Lagos residents are going through hell in the hands of the police, who have turned the state into a cauldron of extortion. To underline the menace tearing the soul of the state apart, Edgal Imohimi, the newly-appointed Acting Commissioner of Police, on Monday, removed Akinlade Akinjobi as the officer-in-charge of the state’s Anti-Kidnapping and Anti-Cultism Squad. Police officers from the squad had allegedly extorted N50,000 from a suspect, Blessing Taiwo, sexually assaulted her sister who was taking food to her in the cell, and seized her phone in lieu of the N20,000 balance they demanded as a bribe to release her. Apart from his mandate to reduce crime, Imohimi needs a systemic response to curb the systemic excesses of our crooked police officers. He has, indeed, promised “not to treat lightly cases of corruption or indiscipline against policemen”. His reputation is at stake.
No matter the barefaced denials, police extortion is a brutal fact in Lagos. Devious police acts at checkpoints go unreported, with the voiceless victims left to nurse their wounds in silence. Yet, mainstream media and social media reports paint vivid pictures of repeated abuses by the police. Apart from Taiwo, other victims include a medical doctor, whose wife was reportedly forced to withdraw N45,000 from an ATM when police stopped them in the middle of the night in May; and the Bamisile siblings, who were molested around 11pm in August at Allen Avenue, Ikeja. Their offence was that one of them carried two cell-phones. They were forcibly driven to the Area F Police Command and forced to cough up N10,000 to secure their release. This action of fleecing people of their cash at night on a false pretext discourages the vision of Lagos to attain a 24-hour economy. And this should worry the Lagos State Governor, Akinwunmi Ambode.
In a bizarre case in August, policemen forced their victim in Ogudu to electronically transfer N15,000 to an account belonging to one of them after insisting that he had no cash. The officers seized his phone and threatened to implicate him for armed robbery. When he posted the bank statement on the social media, the police were forced to detain four officers.
The International Police Organisation notes that the police have some familiar tactics. In Nigeria, this includes raiding, stop and search, wandering and spurious accusations that you are a Yahoo boy, a euphemism for an internet fraudster. They also threaten to charge their unfortunate victims with armed robbery if they refuse to part with bribes. In July, policemen arrested Usman Owonifari and his fiancée, Kausarat, during a raid at a bus stop in Amukoko, dragged them into a tricycle, and beat them up before locking up Owonifari. Kausarat was later released though her cell-phone was impounded. The police claimed their offence was that they were at a bus stop where they usually saw corpses.
With the fragile security situation in Lagos, it is a nightmare for motorists when fully armed policemen appear in mufti, as they are left to guess whether their interrogators are robbers, kidnappers or police officers.
We are seriously disturbed that Lagos has a serious police corruption problem. Fighting crime is not an excuse for police officers to intimidate, dehumanise or rob hapless Nigerians. In June, the police dismissed five officers for extortion in Lagos. It is alarming that instead of reducing, cases of police extortion are rising. This calls for a change of strategy by Imohimi. Merely dismissing errant officers is insufficient to rein in wayward policemen. The new CP has to improve on police ethics. Bribery is a crime: culpable policemen should be prosecuted to deter others.
To stem police abuses, security experts recommend a range of measures. As a result, body cameras have been widely deployed in the United States since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Since December 2016, French officers have had to wear body cameras during identity checks in urban zones considered “risky,” as part of a one-year experiment. This increases police accountability. France has also started deploying more CCTV cameras and video after a February 2017 incident in which “Theo L”, a youth, was molested by police officers. After viewing the incident, former French president, François Hollande, suspended the officers; they were then charged with assault and rape.
Experts argue that video recording or filming provides incontrovertible evidence than even witnesses. When uploaded on the social media, video recordings can compel the authorities to punish police officers who abuse public trust. Therefore, the Lagos State Security Trust Fund should avail the police of the technology and gadgets that can capture interactions between officers and the public, instead of buying only Hilux vans, motorcycles and communication gadgets for them.
For police officers to act in accordance with the law, a New York-based NGO, Open Society Foundations, recommends that countries permit independent organisations to monitor police operations. “It is a safeguard against abuses,” it says. The monitoring by these civil societies organisations will prevent the police from covering up liable officers. The Inspector-General of Police X-Squad should be strengthened.
Imohimi should rid the police in Lagos of the ills that hallmarked the tenure of his predecessors. These include the routine harassment, arrest and fleecing of innocent youths and their parents under the guise of cracking down on internet fraud. During that perverted period, the police turned themselves into a force of extortion. There is this frightening picture of a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil culture in which felonious misconduct is tolerated even by the police high command. By providing toll-free phone lines to report abuses and constantly visiting police stations to set free those being wrongly detained in the cells, and punishing the officers who abuse their powers, Imohimi will endear himself to Lagos residents, who are yearning for a truly capable police force.
The new Lagos police boss should make corruption a riskier business for bad cops. Perhaps the most straightforward approach to it is to reward integrity and penalise illicit behaviour. Wilful police conduct that violates an individual’s constitutional rights should be severely punished. We hope that the Lagos State Police Command, under Imohimi’s leadership, will afford more robust changes that make a difference.