Nigeria needs Community- Based Police

Policemen who came to disrupt protest against Oduah

File: Policemen on duty

By Nwike (S) Ojukwu

The National Conference Committee on Devolution of Power rejected the establishment of state police and ipso facto retained the current centralized police force. Their conclusion is an example of what we get when the elites are paid handsomely to socialize, and perpetuate their interests while those of us on the fringes continue to live in delusion that they are on our side. Their position confirms a fundamental misunderstanding of the duties of the police in a democracy as well as the fact that their world is diametrically opposed to our world.

Policing is not about demonstration of strength or power. Rather, it is about community safety and service, which suggests shared responsibility between the law enforcement department and the community. If we are serious about the stabilization of the political, economic, and social relationships of individuals and groups in our multicultural, multi-religious society, it is necessary to evaluate the law enforcement dimension in the equation of building a solid nation. The current policing model that ignores the contributions of communities in policy formulations and law enforcement is unacceptable.

I am directing my inquiry to the Nigeria Police Force (NPF) for reasons that will be clearer shortly. The mention of the NPF conjures an image of an agency mired in dysfunctionality, terror, corruption, and ineptitude. My intent nonetheless is not to disparage the NPF, neither do I advocate for their continued retention in the face of their putrefied history (which is common knowledge). Rather, this is a response to what I consider an unfinished business by the National Conference Committee on Devolution of Power concerning the creation of state police. The Committee righty rejected the move for the establishment of state police. However, it did nothing to rectify the current extrajudicial use of the services of the NPF by the government and private individuals against fellow citizens. I doubt if it ever crossed their minds to look into the recurring issue of police brutality on innocent citizens because they (the elites) are the culprits.

File: Policemen on duty
File: Policemen on duty

In an earlier article published by Sahara Reporters entitled “Governor Obi’s Donation of Vehicles to the Nigerian Police Force: Great Prognosis But Wrong Prescription”, I had argued against the establishment of a state police force. I suggested a model of policing that would involve partnerships between the communities and the NPF. Since then, my position has evolved and currently, I urge for the abolishment of the NPF in its entirety. The NPF do not serve any useful utility and their continued retention is a waste of taxpayers’ money. I will root for the establishment of a community police force instead of a centralized or state police because it makes policing sense and is feasible. Besides, it will check the current abuse of power by the government or individuals who use the services of the NPF to subvert the liberty of ordinary citizens.

In an article authored by James Ubadike entitled, “Emeka Offor and Police Again”, published by Sahara Reporters, he gave us a taste of what a privatized police force feels like–how the rich and well-connected use the police as instrument of intimidation and settlement of personal scores. We cannot forget in a hurry the blatant display of power by Mr. Chris Ubah, a close ally of former President Obasanjo, a private citizen, who levied “war” to unseat former Governor Chris Ngige and held Anambra state to ransom. In Nigeria, one could literally purchase the services of the NPF and have them do one’s dirty jobs as exemplified by Emeka Offor’s “dealing” with his family. It is commonplace to see a public-paid police officer in the passenger’s seat of one of our elites drafted to provide him or her with personal security.

I agree with the Committee’s finding that state governors should not be allowed to control the police because of the potential risks involved in such an enterprise. Indeed, If our current experience with the state governors is any guide, they exercise enormous powers due in part to the immunity privileges in the constitution and neither the National Assembly nor the Attorney-General of the Federation has sought the court’s determination of the latitude of their powers. They have constituted themselves as cogs in the wheels of our democracy. They treat the local governments with condescension as if they (local governments) are the creations of state governments and not creations of the constitution, and intercept their funds without legal justification. The recent imbroglios within the governors’ forum point to an unsettling possibility that we could experience in our political history a gang up of the governors against a sitting president. With that backdrop, I would hesitate to trust that a state governor would exercise reasonable discretion in the use of a state police, not to mention that their state assemblies are scared of them. Our governors are “lunatics” who must be prevented from having access to dangerous weapons because they would use it against any and every one.

