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The danger of a fixed narrative: Yes, a policeman can be your friend

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By Muyiwa Adetiba

A young man left Nigeria over two decades ago a bitter man. He vowed never to set foot on Nigeria again and he has almost kept to his vows. Although his feet have only touched the Nigerian soil, but once in nearly three decades, his thoughts have.

Inspector General of Police, Mr. Mohammed Adamu

Constantly. They are the thoughts of a bitter man. He may not be around physically, but it is as if he was thanks to the social media. He chooses the negative narratives to vent his spleen. They are, to our shame, many.

He can be caustic, acerbic and articulate to the chagrin of the rest of us who are not yet ready to give up on Nigeria. He states his reasons for leaving Nigeria as often as he gets the opportunity to. One of them was his encounter with policemen. According to him, he was on his way to a wedding—his own —when he was accosted by some police officers.

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An argument ensued and his life was threatened. He was dispossessed of some valuables and barely escaped with his life. As a result, he was late to his own wedding. A day of joy turned into a bitter day. It was the final straw.

He made up his mind to leave Nigerian shores and never come back. Although that was his own version of what happened, nobody questions him because it fits smugly into the narrative of the Nigerian police.

About two weeks ago, a story of extortion at a police station went viral. It was a story of callousness and criminality. From the story, we learnt how people were randomly picked up and asked to bail themselves or spend an uncomfortable night in detention. We learnt how people who could barely eat were asked to cough out thousands of naira to free themselves from an offence they never committed in the first place.

We learnt how a young child died due to police brutality and callousness. They all fit into the narrative of the Nigerian Police. We have heard of how policemen hire guns to robbers. We have heard of those who take to armed robbery themselves.  We have heard of people who lose their lives at police check points because of paltry sums. They all join to reinforce the narrative of the Nigerian Police.

Just this week, yet another story on the Nigerian Police was sent to me. It was an investigative report titled: ‘Bribery, Bail for sale…Lagos Police Station where innocent civilians are jailed and criminals are recycled.’ Although the investigative write up was on Pedro police station Lagos, it was a chilling expose on what happens in a typical police station.

An under-cover reporter had gotten himself arrested so he could expose the under belly of the range of criminal activities that take place in this supposedly law enforcement station. What he wrote does no credit to any police force anywhere. If this represents an average Nigerian police station as one suspects, then the hierarchy of the Police Force needs to sit up. The rot is deep.

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Like many people, I have had several encounters with policemen and many of them are unsavoury—from the officer who, in my younger days, kept me on the Apapa-Oshodi expressway from 2am to 4am because I ‘was stubborn’ to those who pulled a gun on me along a deserted road in Ikoyi because of driving papers and subsequently led me, like a criminal, to the police station. My experiences fit I am sure, into the narrative of the Nigerian Police.

But in stereotyping the Nigerian Police Force and profiling its officers, one has to be careful of falling a victim to ‘the danger of a single story’ which was explained by Chimamanda Adichie.

This ‘danger of a single story’ according to the celebrated writer, ‘is to show people as one thing, as only one thing over and over again.’ Although she was speaking largely about the perception of Africa by the Western world, it is applicable to many other narratives as well. I know there are many courteous and helpful policemen because I had encountered some. That day I was led at gun point to the police station was one.

The officers and their boss softened as soon as they realised I was a fairly well known writer from Punch. But the DPO insisted on impounding the car until I produced the car papers because he didn’t want it said that I was released because of my name. As I walked out wondering where to get a taxi at that time of the night on a lonely, badly lit road, a car pulled over by my side. It was a police officer.

He offered to take me to FESTAC where I lived to get my papers. He also brought me back. He claimed he heard everything and knew I was being unnecessarily punished. He went beyond the call of duty to save the day and my perception of the police.

Another time was in the 80s when I was put under house arrest as Vanguard Editor. I wasn’t allowed to make a call but I knew I had to reach out.So I managed to get some phone numbers across to my wife—remember it was in the days of the analogue.

The policeman who was following me around reported my action to his boss. His boss’ answer surprised me ‘that we said he should not make phone calls doesn’t mean nobody in the house can make phone calls. Abi, the man offend you before?’That was a man doing a slave’s job with the attitude of a free born.

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But the one that takes the cake was Celestina Kalu, the police woman who saved the life of an armed robbery victim. She got him to the hospital, ensured he got treated and on seeing that there was nobody to pay his mounting medical bills, found money to pay. No police officer anywhere in the world could have done better.

She is the practical demonstration of the biblical ‘Good Samaritan.’ So when we think of the Nigerian Police as being brutish and callous, think about Celestina Kalu. She may be one in a hundred or even a thousand.

But they exist. She has proved that. She is a watering hole, an oasis in a vast, dry land. She deserves a shout-out. She deserves to be honoured. She is a pride to any organisation. She is also a pride to womanhood. To do what she did without any expectation of recompense makes her a gift to the world. Nigeria should be proud of her; so should the Police Force.


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