By Adebayo Obajemu
The Nigeria Police as we know it today is one of the institutions that was established in the country before the grant of Independence in 1960. At that, it would be seen as an institution that has indeed come a long way. And as such also, it has a lot to reveal.
This is what has also agitated Business Hallmark in the wake of the recent furore over police performance in relation to its treatment of young people in the country.
Incensed by the hard and tough treatment that has seemingly been meted to them, the young people recently launched protests calling for an abolition of one of the units of the force, the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, SARS.
Underscoring the fact that the young people were not crying wolf, the authorities not only went on to accede to this request, BH checks equally reveal that the management of the unit has indeed been a challenge for several years running, with different probes and commissions having been raised in the past in connection with public concern over what has now come to be described as its rogue method of operation.
No new thing under the sun
More tellingly however, the misconduct of the SARS operatives is being seen as one that fits into the broader mould of a police force that historically, has almost always been quite alienated from the public.
For those who hold this view, they go as far back as the Aba Women’s Riot of 1929 where police personnel opened fire on and killed several protesters. They also recall that almost exactly two decades after the Aba massacre – that had spanned budding towns and settlements like Umuahia and Ikot Ekpene – the police had equally opened fire on protesting miners at Iva Valley, Enugu in what has now gone into the annals of history as the Iva Valley Massacre of 1949.
If these were about the only incidents, perhaps that would be all. But we have continued to witness almost on an annual basis, continuing incidents of what amounts to the misuse of privilege and position by the Nigeria Police.
In July 1981, the US-based Nigerian international, Dele Udo was victim of extra-judicial killing while on a visit to the country. Months earlier, he had very proudly donned the country’s colours at the 1980 Summer Olympics.
And indeed on the scale of public rage that has been spawned by the acts of police abuse, this is not the first time that riots have broken out on account of police brutality if we take into account the riots in Lagos Island in 1987 that came on the heels of the killing of the Dawodu brothers.
Overall then, it has been the case of one century of doom from an unreformed police system from 1929 to 1949 and on to 2030.
One person who should know about how the police have carried itself through the years is Innocent Chukwuma. The long-standing civil society gadfly, who has been involved in a myriad of police related advocacy work at the Civil Liberties Organisation, CLO and CLEEN Foundation before coming to his present berth at Ford Foundation sees the challenge as a quite deep one that requires a wide range of structural interventions.
Affirming that the protests by the young people essentially fits in with the provisions outlined in the preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which affirms that ‘it is essential if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,’ he notes that what has essentially happened is that young people have only somewhat responded to this burden.
Origin of the crisis
Chukwuma sees the origin of the crisis in the anti-people architecture of the colonial police system. In his view, it is the failure of the new Nigerian rulers that stepped up to fill the shoes of the colonialists that we are still contending with.
‘This is something that has been there for a long time, so tracing it dates back to 1960 when we had our independence. The expectation was that all agencies government used to oppress the people during the colonial era would be retrained to understand that they are now serving a democratic society and are expected to treat citizens in a cordial manner and act as servants of the people. But that did not happen.
So, what we inherited, not just in Nigeria but other African countries that experienced colonialism, was an adaptation of the colonial government style of policing, which was more of an occupation force.’
In the First Republic, the police and other security services were turned out into the streets to deal with all kinds of challenges.
In the North for example, the native authority police which ran side by side with the NPF, were reportedly used against groups and interests that did not align with that of the ruling party. This was to continue during the military era when for example the police was used against protesting students and labour leaders.
Even in the current democratic dispensation this has continued, going on to reach its peak in the excesses that have now come to be associated with the disbanded SARS outfit.
Legal and policy reform
Over the years, there has been a clamour for the fundamental transformation to make them understand that policing in a democracy is different from policing in a military rule or colonial era. This built on to the September 16 signing of the reviewed Police Act that had been originally enacted in 1943.
It is the belief of Chukwuma that the new act encompasses new formats to address the welfare of the police, rights to citizens, and punishment for police offenders, and could bring in some more efficiency, transparency, accountability, and partnership with the community they serve if properly enforced.
But this is not the first time that moves are being made to reform the police as between 2017 and 2020, there had been four pronouncements on the disbandment of SARS and they remained there until now.
‘So, despite the fact that the government issued a notice on the ban of SARS and agreed to the five-point demand of the protesters, it will take a lot of convincing for young people to fully agree that this time they can have trust in the government. At the stakeholders meeting, I attended to announce the disbandment, it was agreed that members of SARS need psychological evaluations, so we want to see the commencement of that exercise. Although I am aware that they have been asked to converge, I am also interested in knowing whether they were provided transport,’ Chukwuma expressed.
He also touched on the other demands of the protesters.
‘Another is to set up a panel of inquiry on violations of citizens’ rights that officers found culpable will be brought to book as it was done in 2005 in Abuja where traders were killed and relatives of victims were compensated.
Also, the protesters seek an end to police brutality and improving accountability in the force. Constantly engaging them and reassuring them, which we are beginning to see leaders do across the country is necessary. Over time, the crowd will begin to thin. Also, if their issues are not attended to, protests like this can take a life of its own and widen its goal. So, if care is not taken it will be extended beyond the police as an institution to bad governance in this country.’
Clearly, the delay in taking action of a more concrete nature has already opened the door for the lizards to congregate.
Excesses of ‘protesters’
Though he insists that ‘the right to protest is fundamental and expected in a democratic setting,’ Chukwuma however goes on to note that ‘in exercising that right, we do not need to conduct ourselves in a way that jeopardises or stands in the way of the rights of other citizens to the extent that we hear of blocking of roads such that people who are in serious need of getting to their destinations such as children, women and elderly people are trapped on the road for hours. They need to re-think, in order not to lose the public support they are gaining.’
But then he equally notes that part of the challenge may also lie in an attitude of the police and government not wanting to ‘acknowledge the rights of the protesters to protest by ensuring that they are not brutalised, arrested, and detained, or shot.’
Overall however, he counsels that ‘the government at all levels should know that the Nigerian youths have woken up. They have reached that point where their backs have touched the ground.’
The way forward
To be sure, police brutality does not only happen in Nigeria.
Black Americans have also faced it. From Emmet Till, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and even George Floyd in the recent times that has led to expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, African-Americans have been battling the scourge that in their case comes alongside institutional racism.
In South Africa, the situation has not been dissimilar. In Soweto and Sharpeville and indeed in the Apartheid years, police brutality was indeed quite a massive challenge.
Part of the challenge in comprehensively resolving the issues involved is that the operators of the present police system believe that, being a critical part of the modern administration of the criminal justice system, they are plainly indispensable.
While part of this is informed by the barefaced reality that in tow with the prisons and courts, it is a chain that the world has come to rely on, the other part of the story is that there is a sense where, before the current stand-off, many of the rulers and decision makers in the country had continued to dismiss public outcry over the spate of abuses in the system as one of those things that would only boil out for a brief season, before petering off. Very sadly, this attitude has clearly not produced any sustainable results but has indeed worsened things and brought us to the current #EndSARS pass. And here’s hoping that the appropriate lessons may now be learnt and more enduring approaches can be undertaken towards a full resolution of the challenge.