Lagos for example, both uniformed and plain-clothes policemen drive around in unmarked mini buses packing young boys in them. This crime racket ends up fetching the policemen hundreds of thousands of naira daily, a loot from brutality and extortion.
CSP James Nwafor, one of the infamous officers fingered in the Awkuzu SARS debacle is still a free man being protected by the Force despite evidence of his many unspeakable crimes. The same applies to other corrupt and criminally-minded officers who still walk freely till this day, many of whom have been rewarded with promotions, probably as a reward for the money they bring in daily from their rackets, to their superiors.
The rot in Nigeria's police system has eaten so deep that it almost seems impossible to be weeded out. There have been occasions where some officers, in their usual unprofessional manner, flag down random cars with young people and ask if they need escorts. If they accept the offer, the police officers will accompany them in the vehicle to any location they are headed. Their presence would deter other police officers at different checkpoints, legal and illegal, from harassing them.
All of these posturings, of course, come at a price. Other times, police officers profile cars, especially if they are driven by young people, and take turns to stop them at different checkpoints without any reasonable suspicion, with the intention to extort, harass, and intimidate them. Consequently, many young people are scared to go out with their cars. Many are even scared to go out at all because a lot of young Nigerians have sore experiences of being forcefully asked to alight from public vehicles for the purpose of being searched and harassed. It almost appears as if dressing attractively is a crime, hence, many young people would rather take a bolt or uber ride to get to their destinations. This trajectory does not bode well for the country, and instead of this abysmal behaviour being discouraged by the top brass in the police force, it appears that it is being edged on. Instances abound where police top brass release statements in media spaces like Twitter instead of giving out those instructions and orders to their men on the ground. Those at the top level always feign ignorance to the behaviour of their officers while releasing statements.
It becomes confusing when a Police PRO insists that Nigerians should not pay for bail because bail is free, but the reality in police stations across the country tells a different story. Top police officials insist that citizens, especially young people, who face the greatest forms of intimidation from the police, should not allow themselves to be extorted by the police officers at checkpoints or in the streets, but they have done very little to stop such incidents from happening. It is a given that every day, one is at the risk of losing one’s entire savings at gunpoint to trigger-happy policemen whose favourite words are, “I will shoot you here, and nothing will happen”.
Funnily enough, several police officers on social media appear to have left the job of policing for social media influencing, all in a bid to appear like they engage citizens, but they really do not. Recently, a top police spokesperson made a statement on Twitter suggesting that police officers have the right to assault people in the guise of doing their duties. In his words, “Even if a policeman on uniform slaps a civilian, the civilian has no right to retaliate, moreso if he’s on uniform, it's an act of disrespect to Nigeria," and added that, “So it's not a case of what the policeman did that led to it, but the reaction of the civilians who actually assaulted the police.” This sort of statement is part of the reasons why the mentality of our forcemen will never change, at least not when they are being encouraged by their bosses in Abuja.
Interestingly, this explains why the police shield their officers from scrutiny. Though, to be fair, a few of their erring officers have been dekitted and dismissed from the force, at least, this is what they tell the public. But the fraction is very unconvincing and literally does nothing to assuage the plight of the victims of their high-handedness.
There has not been a time, at least in the public space, where the force charged erring officers. They simply get dekitted and no one knows what follows afterwards. It is appalling that most times when cases of police abuse garner social media attention, the police come out to say they have taken the officers into custody and would commence an orderly room trial. Even so, weeks and months later, the news dies down and the case dies a natural death. Intrinsically, the reason is that new cases of police brutality are reported almost daily, and so, new cases tend to overshadow previously reported ones.
The Nigerian police need to set their priorities right and pick a side. Either serve the people, whom the constitution charges them to protect or a few select elites. Currently, their bias in the manner they approach complaints proves that they accord the elites more importance than ordinary citizens. A case in point is the number of officers attached to different VIPs leaving only a tiny fraction available to protect the lives and properties of the masses. Only recently, a top police PRO publicly referred to the Minister of Information as his boss in a post on a social media platform. This is only an example from the many whose committment is to the ‘big’ men in the society rather than the average citizen.
At the risk of sounding dismissive of the success and professionalism of the Nigeria Police Force, it is imperative to note that there are still officers who conduct themselves in a manner befitting a model policeman. There are few good eggs who put in the work to clean up the mess of the bad eggs. But the problem is that these people make up a lesser percentage.
For years, there have been calls for a comprehensive overhaul of the Nigeria Police Force. This goes beyond merely renaming force units and interchanging officers. There has to be a wholesome approach to rid the system of unprofessionalism and rascality. The force exists as an institution of service to the people, to protect and preserve lives and properties. Therefore, in a show of good faith to the citizenry, the Nigeria Police Force has to henceforth, publicly name and shame erring officers when they are dismissed.
In furtherance, such officers should be prosecuted to serve as a deterrent to other policemen who may intend to follow in their footsteps.
Should the Nigerian police discontinue the culture of shielding their men from scrutiny, then there will be interesting times ahead for the police force. Nigerians have lost faith in them and until they prove themselves to be professional and incorrupt, by weeding out the ones tainted with bringing extortion, harassment and extra-judicial killings to justice, nothing will change.
Onyishi is an analyst at SBM Intelligence