Still luxuriating in the ecstasy of his second term inauguration, President Muhammadu Buhari has just been presented with an opportunity to implement a surgical reform of the Nigeria Police Force. Not surprisingly, the window of reform opened up again after the Presidential Panel on the Reform of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad recently submitted its report on alleged SARS atrocities to the President, making a series of outstanding recommendations on the way forward. Apart from calling for punishment for culpable officers, its most salient point is the establishment of state and local government police.
Considering the worsening insecurity nationwide, the Buhari government should execute this particular recommendation with uncommon gusto, having earlier approved community policing, according to the Inspector-General of Police, Mohammed Adamu. Really, Nigerians are waiting eagerly for the President’s next move. This is after he (Buhari) gave Adamu, the Ministry of Justice and the National Human Rights Commission a three-month deadline “to work out the modality for the implementation” of the panel’s report.
In the past, the President’s disposition had been hostile towards the idea of state police. In addition, there was further anxiety shortly after his directive on the modalities for the implementation of the panel’s report when the Presidency denied that Buhari had approved state police. “(President) Buhari’s specific directive is that a three-man panel be set up to produce the White Paper” from which Buhari will take a final decision, a Presidency statement said. At this point, the only meaningful decision from Buhari will be to bring about a new era of state police.
From the 113 petitions it received from victims of police excesses, the panel, headed by Anthony Ojukwu, who doubles as the Executive Secretary of the NHRC, recommended that Buhari direct “the Inspector-General of Police to unravel the identity of 22 officers involved in the violation of the human rights of innocent citizens.” It is a proper preamble.
The panel, which commenced its work in August 2018 amidst the tensions then generated by SARS’ brutality, also advocated the dismissal of 37 officers and prosecution of 24 others for various violations. Two retired senior officers – one for alleged extra-judicial killing and the other for illegally taking over a suspect’s property – were cited for arrest and prosecution. Forty-five victims of violations are to receive financial compensation, five to get public apologies and the police ordered to obey court orders in five cases, all of which are sound submissions.
These outcomes resonate with the citizens, but they are just routine administrative measures expected in a decent police organisation. Over the years, discipline has broken down in the police. The IG and his predecessors have been unable to withdraw policemen attached illegally to VIPs. The welfare of officers has suffered greatly, recruitment compromised and training and re-training at a low ebb, provoking frightening security breaches. It is why SARS was established. Apparently, SARS failed in that regard.
Instead, the unit has acquired notoriety for human rights abuses, harassment, illegal detentions, extortion and callous killings. Just as Buhari was giving approval to the Ojukwu team’s recommendations, a SARS officer shot dead Chukwudike Onuoha, 23, in Afaraukwu, Umuahia, in Abia State, during a minor altercation at a checkpoint. In April, SARS officers invaded a football-viewing centre in Mangoro, Ikeja, in Lagos and shot dead Kolade Johnson. They claimed they were out to arrest those who wore dreadlocks. Just last week, a police officer with the IG Monitoring Unit in Rivers State, shot dead a 21-year-old man, Daniel Agori, in his family over a minor family dispute.
Indeed, because of SARS’ excesses, young Nigerians staged protests in 2017, calling for the scrapping of the unit, with the hashtag #EndSARS. In October 2018, Amnesty International noted that the police and soldiers killed 45 Shiite protesters over two days in Abuja, injuring 166. Repeatedly, arbitrary arrests, torture and enforced disappearance hallmark police operations. Banditry and kidnapping, hitherto unheard of, have become a poisonous staple. There has been repeated bloodshed in Zamfara, Sokoto, Katsina, Kaduna and Niger and Kebbi states in the past couple of years. The IG stated that 1,071 Nigerians were slaughtered by criminals in first quarter 2019, 685 kidnapped and 212 robbery cases recorded.
In the past 10 years, Boko Haram insurgents have slaughtered thousands, destroyed farmland, businesses and education while rendering 2.3 million homeless. Fulani herdsmen, exploiting the weak security architecture, have spilled blood wantonly in the North-Central. The Global Terrorism Index lists those two groups among the four most deadly terrorist groups globally. The South is not free from the scourge.
In recognition of the failings brought by the centralised police structure, the panel boldly pitched for state police, which this newspaper has also relentlessly advocated. Ojukwu and his team have a sagacious understanding of the times. Buhari, a retired general, also has to accept the inevitability of state police as the panacea for the suffocating insecurity threatening Nigeria’s corporate existence.
Ideally, federal countries operate decentralised police systems. This is the structure in places like Switzerland, Belgium, the United States, Canada, Australia and Germany. Each state or union territory of India has its own separate police force. “Article 246 of the Constitution of India designates the police as a state subject, which means that the state governments frame the rules and regulations that govern each police force,” notes the London-based NGO, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. It was based on this that policing was devolved in the First Republic.
In this fragile, divisive era, it is naïve to have a single police force taking orders from Abuja to police successfully a disparate entity of 201 million people. With inventiveness, Buhari should initiate the repeal of the inhibiting Sections 214 to 216 of the 1999 Constitution. Illogically, those provisions centralise and vest the control of the police in the Federal Government.
Adequate safeguards should be built into the new law to prevent the governors from undermining or abusing it.