Nigeria’s police are an exceedingly rotten lot, according to their own boss, Nigeria’s Acting Inspector-General of Police Alhaji Muhammad Abubakar.
In a meeting with senior police officials, Mr. Abubakar – placed in his job last month by President Goodluck Jonathan last month – warned commanders that they would be held personally responsible for any corruption or indiscipline that occurs by their subordinates from here onward.
"Justice has been perverted, people's rights denied, innocent souls committed to prison, torture and extra-judicial killings perpetrated,” said Abubakar, in a speech distributed to reporters in Abuja, the nation’s capital.
"Our anti-robbery squads have become killer teams…. Many people [are] arbitrarily detained in our cells because they cannot afford the illegal bail monies we demand. Our respect is gone and the Nigerian public has lost even the slightest confidence in the ability of the police to do any good thing," the police chief said.
Abubakar’s crackdown – if it is real – comes at a crucial time for Nigeria. Two separate armed insurgencies, a radical Islamist terror group called Boko Haram in the north, and a collection of Niger Delta militant groups in the southeast threaten the government’s ability to rule. Growing citizen discontent, underlined by December’s fuel-price strikes in Lagos and other cities, show that patience with a dysfunctional and corrupt government is running thin.
Like a soap opera character of an abusive husband trying to rescue his marriage, the Nigerian government has admitted it has a problem. The next step is to prove that it is ready to make some very real changes.
It will take more than a few words to convince ordinary Nigerians.
In a 2010 public opinion survey conducted by Transparency International, 73 percent of Nigerian respondents said that official corruption had increased in the previous three years.
According to Human Rights Watch, previous efforts at cleaning up the Nigerian police force have failed, largely because public complaint mechanisms and internal police controls have been underfunded, poorly led, and weak.
"It's time the Nigerian government at all levels took the devastating problem of police corruption seriously," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch in a statement accompanying a 2010 Human Rights Watch report, “‘Everyone's in on the Game': Corruption and Human Rights Abuses by the Nigeria Police Force.” "They should start by investigating and removing senior officers who tolerate and encourage extortion, and who deprive hard-working members of the force of the resources they need to do their jobs effectively."
Corruption is a problem throughout Nigerian society, of course, but corruption among police is the problem that affects the most people. Businessmen are often forced to pay bribes in order to get a truckful of their products through a police checkpoint to the markets. Ordinary citizens face harassment over petty accusations. Victims of crimes often have to bribe police to launch an investigation on their behalf.
Such petty corruption occurs in varying degrees throughout the African continent, where post-colonial rulers have adopted many of the powers and habits of their previous strong-armed European colonial rulers. But in Nigeria, police corruption has become something of an art form.
“The Anti Robbery Squads (SARS) have become killer teams, engaging in deals for land speculators and debt collection, while toll stations in the name of checkpoints adorn the highways with policemen shamefully collecting money from motorists in the full glare of the public,” Abubakar said in his speech.
Many Nigerian politicians promise to tackle corruption. Many of these are either corrupted along the way, or otherwise frustrated by the well-entrenched bureaucrats and ruling elites who benefit from the corrupt system.
Abubakar insists that his campaign will be different.
“Let me state that the Nigeria Police Force is committed to the enforcement of all laws and will work with the NTDC (the Nigerian Tourism Development Corporation) to ensure the enforcement of this regulation at the federal, state and local government levels.”
Many Nigerians will be watching closely to see whether the current campaign by President Jonathan and Abubakar will live up to their words.
The emerging new orientation of the Nigerian Police is … laudable because investors would only put their money in an economy if they are sure of the security of their investments as well as the protection of the lives and property of their staff.
The acting IGP must, therefore, make sure that his promise to reform the Nigerian Police would not become the same rhetoric of his predecessors.