A History of Nigeria’s Police Service

Asides from a few isolated cases, Nigeria's police force was never really an investigating force.

Image: S Martin via Flickr CC.

Let’s talk about the Nigeria Police this Easter Monday because they definitely need to be resurrected. The Nigerian police have come under a lot of scrutiny recently because of, frankly, very poor performance. From issues that require policing escalating to points where full blown military intervention is needed, to plain incompetence on the parts of police officers, and cases where it is quite clear that the people do not trust those who are meant to protect them. Where did it all go wrong?

The Nigerian Police exists as a force to provide, er, security for Nigerians. It was established in 1930 by the colonial government. Before 1930, we had the Hausa Constabulary, established in 1879, the Royal Niger Company Constabulary (1888), the Niger Coast Constabulary (1894), and the Lagos Police, which was established in 1896.

Like Nigeria before it in 1914, the different police forces were merged for, err, “administrative convenience.” From that moment on, the police was administered from Lagos. Its main purpose was to stifle dissent to colonial rule.

This particular mission statement is important, because asides from a few isolated cases, our police was never really an investigating force.

In 1960, at our “independence”, our policemen simply swapped masters. Their brief did not change. The FG still used them to enforce their own point of view, even if that viewpoint was not entirely legal.

But at least they had the equipment to do their jobs. A criminal report in 1964 talked about fingerprinting, forensics and lab work.

Nigeria’s first Constitution after independence gave each region the right to have regional police forces while the FG retained oversight with NPF. However, because of the role of the Northern Police forces in the pogroms of 1966, the Gowon regime disbanded the regional police forces. The process of disbandment started in October 1966 and was complete by the end of 1972.

As of 1960, Nigeria had 12,000 policemen. By 1979, as a result of post-war expansion, there were 80,000. Most of them poorly trained. The 1979 Constitution gave the FG controlled NPF the sole-jurisdiction over the country.

However, that democratic experiment was short-lived, and the various military governments thereafter saw the NPF as a potential threat to their power, and as a result deliberately underfunded the force.

The only serious attempt ever to look at police behaviour was a committee set up in 1967. It concluded that the police was “hopelessly corrupt”. A previous effort in 1952 had a member of Nigeria’s parliament complained about “old sergeants” in the NPF who were “steeped in corruption”. Do these sound familiar?

By the 1990s, that reputation as “hopelessly corrupt” was cemented. A 1994 report said, “Most people just join the police to make money”. By the 1990s also, whatever security budget the police may have had was also being shared. In June 1986, Babangida dissolved the National Security Organisation and created the SSS. The SSS was responsible for domestic intelligence, and at first at least, drew from the police’s budget. What I do not know is whether, proportionately, the police’s budget went back up when the SSS went under the security vote when that was brought in by Abacha in the 1990s.

The UN recommends one police officer for every 400 citizens of a country for effective policing. With the return of “democracy in 1999”, there were 140,000 police officers in the country. 1 for every 820 Nigerians. In 2000, President Obasanjo ordered a recruitment drive to add 40,000 new officers each year for 5 years. The recruitment did not stop in 2005, and by 2008, we had nearly 400,00 policemen, a growth of almost 300% in less than a decade!

Again, about this time, in 2003 the EFCC was formed. It also drew from the police’s budget initially, we don’t know if, afterwards, budget has proportionally gone up.

Nigeria’s police now has around 400,000 policemen servicing a population of 170 millions, or 1 per 425 souls. But this is still a problem.

Most recruits were not trained in policing techniques. In some cases, they were virtually taught just to shoot and sent on their merry way. Does this remind you of the recruitment drive that happened between 1970 and 1979? It reminds me.

Then there is the guard duty thing for VIPs. At least 150,000 of our policemen are on guard duty for “bigmen”. What this means is that in reality, Nigeria has 250,000 policemen for our population. That translates to 1 policeman per 668 souls. WAY LESS THAN 1/400. It also means that even with the low man per population ratio, the police is chronically under-funded. So, there is a HUGE problem.

But asides the numbers, what are the other, probably more pertinent and structural problems of our police?

The police’s command structure has the President in charge of the PSC, then 12 Zonal Commands, then 37 State Commands, then 127 Area Commands. There are 1129 police divisions in our country, 1579 police stations, and a total of 3756 official police posts.

Policeman are often deployed, or redeployed across state lines, often without a local knowledge of their new deployment. Policemen are poorly paid, and have been known to seek supplementary income elsewhere.

Like in the Judiciary, a new policeman in a posting often has to resume a case from the start leading to bottlenecks.

There has been a large clamour for states to have their own police forces in response to the apparent unwieldiness of the national force. People have kicked against this idea because of a fear that governors would turn such forces into private armies. The fears are born out of the role that the police under Hassan Katsina played in May – July 1966, and the police under Sam Akintola in 1964. So they are not unfounded fears.

Again, and I repeat, the fear of politicians colonising state police are not unfounded. However, those fears are irrational.

It is irrational to expect a policeman who has lived all of his life in Bukuru, Plateau, to suddenly become effective in Ojoto, Anambra. He does not speak the language, neither does he understand the customs. So the people will not trust him. Criminals often come from communities that they harass. People are more likely to give them up to trusted policemen.

Then there is the issue of pay. It is no gain-saying that our policemen are chronically underpaid but still have to feed their families. Simple logic, if you pay a man NGN20k per month, and then give him a gun, you are giving him an order to rob people. The examples are glaring: in 2011 in Adamawa state, a policeman was arrested because for years he’d been giving robbers guns at 200k a pop. Of course he would give them such arms at such a rate. He was earning 84k a month and had two wives.

A few years ago, police Inspector General, Tafa Balogun was found to have helped himself to $98million from the police kitty. He is free now. His successor, Mike Ehidero became a guest of the state at Kuje Prison. His offence, helping himself to quite a lot of moolah. I make bold to say that at this rate, Uncle Ehidero will be a special guest at a party celebrating the 2015 Presidential Inauguration. Last Saturday, on Twitter, we were told that the current IG has a Bugatti Veyron. This is a vehicle that retails at $2.5 millions!

What these tell us is that money meant for effective policing is going nowhere. Police Internal Affairs is not doing its job.

On January 9, 2012, a policeman shot and killed Demola Aderinde. The case has stalled in court. Cue, a culture of impunity.

Back to the argument in favour of smaller, locally controlled police forces: Policemen should live within the community they police. Not in remote barracks that isolate them from the society, and make them alien to the very people they protect and serve.

So my solution to the police problem: state police under the control of a stronger judiciary, scrapping police barracks, better remuneration.

* Cheta Nwanze committed to doing a #HistoryClass once a week as a response to Nigeria’s removal of history from its school curriculum. 

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