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Why a new code may not improve Police in Nigeria

By Stanley Ibe

It is not difficult to understand why the average person in Nigeria will do anything to avoid an encounter with the police.

Nigeria’s Inspector General of Police has just launched a code of conduct and professional standards for the country’s police force. The code aims to “provide all members of the Nigeria Police Force with a set of guiding principles and standards of behaviour while on or off duty.”

In the finest traditions of policing, it promotes time-tested principles of confidentially, integrity, cooperation with other police officers and agencies, personal professional capabilities and calls on officers to display good character in or out of uniform.

There is certainly more than enough need to raise the standards of policing in Nigeria. In 2010, a report produced by the Network on Police Reform in Nigeria, NOPRIN and the Open Society Justice Initiative concluded that Nigeria’s police personnel “routinely carry out summary executions of persons accused or suspected of crime; rely on torture as a principal means of investigation; commit rape of both sexes, with a particular focus on sex workers; and engage in extortion at nearly every opportunity.”

Mobile policemen on duty  Photo: Bunmi Azeez
Mobile policemen on duty Photo: Bunmi Azeez

A Human Rights Watch that same year found that “corruption and abusive behaviour within the Nigeria Police Force is endemic.” In July 2012, Nigeria’s most recent Presidential Committee on Re-organization of the Nigeria Police Force agreed that the force has “officers with corrupt tendencies and bad disciplinary records.”

It is not difficult to understand why the average person in Nigeria will do anything to avoid an encounter with the police.

So can a new code of conduct make a difference? It is telling that the new code enjoins police officers to conduct themselves “in accordance with the Constitution….and all applicable laws, ordinances and rules enacted or established pursuant to legal authority”.

But if the police do what is required of them by the law, presumably there would be no need for an additional code of conduct? As commendable as the idea of a new code is, it may not change anything unless police institution prioritizes enforcement of existing legislations. The challenge is with implementation and enforcement rather new legislation.

It will take much more than rhetoric to make a success of this new code. For a start, senior police leadership must demonstrate strong commitment to policing their own ranks, by ensuring accountability for every crime committed by a police officer on or off duty. This means internal accountability mechanisms must work effectively.

The police must take seriously genuine public complaints about misconduct by its officers. These may come through the existing official police channels, whereby an aggrieved party might lodge a written complaint with a senior police officer, or with a police human rights desk, or directly to the state commissioner of police or inspector general of police. Alternatively, complaints may emerge from informal civil society-led channels such as—an online platform for exchange of information about good and bad police conduct.

Anyone who complains about police misconduct will probably be curious to know how police authorities respond to such complaints. Even more, the complainant might wish to see what feedback mechanisms exist to communicate the result of investigations.

To be more effective, the established internal police mechanisms for receiving and processing civilian complaints must provide confidential means for reporting police misconduct and they must guarantee the safety of victims and witnesses. No complainant will be ready and willing to risk life or limb just to report a case of misconduct if minimum guarantees do not exist. Even where they exist, it is useful to supplement internal complaints mechanisms with a system of external oversight.

The Police Service Commission is the institution primarily responsible for external oversight; that is, it provides a system of control and supervision of a police institution by an institution independent of it. Established as an executive body under section 153 of the 1999 Constitution, the commission has powers to appoint, promote, discipline and dismiss all officers except the Inspector General of Police.

These are far reaching powers that can be used to ensure accountability. But although the commission can take responsibility for approving appointments and promotions, it’s approach to complaints suggests that it has not taken its responsibility to enforce discipline as seriously as the other components of its work. This is easily discernible from its attitude to complaints.

Although the commission has statutory powers to conduct investigations into police misconduct, it more usually forwards complaints about police misconduct to the force itself. This is rather unfortunate considering the investment of resources in the commission’s own investigations department and attendant public expectation of performance.

To win public confidence, the commission must revertto conducting its own investigations, particularly in cases where response from the police is inadequate, or when there is reason to suspect a cover-up. The commission must also exercise its statutory authority to audit, oversee and investigate the activities of the police force.

To make any difference at all, the new police code must be accompanied by a clear commitment to enforce existing laws, both from the police and from the external oversight institutions. Where there is no consequence for misconduct, impunity will continue to reign.


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