By Tunji Ajibade
The Lagos State Panel of Inquiry investigating police brutality invited a police officer, Ms Dolapo Badmus, to appear before it. The drama came when it was submitted that this officer was not ‘reachable.’ We aren’t hearing this for the first time. Police brutality as well as the sudden disappearance of officers from where they should answer questions with regard to their action is the tradition, a phenomenon that’s been piling up for decades. It reached a peak whereby Nigerians took to the streets to protest. We’ve never heard voice of protestation this loud. It’s got to be the case as Nigerians who have ever had contact with the police know what they know. I know what I know.
It’s concerning that things descend this low here. I stated it in the past: The system has been steadily decimated, lame, such that no public institution in Nigeria works as it should. Here, I give an illustration of what I refer to, the same illustration I recently gave a young Nigerian who engaged me in a conversation over the state of our nation. (The rot always sets in through the action of an individual; once this goes unchecked and unpunished it spreads and becomes systemic.) I recall collecting the pen that this young man holds in his hand, as I set out to illustrate to him why our public institutions don’t work as they should, why they’ve become this lame. I explain that the head of a government agency may have the power to buy pens and distribute to his members of staff. This head may take the unusual decision to ensure every kobo set aside for the purchase of pens is used for the purpose. If this head gives the pens out to be distributed to staff without taking out of the pack more than what he’s legally entitled to, the same pattern is likely to be followed by everyone down the ladder.
If this is what happens, the system or the process will work. Everyone gets what’s theirs. Everyone is encouraged by the fact that ‘oga at the top’ is doing what is right, so they feel obligated to face their duties and discharge their responsibility as allotted to them. However, when the head of a public institution starts the process of expending resources for the purchase of pens with the mindset of taking more than he’s entitled to, the process becomes flawed. The system won’t work as it should because the foundation is compromised. The negative trend flows down the ladder since subordinates will do what their boss does. They will, because the boss cannot challenge them over a process in which he has already set a negative example.
This scenario plays out in everything we do in public institutions – recruitment, utilization of public resources, promotion, discipline, distribution of public resources as the warped distribution of covid-19 palliatives in some states clearly indicated. Add to this the national distributive approach that we adopt – federal character, rotation, state of origin, religion etc. – and the reason most public institutions don’t work as they should is made plain.
In the case of the Nigeria Police, how does this scenario specifically play out? It’s not much different. Has any Nigerian who’s qualified tried to get recruited into the police force and they are blocked out for no logical reason? Is anyone already in the police force? They know the anti-clockwise manner recruitment and other processes work. Just the other month, the Police Civil Service Commission was at war with the police hierarchy over which of them should undertake the latest recruitment exercise. Does anyone have a police officer as friends? Their ears are filled with stories of the strange manner the resources meant for the police are managed, such that even the little meant for each police station doesn’t get to them. They have no money to purchase stationeries, maintain police vehicles, as well as convey the body of their late colleagues who die while in service back to the village for burial. There’s as well stories of how junior police officers allegedly pay in order to be given police uniforms.
What does all of that do to the psyche of the police constable that Nigerians come in contact with on the streets, and the ones they meet standing behind those counters in the neighbourhood’s police station? The answers are there in the treatment the typical police officer gives Nigerians they come across. I’ve come across a few myself, and there’s one encounter in particular which shows how the police force isn’t configured to listen to complaints from the public about the conduct of their officers and follow it through. This aspect has been such a source of much frustration for Nigerians, the very phenomenon that led to those protests which the nation witnessed not long ago.
Back to my example in regard to police brutality. A few years ago, there were these two policemen of the mobile police unit who conducted themselves in a unethical manner in the premises of a bank. I reported the case at the nearest police station. There, I was told the policemen at the bank on this specific day were from a unit with their separate barracks in town. I went to the barracks. The first thing I discovered was that the official list containing names of policemen posted to the bank on the day I had in mind was missing. I mean postings on that date, and a few other dates were missing. There was no official record that policemen were posted to this bank. In the event, it would be difficult to prove that these policemen were present as security operatives at the bank. It turned out that the head of this mobile police unit was a postgraduate student in the department where I was running a programme at the time. I brought the matter to his attention. He listened attentively and said he would plead with me to drop the matter. Once I heard that, I knew I wouldn’t get any cooperation from him in order to pursue the case.
That time, I got listened to by the man who was the head of the mobile police unit to which the policemen who misbehaved belonged. Many Nigerians don’t even get a hearing. Such cases piled up for years, leading to frustration among citizens. When the ENDSARS protests erupted and Nigerians got a hearing at the panel of inquiry set up in the states, we learnt the Nigeria Police went to court to challenge the legality of the process. These were panels set up on the order of the National Executive Council. It’s not where I’m heading. My concern is that state governments didn’t set up panels of inquiry until Abuja said they should. Did the states need to get a matching order from the FG before they set up panels of inquiry into cases of brutality against their citizens? This leads back to my position on this page not so long ago that we have politicians who advocate federalism but practice unitarism. These states have their own judiciary, separate from that of the FG, and this can be configured to inquire into any matter of public importance as they desire. None of them did in regard to police brutality until FG gave the nod.
When the police went to court to challenge the legality of the panels of inquiry, the argument some put forward was that the police had the effrontery to challenge an order which NEC gave. Again, do states need NEC to tell them what they should investigate and what they shouldn’t? This lack of will among state governments to address issues affecting their citizens made them culpable in how a police unit brutalized Nigerians for years, but nothing was done until protests erupted and loss of Trillions in public property followed. In my view, since the police force, like other federal public institutions don’t respond to citizens’ complaints as they should one way out
Tunji Ajibade is a Public Affairs Analyst.