By Obi Nwakanma
In July 2018, I published an essay on my Orbit column in the Sunday Vanguard titled, “The State Police,” in which I outlined the contradictions of the Nigerian Police Force, its history of brutality and disrespect for the civil rights of Nigerians; its history and character as a colonial constabulary force unsuited for a sovereign nation of free citizens under a constitutional democracy, and of course the structural impediments that make it necessary for serious police reform.
In the body of that essay, I described the pattern of that necessary reform. Events in the last week lend credence and indeed amplifies the spirit of that essay.
More than ever, it has become rather too obvious that the Nigerian police system has failed and must, at the minimum be reformed. A broad overhaul of its conceptual principles and mission must match the new structures on which it must operate.
The END SARS movement has made police reform urgent. Arrowheads of that movement used the incident of police brutality and an angry youth response to it to mobilize what is now a nation-wide movement. But it is unlikely to end there.
An agglomeration of factors seems to suggest that we are at the very beginnings of a “Green revolution,” Nigeria’s own version of the “Arab Spring” whose impact might have deep political consequences for West Africa in the long and short term. But let me contextualize this: cosmetic police reform is not enough.
It will not even scratch at the very surface of the problems of the Nigerian Police Force. The problem with the Nigerian police system is that it was never designed for a civil society. It was always a colonial constabulary police whose operation, mission and philosophy was containment and suppression. Its chief tactics was the humiliation of the African colonial subject.
It accorded very little regard to the dignity of the citizen, because at the time it was conceived, all those who came under its purview were “colonial subjects.” None was a full citizen of a sovereign nation. Nigeria inherited this police system.
As a constabulary force, it became increasingly brutal with the change of its orientation under the military regimes. The National police is in charge of a nation’s domestic security. But in Nigeria, much of police powers were stripped, fragmented, and made diffuse.
Police duties were basically reduced to directing traffic, and collecting “Roger” at police checkpoints. But at the very core of its operations was the subduing and humiliation of Nigerians. Just like the soldiers who also began to do emergency police duties, the policeman had leave to whip Nigerians, frog-jump Nigerians, extort Nigerians, lie against Nigerians, arrest and detain Nigerians even against the express orders of the court, and in many instances kill Nigerians with little consequence.
In Nigeria, such phrases as “accidental discharge,” and “kill and go” became routine ways of describing police actions against citizens of Nigeria. Every Nigerian has a story of a humiliating encounter with officers of the Nigerian police. I have suffered undignified encounters with the police in Nigeria.
One day in 1996, during the Abacha years, I was strolling down a street in the Ikate area of Surulere, Lagos with my friend Sanya Osha. I was on the editorial staff of the Vanguard newspapers, and Sanya had just commenced his doctoral work in Philosophy at the University of Ibadan. We were going to visit our friend – “Mad Maxim” – Uzo Maxim Uzoatu on that street. In fact, we were just two poles away from Maxim’s apartment when we encountered the Nigerian police: officers of the police force alighted briskly from an unmarked bus and were arresting passersby in some kind of random mop up operation.
I took out my notebook instinctively to record the scene for a possible story. It was the reporter’s instinct for a story. Bad mistake. The policemen led by an Assistant Superintendent of Police accosted Sanya and I; seized our identifications – my Vanguard identity card and Sanya’s University of Ibadan’s ID card – and my reporter’s notebook, and in spite of our protestations forced us into the bus, and drove us to a police station in Surulere. It was all very weird.
The humiliation continued at the station when we were made to strip to our boxers, and given a pre-written statement to sign. I took a quick glance at it, and refused to sign because it did not by any stretch reflect our experience of the event. It was basically a statement accepting guilt of some kind of crime, the details of which now escape me.
The officer assigned to take our statements tried to browbeat, threaten, and hint at dire consequences if we did not sign, but Sanya and I stuck to our convictions until they brought fresh papers for us to write our statements. Then we were thrown into the police jail. It was a dark, dingy, unsettling place.
