By Obi Nwakanma
Imagine yourself on a Nigerian highway, say the interstate stretch between Enugu and Onitsha. The hazards are many, including uneven corrugations and potholes or craters formed from the culture of neglect of public utilities.
The neglect has been linked to many things including corruption in the Public Works Directorate of the Ministries of Work, or even the sheer incompetence of its engineering and technical personnel. And so you’re driving in the night in the unlit highway, and you feel yourself in trepidation, as you maneuver through the highway, avoiding the deathly craters.
All the while, your mind is in another danger: the danger of the police stops. At every ten-mile of what ought to be a free highway, there is a police roadstop. They stop vehicles, ask for something as ordinary as your driver’s license, or conduct searches on your car or your person, and in the most extreme of occasions, bark at you with insolence, “park ya car!” and ignore you until you beg. Of course, you do not beg with empty hands. You name a price. If the price is agreeable, the police let you go. If it is not they ignore you, and in worse case scenarios, abduct you and dump you in a police cell. You may be forgotten there. Soon, you may be charged with a false crime. And soon, if nobody comes for you, and you’re unable to send out a message for bail, a police bail that does not go into any records, you may end up in the cyclic labyrinth of the police cell system that is wicked, lawless, and inhumane. That is how an inability to pay a bribe might simply make you disappear or perhaps lead you to execution if you’re unlucky.
This is but one example of what has happened to the Nigerian police system. Nigerians stopped trusting the police. This lack of trust led to disillusion. But above all is that it made it clear that the police are not accountable. It is not accountable because it lacked local oversight grounding. It lacked local oversight grounding because the police Act makes it a federal undertaking.
Governors and Local Administrators have been frustrated by their inability to control crimes because the police officers themselves are involved in these crimes, and the local authorities have no authority over them. There is also the question of the federation. At the constitutional conferences in 1957, an important aspect of the agreement was that the federal government will control the police services as a way of protecting the minority citizens and interests who might be overwhelmed by the control of the majority ethnic groups in the old regions.
Proponents of the state police argue today that the structure of the federation now makes that fear untenable, and therefore necessitates a review of the police Act and the single national police system. Opponents of the proposition have actually argued to the contrary: the current constitution puts too much power in the hands of the executive governors, and it makes the creation of the state police a dangerous addition to their power which is liable to be misused and deployed to extreme tyrannical ends. Both arguments are quite valid on their face value. We do certainly need to think back to the first debates about the need to constitutionally review the laws governing police authority in the case between the late Sam Mbakwe and Mr. Fidelis Oyakhilome who was then Police Commissioner in Owerri. From whom should the Imo state commissioner of police take orders? The President or the Governor of the state? Of course, the wily old Sam, put Fidelis in his place by all means necessary. The argument nonetheless raged because the then Inspector-General, Oyewusi and the presidency were bent on the use of the police for extreme political action, and this was not in the interest of all the governors in opposition parties. There again, is the dilemma of the police: the destruction of a professional police service that has mostly been politicized and criminalized. But the question remains valid: would the formation of state police boards not give the governors more power especially to squelch opposition? Well, of course, they do it currently without the state police. But it is true that control of independent police platforms may exacerbate the use of tyrannical power, unless properly framed.
The Governors, mostly from the Nigerian South are campaigning for more state control of their police services as a way of controlling local crimes. Northern governors have argued against it. I think there is a middle ground. The right of the states to establish their police Departments must be guaranteed by the Federal constitution. Police service ultimately is a local matter. In fact, the state governments must not only be given that right, Town Council Authorities and Local government Areas, particularly metropolitan cities must be allowed to organize and charter their police departments under certain given regulations. Among those regulations must be that these police services must be under a civilian oversight board made up largely by the public interest.
The board of the state Police must be under an executive mandate to provide leadership as mandated by the Parliament of each state, and must answer to the Attorney-s General and the Commissioner for Justice, not the Governor. I think we must learn something from the structure of the American federal Police system. The FBI is basically the American Federal Police service and its criminal jurisdiction is clearly marked out in the Congressional requirements that established it.
There are clear areas of federal crimes, including murder, hate crimes, and other violations of federal laws. In such instances where the Federal police moves in, according to their constitutional mandates, state and local police step aside and provide only necessary investigative assistance. For instance, it might become the duty of the Federal Police, in the long run, should we adopt the same proviso, to investigate infringements on the rights of citizens protected under the federal laws and enforce prosecution.
It might also include the investigation of the activities of state and local polices. The question then becomes who investigates the investigator? Here’s where I think it becomes necessary to establish an independent department of Internal Affairs under a police Inspection Directorate to provide ombudsman services for the police. Like parry Osanyande, I agree that we must dispense with the ministry of police Affairs. It is pointless. But unlike Osayande, I think we must place oversight of the police under the Office of the Attorney-General and the Ministry of Justice. I think Nigeria must establish the offices of the Zonal Federal Prosecutors under the federal Ministry of Justice, in all the senatorial districts of the nation, who would liaise with the Federal Police Services in these Field Offices.
I think it is time to establish the State police, and reform the Federal Police, and make it lean, more efficient, highly professional, tough, technologically savvy, and an investigative and prosecutorial arm of the Federal Government. I think that in the various acts establishing the state police departments, there must be a condition that makes it impossible for the governors to appropriate and misuse them. I think it is an idea whose time has come.