Last week, President Muhammadu Buhari made some pronouncements that again highlighted the unresolved problems with the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). At the 2015 National Security Summit, President Buhari announced a plan to recruit at least 10,000 additional police officers. A few days later, at a meeting with officials of the Ministry of Police Affairs and the Police Service Commission (PSC), the president warned against extortion and irregularities in the planned recruitments.
He also tasked the Inspector General of Police (IG), Mr. Solomon Arase, to withdraw police officers illegally attached to dignitaries and demanded a review of the structure of the NPF as well as recommendations on how to better motivate police officers. All these pronouncements and orders are needed and commendable, but not far-reaching enough. What the police need is a complete overhaul, not piecemeal interventions. President Buhari would therefore do well to add the reform of this important institution to his must-do list. Our failure to reform the police overtime has come back to haunt us.
It is understandable if Nigerians have already developed a police reform fatigue. The NPF that the civilians inherited after 31 cumulative years of military rule was anything but fit for purpose. So every administration since 1999 dutifully mouths the need for police reforms. Every newly appointed IG makes a point of drawing up lofty plans for repositioning the force. High-powered committees have been set up; white-papers have been issued. Editorialists and advocacy groups have put in more than a fair shift on the need to have an effective, efficient and humane police force.
Despite all these, not much has changed. In frustration, we seem to have developed a consensus that the NPF is irredeemable. Rather than strengthen the police by holistically addressing its challenges and shortcomings and then demand accountability from the force, we shop for shortcuts. We routinely deploy soldiers to carry out law enforcement duties, to the extent that at some point we had soldiers on the streets of 28 states or 80% of the country. Or we create or empower other institutions that should, at best, be specialised units of the police and better we resource them. The Federal Road Safety Commission (FRSC) and the National Security and Civil Defence Corps (NSCDC) are good examples of this unhelpful trend.
But being half-hearted about or giving up on the police won’t cut it, for this is an institution that is at the core of the effectiveness of the state. The police force remains the primary means for actualising a state’s sacred responsibility for the protection of lives and property and for establishing and projecting its presence among the governed. Charged with ensuring law and order, keeping citizens safe, and deterring and investigating crimes, the police force should be first and the last line of law enforcement and should be the most visible face of the state in any ordered society. It is on account of how the police force is inextricably yoked with state power and presence that countries alive to their responsibilities invest so much to ensure that its ubiquitous public face exudes authority, effectiveness, and dignity.
Those are the salient attributes you sense when you encounter an average American police officer, well-kitted and well-groomed, armed with walkie-talkies, handcuffs, batons and pistols and other gadgets, including networked computers. But it is not just a matter of assets for establishing legitimate violence.
You get the same feeling when you encounter a Republic of Benin gendarme who carries only a whistle and a baton and still exudes authority, presence and dignity. Contrast that with our typical police officer, out of shape, poorly dressed, an AK 47 carelessly dangling on his shoulder but aiding him to extort money from bus drivers or turning his embarrassing grovelling for tips from the well-heeled into a veritable act of blackmail.
We have left our police force to deteriorate to the level that it inspires neither much fear from criminals nor adequate respect from citizens. If the point about fear and respect is debatable, it is not debatable that we now live in an era of generalised insecurity which our police have not been able to effectively contain. I will argue that an ineffective and dysfunctional police force is proof positive of a state in both retreat and decay. I will further posit that a state rebuilding project, such as the one the president is committed to and which the country sorely needs, cannot be complete without a comprehensive reformation and re-orientation of the police.
The problems are well known, but some are worth restating. The first is about numbers. We are certainly under-policed. According to Chief Mike Okiro, chair of the police commission and former IG, we have 305,579 police officers in active service. Though the president has approved the recruitment of additional 10,000 officers, by his account the deficit is 19,500. How did he arrive at this number? He said of the 21,000 officers who left the force through retirement, dismissal or death, only 1,500 were replaced. This means that even with the number approved by the president we will still have a shortfall of 9,500. But given that the standard recommended by the United Nations is one police officer per 400 people, we have a shortfall of about 100,000 officers (if our population is 162 million we should have 405,000 police officers; and if it is 180 million we should have 450,000).
