Everyone in Nigeria has experienced the failure of the police to carry out their duty to uphold the law – from the routine “dashing” money to officers at road checkpoints and failures to investigate crimes to horrifying tales of extortion and murder.
The litany of crimes they commit fill pages of newspapers and reports from human rights organisations. Put a microphone in front of people in the street, however, and they will say one thing: “It’s not as bad as it used to be.”
Most people will feel that if you say something about the police it could be trouble for you, they may trace you
Anonymous Abuja resident
This BBC series has revealed first-hand how the police struggle against incompetence, poor training and equipment. How they arbitrarily arrest and imprison people and how “shockingly common” extra-judicial executions are. Such is the mistrust of the police that ordinary people prefer to patrol their own streets and administer their own “jungle justice”.
So what are the prospects for improving the police to make it an effective service?
The government is currently attempting to reform the police.
KEY WHITE PAPER REFORMS
- Better pay Police officers are paid as little as $40 (Â£26) a month, this should be raised to $100 for police constables
- Bad eggs Deal with the estimated 10,000 officers with criminal records hired between 2001 and 2004
- Complaints A reliable system for the public to complain should be established
- Better educated Recruits should attain a certain level of qualification before being considered
- Promotions Job applications should be transparently managed
- Uniforms Policemen should not have to buy their own
- Communications Police should get an up-to-date communication network
- Equipment Police should be given better investigating tools and the training to use them
They have produced a White Paper with 79 recommendations for improving the police force, which is due to be considered by the National Assembly and turned into a Police Reform Bill.
Reading them it is clear how far the police have to go.
According to the paper, the police needs to be seriously overhauled from better training, new uniforms, more pay, the building of new police stations and colleges to better equipment and promotion regimes. It describes the resources needed to do it as “enormous”, and says it will take at least five years. But police reform activists say the proposals do not tackle the serious issue of political independence. “The police will continue to see their job as carrying out the will of the political powers,” says Innocent Chukwuma of the Cleen Foundation.
He says recommendations that would have removed the president’s power to appoint the chief of police and give the appointee security of tenure in office were taken out of the white paper.
Force or service?
Those in the police itself agree it will be a long road. “There are numerous challenges the police face,” says Assistant Commissioner Austin Iwar at the force headquarters in the capital, Abuja.
Poor equipment is not the only problem the police have, reformers say “The police as it is now came out of a military administration. That is probably the biggest challenge we face – turning it from a force into a service.”
He agrees that police officers often lack the skills needed to police effectively. But he refuses to admit the most serious allegations made about the police – that they brutally torture and sometimes kill suspects without trial.
“I have spent a long time in investigations in the police and I have never tortured anyone to make a case,” he says. His job is to strengthen the police’s “community policing” initiative.
In short, this means improving the relationship between the police and the community, so people do not feel the law is something alien or foreign to them. Then, when a crime occurs community leaders can bring information to the police to help locate the criminals.
It is a programme supported since 2002 by the UK government’s Â£30m ($45m) Security Justice and Growth programme. But privately, officers say there is a big problem with reform. Once an officer gets to a rank where it is possible to make reforms, he or she is so deeply involved in a corrupt system that they cannot change it.
Past attempts at reform have faltered. In 2007, Inspector General Sunday Ehindero announced that more than 10,000 officers would be sacked in an attempt to root out “bad eggs”. Thousands of officers with criminal records had been knowingly employed by his predecessor Tafa Balogun, who was later convicted on corruption charges. But the officers who were sacked were often not the “bad eggs”, an investigation by the National Assembly heard afterwards
Instead, they had wormed their way into the system and survived the purge. The investigation also heard how police regulators and the government officials in charge of policing were fully aware of the existence of criminal officers, but for more than five years did nothing about it.
Talking to Nigerians on the streets of Abuja about their police force, most are up-beat about the possibilities of reform. “They are trying,” says 29-year-old Salome, a shopkeeper.
“They need to improve training and pay,” says Ibrahim, a civil servant. But people are also cautious; no-one the BBC spoke to would agree to have their picture taken. “Most people will feel that if you say something about the police it could be trouble for you, they may trace you,” one man said – refusing to give his name.