Brutes in uniform?

It happened again for the umpteenth time. A young man was cut down in the morning of his life, leaving Parents and loved ones to mourn. He committed no crime. His killers were not armed robbers, cultists or hired assassins. He was murdered by those paid to protect him and the rest of us. His case is just another in the long list of killings by brutes in uniform.

“God punish your father! I can kill you right now for nothing!” an officer who sounded like the leader of his squad yelled repeatedly as he punched and gun-whipped a young man in a despicable demonstration of power over life and death. His subordinates begged him to no avail as he kept cursing in the video. This happened in a country supposedly governed by the rule of law.

Kolade Johnson, the most recent victim of deadly assault by police brutes was a sports enthusiast watching a soccer game at a viewing center. That was his crime. One of the officers that killed him reportedly announced his resolve to “kill someone today.” Those paid to protect us have a monopoly of access to deadly weapons which they unleash on innocent citizens. And we think nothing is amiss!

From available reports, the killers of Kolade were affiliated with the Special Anti-Cultism Squad (SACS) with a mission to eliminate the menace of cultism. A genuine mission! But what means did they adopt? They apparently decided to identify cultists by hair style. Anyone with dread lock is a cultist! If it has not led to such a tragic outcome, you would think that someone had a rich sense of humor. Dreadlocks as a symbol of cultism? I have professorial colleagues wearing dreadlocks! By the hair-style identifying formula of SACS, my colleagues are cultists!  It is too mind-boggling to contemplate where this leads us.

In the middle of last month, Lagosians and the country heard with dismay the heartbroken news about a young school girl killed in broad daylight by the Police in Ikorodu. According to media reports, she was hit by a stray bullet fired into a group of young people whom the police contingent suspected were hoodlums. As the girl laid in her pool of blood, the squad hurriedly escaped in their van as the youths pursued them. Perhaps the girl could have been saved if the police tried to take her to the hospital. But they cared less, and an innocent life was taken without moral qualm. In what other country can this happen?

In June 2018, a Police Inspector and two Sergeants tear-gassed an asthma patient whom they accused of being a fraudster. He went into crisis and they fled the scene. As The Nation reported on June 18, 2018, the three were subjected to internal discipline and dismissed from the force. However, it is undeniable that these internal measures have failed woefully to sanitize the Force or bring it to the desirable end of professionalism and respect for human rights.

In August 2018, Vice President Osinbajo weighed with a directive for a complete overhaul of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), after numerous public complaints and a #EndSARS campaign. Amnesty International has also demanded reforms to rid the Police of the “criminal network” which “tortures and extorts” suspects even in phantom and cooked-up cases.

The totality of our national experience with our Police is comparable to a horror movie. The difference is that horror movies are unreal.

What is most depressing about all this is that the Police is an essential institution for the internal security of the nation. We need the Police because there are bad people with criminal minds whose raison d’etre is the perpetration of evil. However, we do not need a back scratcher with a glove of thorns. When the murderer camouflages as the savior, we are done for. This is where we are in our police-citizen relation in this country. We have a misplaced hope.

The Police has its organizational vision and mission statements which speak to its role as a public safety government organ. Part of its vision is “to create a safe and secure environment for everyone living in Nigeria.” Vision statements are generally aspirational, pointing to an envisioned future. The point is to keep improving until that end-time is reached. But what improvement have we seen in the decades that we have had the Nigeria Police Force? The above cited incidents provide a damning answer.

Complementing its vision, the Police also has the admirable mission of building “a people-friendly Police Force that will respect and uphold the fundamental rights of all citizens.” That there is a gulf between this mission statement and people’s experience with our law-enforcement officers is clear. The question it must address is, what must be done to bridge the gulf between aspiration and actuality? What does the Police need to do to build a people-friendly Force?

Answering this question does not require knowledge of rocket science. A humanist with common sense should be able to address it effectively. There is a short-term and a long-term solution to the crisis, which it is.

First, we have the long-term constitutional issue which many, including the National Assembly, have failed to address since 1966. Nigeria appears to be one of only a few countries its size with a federal system and a unitary policing system. With this comes the serious issue of effective management which we, obviously, do not have a handle on. Yet we, true to our human nature, are afraid or suspicious of change.

It is however true that policing at the level of states and local government is bound to be more people-friendly simply because it is more community-oriented. A nation-wide community policing sponsored by the federal Police cannot generate the kind of community feeling and sense of belonging that a local Police with personnel from the community can generate. Therefore, if we want a people-friendly policing, we would opt for a constitutional amendment to establish state and local police. We also must call out the cop-out excuse regarding finance. Transform EFCC into our federal Police in the manner of the FBI and dismantle the Nigeria Police with its budget transferred to the states.

Second, however, we know that while this approach is right, it is wishful thinking because we are paranoid about change. Meanwhile, then, let there be an effective management of the Police that we have now. There is no doubt that recruitment needs to be overhauled. The mindset that sees every citizen as a hoodlum must not be allowed near the corridors of police stations. A mentally challenged and unbalanced individual must not be given access to a gun. But there are now many with mental issues parading as officers in the Nigeria Police. How did they get recruited?

Third, the various special squads-SARS, SAKS, SACS- apparently see themselves as invincible agents of destruction. They are given these AK-47s which they parade with glee and with arrogance of power. What psychological or mental tests, if any, do they go through before they are enlisted in the special squads? The various atrocities they have committed over the years are enough evidence of the failure or ineffectiveness of such tests.

Finally, the matter of police qualification and welfare must be taken seriously. With the explosion in the population of graduates of our tertiary institutions, it should not be difficult to have a pool of outstanding candidates with excellent mental states. With such quality candidates, however, we must be prepared to overhaul the welfare package for recruits and officers in the force. This will justify our expectation of a professional force and an effective implementation of a code of conduct that eschews bribery, extortion, and corruption.

In his inaugural address upon his appointment last January, the Acting Inspector General, Mr. Mohammed Abubakar Adamu assured Nigerians that he was “mindful of their yearnings for a policing system that will not only assure them of their safety but treat them with civility and hold their rights sacred.” He then promised that “their deserved aspirations will be met henceforth.” Nigerians are still waiting to cash this promissory note.



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