Of course, the same argument could be advanced against the use of the police by the federal government without judicial mandate. For instance, as I was about to complete this essay, my attention was drawn to a report that President Jonathan had ordered the arrest of some members of Ohaneze Youth Council in Enugu state for holding a meeting while he was on a visit to the state. It reminded me of the “battle line” between former Governor Jim Nwobodo of old Anambra state and Police Commissioner Bishop Eyitene, as well as Governor Rotimi Amaechi and Police Commissioner Mbu. The implication of President Jonathan’s order is that whenever a president is visiting, all commercial and social activities must cease. This is sheer nonsense and an unnecessary display of power. Acts like this make us a laughingstock in the committee of nations. It is counterintuitive to halt commercial activities because the president is visiting and expect the businesspersons to pay taxes to support government’s projects. Clearly, President Jonathan is chasing imaginary enemies of his reelection bid by ordering the arrest of law-abiding citizens. Such demonstration of power is overbroad and I thought that the committee needed to review it.

In particular, our experiences with the NPF regarding how the people in the corridor or association with the seat of power have successfully manipulated their services provide even stronger argument against the establishment of a state police force, and a reevaluation of the current model. These unnecessary demonstrations of power present real and live threat to our freedom as enshrined in the constitution. The interference with the rights of the citizens by the government-instigated police or private citizens acting with the connivance of a public-remunerated police without judicial authority or oversight is one of the reasons that I advocate for the establishment of the community police force. The rag tag vigilante in my community provides me with better security than the retinue of NPF in our cities that do nothing than play draughts (checkers) and extort money from vulnerable citizens under the color of authority. The Committee should have considered how to secure the citizens from the overreaching activities of a police force that is susceptible to the influence of the presidency, a state governor, as well as private persons and opt for community police

The duties of the NPF have colonial coloration. The British Consul established the first policing entity in Nigeria in 1861 as a “Consular Guard” to protect its property in Lagos. The Guard metamorphosed into the “Hausa Guard” in 1863. The Royal Niger Company (RNC) set up the “Royal Niger Constabulary” with the sole purpose of protecting the company’s interests. When the RNC transferred its administration of the country to the protectorates, the Constabulary was split. Since then we have had a model of policing that is exclusive in character and operations, with an inspector-general as the head. Our founding fathers adopted this model at independence. They merely replaced the British interest with the government and elite’s interests and left the citizens in the cold. In essence, our police force is founded on providing security to the government, the elites, and their interests. They do not have anything to do with securing our communities. This should explain the anti-people or community posture of our law enforcement. Again, it should explain why the police would readily read the “Riot Acts”, that provides for punishment for engaging in impermissible assembly, to the citizens when they suspect that the interests of the government or the “big shots” are under threat. Unfortunately, it is the same elites and the “big shots” that are supposedly discussing our future at the National Conference.

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Over the years, the way and manner the police have conducted their activities have been reviled, condemned, and rightfully so because their conduct have not been in the interest of the citizens. No one captured the public’s perception of the NPF so eloquently like Professor Sabella Abidde in his article, “The Nigerian Police Force”, published by gamji.com. He describes the NPF as “the bastion of illegality, inefficiency, and institutional decadence”, “a cathedral of debauchery”, “corrupt and easily corrupted”, “lazy and loaf around most of the time”, “live a shitty life and therefore must be shitty.” He goes on, “It is therefore not uncommon that when university students feel like venting their rage, they go in search of the police. When soldiers want people to smack around and buildings to burn they go in search of the police and police stations. When labor union wants to release some of their pent-up anger, they seek the police. Not even the politicians give a hoot about the police…”

This characterization of the police does not paint a picture of an organization that should be retained in our democracy. In fact, a police force that receives instructions from a government official or private individual without deference to the community does not have a place in a democracy because democracy by definition is the government of the people, by the people, for the people. No amount of reform can change the public’s perception of the NPF and what the public thinks about its police force is important for their effectiveness. Crime prevention or the restoration of public peace demands the enlistment of the public to report incidences of crimes and likelihood of a break-down of law and order. Every major breakthrough in solving a crime has involved the support of the public by giving the police leads. If therefore the public has lost confidence in the NPF, I will submit that they should be disbanded with immediate effect.

