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Dividends of democracy for the Police

By Owei Lakemfa
A CHANCE  meeting with a South African police officer and continuous complaints I get from some of our policemen raises for me the question: Can we rely on the police to defend our democracy while neglecting them?

Bonny Marekwa, the light complexioned lady I met is a captain in the South African Police. Of course I did not know she is a police officer until introductions were made. It was at a trade union meeting. In Nigeria when the police is present at a meeting of trade unionists it is to render security services not to be part of the meeting. Naturally, I was interested.

While I have been one of those who over the years have made a case for the unionisation of our policemen and women and cited countries like South Africa, India and Britain, I had never met a  police officer who is a full time trade unionist.

Marekwa is the Second Vice President of the 145,000 strong Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) which is affiliated to the Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU). For the full time unionists like her, there is an agreement with the government that they can return to full time police duties whenever they so desire.

She told me the brutality of the apartheid police made some of them to form the union. The police was expected to shoot anti- apartheid activists and demonstrators without question or hesitation. So in 1989, some police officers founded the union which was recognised in 1993, five years before the collapse of the evil system. When the union goes to rallies and marches they neither wear the police uniform nor carry firearms; rather they put on their union T-shirts.

Theoretically, all unions in South Africa can go on strike, but there is a labour law barring essential services like the police from going on strike. The police union has a Bargaining Chamber through which negotiations are carried out and agreements reached. Where there are disagreements, arbitration is entered until a resolution is reached.

The union negotiates pension, housing, medical and other allowances for the police. Marekwa thinks that the South African policeman is satisfied that the union would handle any grieviance. “The Union has worked very well for us and we and the police  must provide services to the community rather than resort to militarist tactics. On the other hand, communities work freely with us to catch criminals”.

I compared this with the loads of complaints by our own police officers who are obviously frustrated and quite often visit their frustration on other citizens. One of the messages I received recently reads: “Let the Senate and Reps take a tour of a few barracks  and see how a majority of police officers are sleeping; some on soak-away. A good example is Bayelsa State.

Many of these officers are on a permanent rank for five to eight years on a meagre salary of N25,000 with which the officer is expected to feed his wife, pay school fees, pay house rent and medical bills. At times when a policeman is transferred, it is his problem to know where to get money to pack his load  and his family to wherever he is transferred to no matter the distance from his original posting.

Sir, how do the senators and the Reps that cannot do without police escort  neglect the Force and expect miracle from an officer  that is not well paid, with no promotion. Check out the rate policemen are killed daily by armed robbers and you will know we are supposed to be taken care of”.

A big difference between the Nigerian policeman and his South African counterpart is that while the former has no means of channelling his grievances through his elected representative, the latter has a union to do so. What we do in Nigeria is pretend that the problem does not exist. For instance why should a policeman work for at least 12  hours daily and we expect to get the best out of  him? A poorly remunerated policeman who is given a gun and put in the hot sun for over half a day to mount a road block cannot but be a dangerous person; he is tired, irritated and angry.

He is aggressive and is likely to reach for his gun at the slightest  provocation. If a police officer has to spend part of his  salary to solve a crime, he is likely to let the crime pass or employ a short cut. This is why torture and “confessions” are the primary means of crime solving rather than investigations.

My argument is not that policemen are generally saints. No! I have known some of them that are basically criminals. Rather, I believe that our view of the police, its funding, the welfare of policemen and the way they are equipped to fight crime will determine the type of police we have. I think a basic step is to allow our policemen and women to unionise so that there can be a legal body that would represent their interests and negotiate good conditions of service for them.

The fear that  a unionised police would lead to strikes is, as the South African police union has demonstrated,  completely misplaced. In any case, when a few years ago, the police embarked on a series of strikes, did they have a union?

If all the dividends of democracy that can accrue to the police presently is to be allowed under Section 40 of the Constitution to unionise, then we should let them. It is better than letting them organise in the dark with no identifiable leaders to negotiate with.


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