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The average Nigerian attempting to make precarious ends meet as taxi drivers, civil servants, market traders, shopkeepers and even students are accosted on a daily basis by armed police officers who demand bribes and commit human rights abuses against them as a means of extorting money. Those who fail to pay are frequently threatened with arrest and physical harm.
Far too often these threats are carried out. Meanwhile, victims of crime are obliged to pay the police from the moment they enter a police station to file a complaint until the day their case is brought before a court. In the shadows, high-level police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds meant to cover basic police operations. Senior police officers also enforce a perverse system of “returns” in which rank-and-file officers are compelled to pay up the chain of command a share of the money they extort from the public.
Those charged with police oversight, discipline, and reform have for years failed to take effective action, thereby reinforcing impunity for police officers of all ranks who regularly perpetrate crimes against the citizens they are mandated to protect.
To add insult to injury, most members of the very corrupt political system in Nigeria use the police officials as personal bodyguards and pawns to commit atrocious crimes and intimidate people whenever they deem it fit.
“As long as you’re heavily loaded and powerful, the law is an ass”
The Nigeria Police Force, established in 1930, has a long history of engaging in unprofessional, corrupt, and criminal conduct. Over the years, this unwieldy force—Africa’s largest—has proved difficult to effectively manage and control and has become largely unaccountable to the citizens it is meant to serve. Many Nigerian police officers conduct themselves in an exemplary manner, working in difficult and often dangerous conditions—some 250 policemen and women were shot and killed in the line of duty in 2009—but for many Nigerians, the police force has utterly failed to fulfill its mandate of providing public security.
80 years after its birth, members of the force are viewed more as predators than protectors, and the Nigeria Police Force has become a symbol in Nigeria of unfettered corruption, mismanagement, and abuse.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) is a dreaded controversial unit of the Nigeria Police Force. The Special Anti-Robbery Squad is a unit under the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department headed by the Deputy Inspector General of Police Anthony Ogbizi. The DIG receives its directives from the Inspector General of Police. SARS as it is popularly called is known for extortion, torture, framing up suspects and even blackmail.
The Special Anti-Robbery Squad was founded in 1992 by former police commissioner Simeon Danladi Midenda. The major reason SARS was formed was when Col. Rindam, a Nigerian Army Colonel was killed by police officers at a checkpoint in Lagos. When the information reached the army, soldiers were dispatched into the streets of Lagos in search of any police officer. The Nigerian police withdrew from checkpoints, security areas, and other points of interest for criminals, some police officers were said to have resigned while others fled for their lives. Due to the absence of police for two weeks crime rate increased and SARS was formed with only 15 officers operating in the shadows without knowledge of the army while monitoring police radio chatters. Due to the existence of already established three anti-robbery squad which was operational at that time, Midenda needed to distinguish his squad from the already existing teams. Midenda named his team Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS). After months of dialogue the Nigerian Army and the Nigeria Police Force came to an understanding and official police duties began again in Lagos. The SARS unit was officially commissioned in Lagos following a ceasefire by the army after settlement.
SARS is one of the 14 units in the Force Criminal Investigation and Intelligence Department which was established to detain, investigate and prosecute people involved in crimes like armed robbery, kidnapping and other forms of crimes but this is not the norm as they have turned the establishment into a witch-hunting, oppressive commission.
Extortion, embezzlement, and other corrupt practices by Nigeria’s police undermine the fundamental human rights of Nigerians in two key ways. First, the most direct effect of police corruption on ordinary citizens stems from the myriad human rights abuses committed by police officers in the process of extorting money. These abuses range from arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, including physical and sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings.
The most common venue for extortion occurs at police roadblocks, ostensibly put in place to combat crime. In practice, these checkpoints have become a lucrative criminal venture for the police who routinely demand bribes from drivers and passengers alike, in some places enforcing a de facto standardized toll. Motorists are frequently detained and endure harassment and threats until they or their family members negotiate payment for their release. Extortion-related confrontations between the police and motorists often escalate into more serious abuses.
The police have on numerous occasions severely beaten, sexually assaulted, or shot to death ordinary citizens who failed to pay the bribes demanded.
The police commonly round up random citizens in public places, including mass arrests at restaurants, markets, and bus stops. In some cases of blatant deception, plainclothes police officers simply masquerade as commuter minibus drivers, pick up unsuspecting passengers at bus stops, and take them at gunpoint to nearby police stations where they demand money in return for their release. The police often make little effort to veil their demand for bribes, brazenly doing so in open corridors and rarely bothering to question those in detention about any alleged crime. Those who fail to pay are often threatened and unlawfully detained, and at times sexually assaulted, tortured, or even killed in police custody. Many of these abuses are perpetrated as a means to further extort money from ordinary citizens or from fearful family members trying to secure the freedom of those detained.
Second, these criminal acts by the police, coupled with their failure to perform many of their most basic functions, severely undermine the rule of law in Nigeria. The most recent incident being the aggressive, unwarranted kidnap attempt on a former Managing Director of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), Joy Nunieh. The police routinely extort money from victims to investigate a given criminal case, which leaves those who refuse or are unable to pay without access to justice. Meanwhile, criminal suspects with money can simply bribe the police to avoid arrest, detention, or prosecution, to influence the outcome of a criminal investigation, or to turn the investigation against the victim.
To fix the police and turn them from a bunch of trigger-happy brigands to a crop of civilised, organised, courteous law enforcers, the government has to throw away its current recruitment process and replace same with a more professional, scientific one—a recruitment process that takes the mental and psychological well-being of the interviewee into question.
The police force only attracts the worst of the society at the moment because the decent and well educated would rather mind their business than enlist in a force that has been allowed to decay through the years.
To cap it all, the new police force should be handed better ammunition or equipment, handed better cars, trained in line with global policing best practices, taught to deploy intelligence in its operations, and encouraged to become friends with members of the public.
If we are serious about changing the tattered reputation of the joke we call the police in Nigeria, we have to go the whole hog. This spasmodic, short-term attempts at fixing what is a deep-seated rot in the police force, is akin to deodorizing a stench. No real change happens until you actually uproot the object causing the stench in the first place.
AFRICA DAILY NEWS, NEW YORK