What I remember still is the smell. It is indescribable. The closest I would say is that it smelled of death and decay. There were people detained in that cell who were at various stages of suppuration. And I was a little worried because I was then under the watchlist of the State Security Services, and feared that the police station, as should be expected, may have a database that might connect the dots. We had no way of making a phone call and could very easily have become “lost” in the very dark labyrinth of police abductions which is precisely what it all was. Especially because we refused to pay the bribe.
We were detained from 10:00 am and released fortuitously at a little after 6:00 pm that evening when it apparently became clear that we could not be extorted. There was no rhyme or reason for our arrest and detention, except that we were at the wrong place at the wrong time. Another memorable encounter was on a visit home in 2003 with my young family – my wife and my then one-year-old son. We had arrived at the Port-Harcourt International Airport, and turned not too long after on the Owerri-Port Harcourt road, when we were stopped at a police checkpoint.
First thing, as I remember clearly when were stopped was that the Sergeant peeked inside the car and asked the driver to pull by the curb side. He took the “particulars” of the car from the driver, and thereafter ignored us for another thirty minutes. When I could no longer fathom it, I approached the man who was clearly leading the team at the Checkpoint, an Inspector, and politely asked why we were stopped. He politely told me to “do something, and go.”
He said it as though he was doing me a big favour. I of course feigned ignorance. As a matter of principle, I do not bribe the police or anyone else. So, I said, “I do not understand your expectations of me. I have given you all the papers. My passport; my airport pass….” And he said, “Oga, I see say you just land. Your grammar too much…”
At that point, I code-switched to my finest pidgin: “officer, I nor be JJC. I full ground for this Naija!” My wife remained characteristically stoic. It was not her first rodeo. But my poor son was getting antsy from the heat. Long to short, the police officer and I very soon fell to an altercation, because I refused to be extorted, and he said threateningly, “I will disgrace you in front of this your American wife!”
This meant forcing everybody down under gunpoint and making my younger brother who was driving to bring down every single luggage which was searched one after the other. It was a shakedown. I mean, I just left customs and I still had the customs ticket.
Besides, the police had no authority to search me, or detain me without a Magistrate’s warrant under normal, civilized conditions. It was two hours – from the moment we were stopped to the moment we were let go – of dastardly re-entry into Nigeria. And I must be among the lucky ones, because from these encounters with the police have come many fatalities.
There was the case of Dele Udo, Nigeria’s world class miler, who was shot point blank and killed in the famous case of an “accidental discharge.” There was the case of Anita Akpason, a young Nigerian woman whose life was criminally ended by police in the Maitama area of Abuja in 2018. We still have the case of the Apo 6 which by the way must be re-opened and re-investigated because justice was not served. There are too many of these incidents.
In the last two weeks, Nigerians, led by an increasingly restless youth population finally rose up to demand an end to police brutality in Nigeria in what is now the “ENDSARS” protests. This is welcome development. In the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and 80s, and to a very limited extent in the ‘90s, the Nigerian youth was led from the University campuses by the Nigerian students movement.
They fought public issues, from the Anglo-Nigerian Defence pact, to education reform, to oil subsidies, to the anti-military, pro-democracy movements. Many Nigerian youths – students of the universities – were martyred on the streets for these protests by brutal police and military contingents sent down to suppress them forcefully. Police brutality has a long history in Nigeria. Now it seems Nigerians have had enough, and are organizing in a sustained protest to end it. Many are calling for police reform.
All kinds of official noises are being made about “listening.” The Inspector General replaced SARS with SWAT. None of these will solve the problem. The problem is deeper than police pay, and recruitment. It goes way into the foundations of the justice system on which a national ethos was built. It would require not just police reform. That would be scratching the surface.
It would require a deconstruction of the entire judicial system on which enforcement and sanction are based, starting with the courts to the office of the Attorney General. It would in short require more than the ENDSARS demands. It would require a Green Revolution. Perhaps we are closer to it now with a restless and desperate youth population with nowhere else to go.