The function of the police force in a democracy cannot be over-emphasized; however, I am referring to a police force that is community-oriented—serves at the behest of the community, rather than a megalomaniac and deranged thug that arrived at a sudden wealth. The point I am advancing here is that a state-controlled police force is incongruous with democracy. An average Nigerian sees the police force as an instrument of intimidation, harassment, and extortion. I am yet to encounter a young person who desires to join the NPF as a career and it is disquieting. In developed countries, young persons want to join the police force or fire fighters as a way of contributing to their communities. Both agencies are referred to as the “first responders.” In Nigeria, the reverse is the case: a police uniform legitimizes extortion.

The duties of the police in an organized society includes, but not limited to, law enforcement, maintenance of public peace, mentorship, counseling, education, and protecting the vulnerable in a community. However, it is important to keep in mind that these features are the results of series of reforms from an unsatisfied, vigilant citizenry, and not the elites. Communities have a stake in policies relating to policing. Therefore, policing is a collaborative responsibility of the local police department with such organizations as the social clubs, churches or mosques, businesses, schools, and families to provide for safe and secure communities. The police officers reside and interact with their various communities and are part of those communities. As such, they have incentivizes to make their communities safer. I want to know that the woman making a case for improved schools at the local PTA meeting, or the man singing in the front pew at our local church is a police officer. It will make security sense to me to realize that the man sitting in the chair next to mine at our community’s meeting, or the young man chatting with me and enjoying a glass of beer at the local pub is a police office. I will sleep better at night knowing that my neighbor down the road or a member of our fundraising committee for the next development project in our community is a police officer.

In keeping with the goal of the protection of life and property, and maintenance of public order, the public’s input is coveted and society’s norms and values are given due consideration in the design and programs of the police. A practice where an officer from Bornu state, who does not understand Igbo language, values, or culture, is posted to a village in Anambra state is unreasonable and counterproductive. Such an officer does not have an emotional connection with the community and will not have any incentive to fight crimes in the area. A policy like this creates room for extortion and other conduct that has given the NPF despicable reputation as a duplicitous organization.

In order to achieve this important policing objective, the National Assembly could enact laws to permit communities to establish police departments with grants from the federal government. The laws should also provide minimum standards for establishing the departments. Any community that is incapable of financing the department could share the burden by collaborating with contiguous communities, and pull their resources together. The successes recorded by the vigilantes in the fight against crimes and criminals in towns and villages around the country with minimal resources should provide the incentive for such efforts.

The community’s police departments could employ civilians and volunteers to assist with taking reports and other clerical functions so that the police officers could devote their time to the job of law enforcement and maintenance of public order by patrolling the community. Local conditions should inform the kind of police force that a community could have. The present Police College will be an invaluable facility to enable communities to send their personnel for training.

The benefit of a community police is enormous, from recruitment, training, payment of salaries and directing attention to where their services are needed most. When a community establishes a police department, the personnel are answerable to the community and not to an authority or persona that is oblivious of the community’s needs. If they do not perform to the satisfaction of the community, they lose their jobs. More importantly, the ownership aspect of the organization will encourage accountability, effectiveness, and respect because it is “our own” police force rather than the present model where there is a gulf between the NPF and the communities because they (NPF) represent our oppressors.

Finally, we deserve a police force that is friendly, humane, and accessible. It is clear that no amount of reform can rehabilitate the NPF. The best we can do is to collapse them and replace them with a police force that meets our taste for policing. A corrupt police office is a danger to an ordered society because corruption is contagious. The National Conference Committee on Devolution of Power should go back to work and provide us with a community police.

Nwike (S) Ojukwu is a Doctor of Laws (Cand) The University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law.