In the wake of the brutal and violent suppression of the #EndSARS sit-in protest by our youths at the Lekki Tollgate, Lagos, by the Nigerian Army on October 20 last year, President Muhammadu Buhari promised to reform the Nigeria Police. To show he meant business, he immediately scrapped the dreaded SARS and replaced it with S.W.A.T. He had listened to the voice of the people and respected it. Never mind the unfortunate acronym because swat is what we do to flies that have the effrontery to perch on our noses.
I do not think the president made that promise casually. It was a serious promise made when he needed to make it to re-assure the people that he was willing to fix our broken institutions, one of them being the Nigeria Police, a victim of years of military rule. He knew that the Nigeria Police is broken in various respects and would need to be put together again through comprehensive reforms to enable it to fully discharge its constitutional responsibilities.
We have not heard or seen some evidence that the reforms are proceeding according to plan. We do not even know if SWAT is a mere change of name not the substance of police work. We see nothing of the new special police unit that replaced the corrupt and brutal and extortionate one. Is it making the country too hot for armed robbers and sundry criminals than SARS made it for innocent citizens?
Silence so far. In raising those questions, we are not ignorant of the fact that we are dealing with security matters which by their nature are not open to discussions in the marketplace. We can even offer a caveat, to wit, institutional reforms cannot be treated casually like a routine matter. They are complicated and every aspect deserves to be thoroughly thought through so that the reforms do not become greater problems in the near future.
Still, let us not forget that the police reforms promised by the president arose from the erosion of public confidence in the Nigeria Police. It is a vital institution whose capacity to protect us has clear ramifications for the rule of law, justice, fairness and even decency in our individual and group conduct as a people. It is meant to rekindle the confidence and the trust of the people in our police personnel and make us feel that the police are our true friends; friends we could run to when we sense trouble; friends we could run to when we see that might is about to be seen and accepted as right; friends who can protect the weak from the strong, the poor from the rich; friends whose sense of professionalism would not succumb to the lure of lucre. This being the case, wrapping the reforms in layers of secrecy would not do because to make sense, the reforms should be done with the support and the contributions of the people who have been at the receiving end of an institution whose personnel generally regard their uniform as a license to do as they wish, justice be damned.
The glaring deficits in training, orientation or re-orientation leave young policemen and women to their own devices to perform their duty as they individually understand it. This has consequently bred the tradition in which police personnel egregiously soil their uniform with greed, extortion and open corruption. The police uniform is the symbol of state authority. It is such a shame that its sanctity is compromised by many of those who wear it and think more of its private utilitarian value and less of the professional obligation it imposes on them.
This is one promise the president would do well not to treat as a mere political soundbite destined for the wastepaper basket soon after he was hailed for it. Reforming the Nigeria Police is critical to both the institution and the country. No nation, ancient or modern, has ever ignored the place of an efficient police force in its affairs. In the hands of the police personnel lie the security of the nation and its people. The police force is the first line of security. If security fails, it takes the blame – rightly or wrongly.
The Nigeria Police is today a confused product of reforms that did not quite reform, leaving its personnel more or less in limbo. Reforming the police at this critical time in our security system should be the first determined step towards the emergence of a new, peaceful and secure nation from the ashes of our current security failures.
Here are some of the positive developments I hope should result from a reformed Nigeria Police permanently cured of its many afflictions. One, a comprehensive reform of the police would be an important part of Buhari’s rejigging of our security architecture to re-position and re-orient our security personnel towards a safer nation under the multiplicity of gods, babalawo not excepted.
Two, it would cure the police of their professional inferiority consequent upon their progressive subordination to the military. The reforms should help produce better trained, better equipped, and better oriented police as a civil force whose primary duty is to protect lives and property. Our police personnel would earn a living wage and would be less inclined to quake at the sight of gratifications. Our police personnel properly kitted out in their clean uniform, not a multiplicity of uniforms, some new and some faded and others colourless, would take pride in their work and be a source of pride to all of us. We would no longer have policemen with holes in their uniform and bathroom slippers on their feet. It should not be too much to hope that our reformed police personnel would no longer accidently shoot a motorist in an argument over a five naira gratification.
Three, a reformed Nigeria Police would be rescued from being subordinated to the military in purely civil duties defined by the Police Act and the constitution of the federal republic. The failure of security is primarily blamed on the police. After all, it is not the duty of soldiers to apprehend thieves, armed robbers and sundry criminals bent on living off the sweat of honest and law-abiding citizens. If we sleep with our two eyes open, we think of the police, not the army.
We still remember the titanic deeds of such crack police officers as the late inspector-general of police, Muhammadu Gambo Jimeta, who made Lagos unsafe for armed robbers; we remember DIG Parry Osayande who caged Lawrence Aninih and his armed robbery gang in Benin City and environs. I believe we still have such men and women in the police today, but they are unable to shine because the institution itself does not shine any more. A police force weakened by acts of omission and commission on the part of the Nigerian state loses confidence in itself and cannot act with a sense of pride in the discharge of its duties.
As things currently stand, there is apparent conflation of the duties of the police and those of the military in favour of the military despite the fact that the constitution sufficiently spells out their respective duties. Both institutions run along parallel lines. It is important to let the police do their duty and let the military do theirs in a democracy. It should never be the role of the military to mount checkpoints on our roads. Not even in peace time. We should cut back on the military presence and re-impose on the police the duty they are supposed to perform and free the military to do what they are best trained to do. If this division of roles had been observed, the army would not have involved itself in violently suppressing the peaceful #EndSARS protest last year – and left rotten eggs on the face of the army and the government.
Senior police officers who served under the late inspector-general of police, Sunday Adewusi, tell me that the golden years of the Nigeria Police were the Shagari years when, with the active support of the president, Adewusi embarked on building a formidable police force capable of not only fully responding to the security challenges but could chase out any military adventurers from making a dawn coup broadcast. He bought personnel carriers and fast vehicles that could overtake fleeing armed robbers. The military took them all away. It was thus the last time the police were trained, equipped and motivated as a civil force. It should be possible to bring back that golden period if Buhari keeps his promise and carries out the reforms in the Nigeria Police. It should end the current era of poor policing with criminals such as kidnappers and bandits telling us who, between them and the police, is the boss. Let the president fix our security by first fixing the police as an institution in the first line of security.
Dan Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]