A dreadful incident in which a senior police officer only just escaped being lynched while on official duty has once again highlighted the dire security situation in the country and the need to act swiftly to prevent a precipitous descent into anarchy. Nobody should think that the incident in Bayelsa State was a one-off. It is a situation that pops up practically every day; and, in many cases, the lynch mobs have their way, resulting in innocent souls being lost in very barbaric circumstances.
More terrifying is the fact that security agents are not spared, as was the case with Kolawole Okunola. For trying to ensure that sanity prevailed during the last presidential and National Assembly elections, Okunola, a Deputy Commissioner of Police, who had seen many battles with hardened criminals, as the head of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad in the state, drew the ire of a mutinous throng.
The photograph of the crime-buster during the incident cut an image of a thoroughly harassed and helpless person being tugged at from all sides by his wild assailants, baying for blood and totally unmindful of his status as a symbol of state authority. Under the circumstances that he found himself, it must have been difficult to convince the law officer that he was in a state governed by law and order. “It was like what happens in an action film. They manhandled me; and I was attacked several times with clubs; and was at the verge of being beheaded when I was rescued,” the beleaguered law enforcement official said. His assailants had reportedly taken away election materials for seven wards, denying people the opportunity to vote, only to smuggle the materials back to the collation centre, trying to pass them off as authentic. This is pathetic.
As a troubling scenario that is becoming increasingly common in that part of the country, it is still surprising that nothing concrete has been done to arrest the hazardous trend. During a rerun election in December 2016, a Deputy Superintendent of Police, Alkali Mohammed, was killed while his orderly was beheaded in an ambush at Omoku in Rivers State. The setting was hardly different from what obtained at Odi, a village in the neighbouring Bayelsa State, 17 years earlier, where 12 policemen, including an Assistant Commissioner of Police, were killed by some criminal elements. Sadly, an order by the government for the perpetrators of the crime to be fished out resulted in soldiers being ambushed, leading to an invasion and utter destruction of the community.
These incidents are not different from the bedlam that was unleashed on Nasarawa State by the Ombatse cult group in 2013. In a broad daylight attack at Alakyo village, truckloads of police officers and State Security Service agents were set ablaze and about 95 of them massacred. But to the greatest disappointment of Nigerians, the then head of the SSS, Ita Ekpenyong, came out to say that the culprits had been “forgiven.”
The police are part of the social contract between the government and the people. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the police represent the civil authority of the government and are typically “responsible for maintaining public order and safety, enforcing the law and preventing, detecting and investigating criminal activities.” What society will Nigerians be living in if the police can no longer perform these functions effectively? In fact, if the safety of policemen can no longer be guaranteed, what would be the fate of the ordinary Nigerian?
It is obvious that a society where the policing functions are not carried out effectively is one heading for an inevitable anarchy; it is a throwback to the era of the survival of the fittest. The Nigeria police have to adopt an option that will attract respect from the people. There is a need for a complete overhaul of the country’s policing system to ensure that policing is brought closer to the people. If, for instance, Nigeria was operating state police, it is doubtful if a Bayelsa State indigene would have been subjected to the type of treatment meted out to Okunola.
Besides, there is a need to enforce the law diligently. If those who murdered over 100 security men in Nasarawa State had been fished out and made to face the law, such incidents would not be mushrooming across the country. Again, in the photograph in which Okunola was being dragged, there were recognisable faces that should be rounded up without delay, both for interrogation and possible prosecution. Many times, incidents of criminals’ direct confrontation with the police and undermining their power have been allowed to go uncontested. These are part of the evidence of state failure and a society that cannot enforce its writ.
In every civilised part of the world, the police are feared by criminals. But in situations where criminals dare the police in whatever way, especially by attacking them, resulting in injury or death, such criminals are hunted down, no matter how long it takes. The law in such societies truly has long arms. When a female police officer and her partner were attacked by a gang of rampaging youths in Champigny-sur-Marne, south east of Paris, France, in December 2017, it caused a national outrage. The President, Emmanuel Macron, had to intervene, calling for justice. He said, “Those guilty of the cowardly lynching of police doing their duty on the night of December 31 will be found and punished.”
Criminals will always try to dare the police, but it is the way the state responds to it that will ultimately decide whether Nigeria remains a well-policed state or not. It will also make the difference between having a country that maintains the rule of law or one headed for anarchy.