It would be uncharitable not to congratulate President Muhammadu Buhari for his prompt response to the people’s outcry against the killer unit of the Nigeria Police, FSARS. For the first time since he assumed power in 2015 to the bells and whistles of a people desperate for change, Buhari uncharacteristically acknowledged that the people’s voice matter and that they have an inalienable right to tell those who govern them how they would like to be governed; and that their rulers have a duty to listen to them and take steps to fully demonstrate that the people matter. A listening government is not a weak government. It is a responsive and responsible government.
Thus did it happen with pleasant surprise that the president chose to talk to us directly rather than through his media aides. He accepted the people’s demand to disband SARS and disbanded it. In his short broadcast, he promised the people that “The disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms in order to ensure that the primary duty of the police and other law enforcement agencies remains the protection of lives and livelihood of the people.”
A new police crime outfit known as Special Weapons and Tactical Team, with the unfortunate acronym of SWAT – if you remember that that is what we do to stubborn flies – has now risen from the ashes of FSARS. This is necessarily a fire brigade approach because it is important a) that steps are taken immediately to mollify the brave protesters and get them off the streets and b) for the government to show that it is putting its house in order in our flawed policing system largely seen as anti-people.
A new broom has thus entered the system and if it lives to its reputation, it would sweep out the evil that PSARS had done and usher in a new era of a policing system that is humane, respectful of human and other rights of the people, protects them from criminals and is less, much less corrupt; and we would no longer have to respond to this question at checkpoints, wetin you carry? But that is a long shot, of course. The sudden change of name merely invites us to a possible promise that things would be different from now on in our policing system.
A reform, as Vice-President Yemi Osinbajo rightly noted, is a process, not a magic wand. A long and lonely road stretches ahead towards a new era of a reformed Nigeria Police. It is not a today thing and it is not a tomorrow thing. It is a future thing. Do not think that with SWAT, all is well with the Nigeria Police and that our mistreatment in the hands of its personnel has at last come to an end. After all, the police officers and men and women posted to SWAT are the same people who man checkpoints and fleece the people by making them pay for their right to use public highways built with the people’s tax – in police parlance, it is called family support; who man police stations and often resolve disputes between law-abiding citizens and criminals in favour of the latter; and who, believing that their uniform gives them rights strange to our laws and the constitution, treat their fellow citizens as if their lives and rights do not matter.
PSARS might represent some of the worst excesses in the Nigeria Police but the problems of the force are much more complex and complicated than the excesses of its single unit. If the government and police authorities lull themselves into the somnolent belief that the disbandment of FSARS signals a comprehensive reform of the Nigeria Police, it would be tragic. The change of name is not a reform. It is just that – a change of name. A reform that begins and ends with a name change in a police outfit is merely cosmetic. It scratches the surface of the problems and leaves the problem untouched and unsolved. In my column, The imperatives of police re-orientation, (October 9, 2020), I wrote:
“The problems of the Nigeria Police cannot be solved with these occasional cosmetic laying of the cane across their back. (What we need) is an overhaul of the system and the re-orientation of police personnel to reposition the Nigeria Police as the important and credible law enforcement institution it was meant to be. The Nigeria Police suffers from a poor image created by its personnel. The public does not trust them. People are afraid to take their problems to them because a) they do not expect to be fairly and politely treated and b) in reversal of roles, the complainant often becomes the accused.
“The mother of its institutional problems is a twin one, namely poor training and profoundly deficient orientation of its personnel. Young men and women are recruited and processed through police colleges, uniformed and armed and sent out there to do the police work with which they have but a nodding acquaintance.”
It was a national disgrace that the people were forced to take to the streets to protest against the excesses of FSARS. The world watched and some celebrities put in a word for the people. The government and the police authorities cannot claim not to know that heaven was aware of those excesses and the angels must have wept silently over those excesses and the helplessness of the people frequently dehumanised by an agency of government with the constitutional duty to respect their rights and protect them. We have had the problems of uniformed Nigerians against ununiformed Nigerians since the military invited themselves to government houses across the land.
It is a good thing, a very good thing, that the president has bestirred himself and served notice that he is committed to reforming the Nigeria Police. Were he not the president with extensive constitutional powers, I would express genuine fears that he has made a promise and taken on challenges that might indeed define his legacy, positively or negatively. As I see it, the challenge boils down to these, among others: a) a total overhaul of the Nigeria Police and the re-orientation of its officers and men and women; b) a new or a refurbished Nigeria Police whose personnel no longer see the people as their enemies but as friends, brothers and sisters; b) a Nigeria Police trusted by the people because its personnel are fair, just and humane and c) above all, tackle the corruption that long, long ago became a way of life in the Nigeria Police.
We find it easy to blame the police but the government bears a large chunk of the blame for how our police officers and their men and women behave towards the public. They too have a right to expect to the treated well by the government. There is no way their faded or torn uniform and shoes with holes in them can give them confidence in the performance of their duty. It is pathetic to see police men and trekking for several kilometres to their places of assignment. Policeman at police stations cannot respond to people under attack by say armed robbers because their vehicles are either broken down or they have no fuel. The intended reform should give our police officers, men and women a sense of pride in their work by making them look respectable and respected.No one, not even the president, should under-estimate the enormity of these challenges. They constitute institutional problems that have a long history and thus point to the fact that the reform of the Nigeria Police cannot begin and end with the change of name of one police unit. It would be a long and even frustrating process but Buhari must have the courage and the determination to set the process in motion. As an officer and a president, his word must be a bond between him and the people. He may not meet all the challenges during his tenure but he cannot now afford to sleep on them.