To be fair, we are better than where we started in 1999, when we had only 110,000 police officers. President Olusegun Obasanjo massively ramped up the numbers through a policy of employing at least 20,000 officers per year. But that policy was abandoned at some point because according to Obasanjo, miscreants, including armed robbers, were hired into the police force! Add to this the possibility that many of those hired were people who knew somebody, or those who knew somebody who knew somebody or those who could mobilise enough to grease palms in anticipation of adequate returns on their investments. This was the extortion and irregularities that the president referenced in his charge to the police commission.
Allied with wrong hiring practices is the issue of wrong and ineffective deployment. Rather than be spread out across their areas of coverage to serve as deterrent to criminals and provide reassurance to citizens, our police officers are mostly massed at checkpoints extorting money from motorists, inventing some traffic offences or shamefully begging for money for ‘pure-water’. Or they are laying ambush for traffic offenders around dysfunctional streetlights. Or they are guarding private enterprises such as banks, supermarkets, eateries etc. Or they are escorting all manner of public officers and private individuals, including reducing themselves to bag carriers and errand boys to anyone who can and is willing to pay to have police officers attached to them.
In 2009, then IG Ogbonna Onovo said up to 100,000 police officers were illegally deployed to VIPs. He gave a seven-day ultimatum for those officers to return to their posts or be sacked. If the practice had been discontinued, the president wouldn’t have mentioned it last week. As if it is not bad enough that we don’t have enough police officers, a sizeable number of the available ones are politically and commercially deployed, crowding out state protection available to citizens in distress.
There is also the known problem of having the right tools to work with. Crime investigation is at the core of police work. It will be good to know how many forensic labs we have and the state of their facilities. It will also be good to know how routinely our police force deploys finger-print analyses, polymath tests, and DNA tests to unravel crimes. Equally, it will be nice to know the extent to which our police use basic data analysis and computer programmes to map, prevent, forecast and investigate crimes and trends. Also of interest should be the ratio of police officers to vehicles and sophisticated weapons.
Then there is the issue of police welfare. Our police are about the least paid and catered for among our security forces despite the significant role they ought to play in law enforcement. Yes, we have a Ministry of Police Affairs, which suggests that the police have a pride of place. But this hollow privileging doesn’t translate to welfare gains. Most of our policemen and women live in subhuman
conditions in the barracks. The condition of the training institutions are rarely better, as the documentary on Police College, Ikeja done by Channels Television in 2013 demonstrated. Dependants of officers who unfortunately die in the line of duty are paid paltry sums and are kicked out of the official accommodations as if they had committed a crime. Would any rational police officer then put his or her life at risk for anyone or for anything?
The rap sheet against the police is a long one, and it includes regular suspects such as lousy maintenance culture, poor agency-citizen relations, human rights abuses, widespread corruption etc., each of which can be the subject of whole articles. The sum of it all is that we have an ineffective police force. I will wager that we got exactly the police we paid for. To be sure, some efforts have been invested in solving some of these problems by the NPF hierarchy working in collaboration with the different tiers of government, the private sector and civil society. But much, much more still needs to be done.
In his address to the security summit last Monday, President Buhari promised that his “administration will bequeath to this nation a reformed, re-oriented, well-trained, well-equipped and highly-motivated Police Force.” He seemed to touch all the major points, but his promise needs to be fleshed into a comprehensive reform plan that will be studiously implemented to reposition and re-professionalise the NPF. Giving up our police is not an option. We need an effective police not just because it will be nice to redeem a historic national institution whose roots go back to 1861 or because it is necessary to strengthen the capacity of the state to deliver but also, and more important, to keep us safe and secure. It is an exercise in self-preservation.