By Bukar Usman
Maybe the best way to start making my case for local police is to remind us that local and independent police formations once existed in Nigeria before their integration into the Nigeria Police Force (NPF). And going by the low rate of crime and the communal peace generally experienced across the nation in those days, the local police formations, from the benefit of hindsight, can be said to have performed better than its unitary replacement, the Nigeria Police Force.
The NPF is one of those experiments Nigeria embarked on as an extension of her interpretation and application of the uneasy concept of federalism. Several years after, with corruption and criminality threatening the peaceful co-existence we once took for granted during the era of the local police, isn’t it time we jettisoned the NPF experiment? As an experiment, the NPF has outlived its usefulness. The time is ripe for Nigeria to reintroduce the local police.
Please note that I use the term “local police” for lack of a better expression as “state police” currently seems to evoke considerable anxiety in the minds of some people. Such people can’t imagine how such awesome coercive instrument as state police could be reposed in the hands of our powerful executive governors. Whichever name we give it, let us decentralize the policing of the country by reintroducing local police forces as they are naturally in a better position to police their familiar environment.
I must confess that I am somewhat nostalgic about the local police as I cast my mind back to the days of the Native Authority police of the 50s and 60s. As a primary school pupil in my home town, Biu, I had admired, from a distance, the strict duties of the “Charge Office,” the revered name the local divisional police headquarters in Biu was called by the local folks. The “Charge Office” occupied one end of the “Central Office,” which was simply a mud building with only a couple of offices to house the police establishment. Only the Chief Warder, the local police head, had a secluded office; the other ranks merely reported to the Duty Room to be deployed to their beats.
“You are not obliged to say anything but whatever you say may be taken into evidence and may be used against you.” Those words were written in chalk on the blackboard in the charge office, a practice in human rights awareness one hardly sees these days in NPF police posts. The local police considered themselves members of the community they were policing. Indeed, those were the days of community policing in the real sense. The police went out of their way to add value to the community. For instance, in emergencies such as fire outbreak or escape of prisoners, they blow the eerie bugle alarm and the whistle to alert the people of danger and mobilise communal assistance. The police constable on duty also doubled as the time-keeper for the township as he hourly struck the iron gong once, twice or thrice… according to the hour. The sound resonated throughout the town and helped those who had no time piece to be mindful of the time. Many people found that police iron-gong sound more helpful than the alternative practice of relying on the movement of the sun to know the time of the day.
The police were only a handful. Every Monday morning, neatly dressed, they mounted parades, inspected by the royal father, in front of the Emir’s palace. I saw no barracks. Every one of them was accommodated in their houses among other members of the community. Their operational tools were also simple and bare. The main ones appeared to be a baton and a shield made from bamboo-like material with which they practised crowd control. They had no vehicle. Police expenditure was minimal; yet, the local police was effective in policing the community.
We slept literally with our eyes closed. We had mainly petty thieves. We also had occasional cases of burglary, assault and elopement. There were a few daring robbers, the most notorious of whom was Malam Gulani. He operated in the style of the legendry Robin Hood, but he was tracked down by the local police. News of the police nabbing that elusive robber brought relief to the community.
That was the era of community policing at its best: simple, inexpensive and yet effective. Some of the dare-devil crime-busters among them operated with so much bravado. They struck terror in people to believe they were bullet-proof and iron-proof or even invisible and invincible. The local police operated largely in that manner until they were fully integrated in 1972 into the country-wide force called the Nigeria Police Force. Subsequent developments saw the NPF structured into zone, state, area and divisional commands, with the smallest administrative units being the local police stations. This arrangement subsists today, but is it serving the nation well?
In view of the general state of insecurity in the country, there have been calls for a review of the current manner of policing the nation. The suggestion for the creation of state police, which for long has been on the card, has been revived. Apparently in response to this, during a recent visit to Kwara State, the president was quoted as saying that it was the consensus at the National Council of State that state police should not be allowed until our political development reaches the stage it would not be abused. Shortly after, the Governor of Yobe State reportedly said that only 2 of the state governors voted for state police when the proposal was put before the Nigerian Governors’ Forum. The position of the state governors was particularly surprising.
I am of the strong opinion that in spite of these high-level reservations, there is need for a serious review of the current policing arrangement in the country. Population is growing by leaps and bounds. There is no way effective policing can be assured by the current unified system which, to a large extent, violates the principle of federalism we all profess. And it is questionable to say that state or local police will be more open to abuse than the current unified system. Nor should the state or zone structure of the NPF be considered alternatives to local or state police. The present zone structure of the Nigeria Police Force, which incurs heavy administrative overheads, merely provides promotion posts, as decision-making is still largely centralised.
There are two main arguments against state police: the fear of political vendetta; and the natural resistance to loss of territorial power by the NPF police establishment. But it is high time these and other excuses advanced over the years gave way to effective policing at the grassroots, the lack of which is responsible for the proliferation of armed groups across the country.
Putting a high premium on the vital place of “local knowledge” in any effective fight against crime, the Babangida administration initiated the practice of deploying certain levels of policemen to their ethnic, linguistic or cultural areas. I am not sure the police sustained that initiative.
State police should be instituted and the sooner the better. For sure, some interests may be inconvenienced. However, on balance the security of the generality of the community will be better assured, and the risk is worth taking now. Delay would result into greater loss of lives and properties as our security situation deteriorates further. Given its current revenue challenges, the federal government’s ability to provide adequate decent barracks as well as the logistic needed to sustain the unified police structure appears to have significantly diminished.
Today’s local or state police, I must observe at this juncture, would necessarily be a modification of the local police structure of my childhood days. Population has increased and the social environment has become much more complex. Today’s criminals are very mobile, sophisticated, and use very dangerous and mass-destructive devices. But our modern criminals generally succeed in their hide-and-strike games because the average NPF policeman is often a stranger to the community the criminal is very familiar with. “Local knowledge” is vital and it is the absence of this which is at the root of the failure of the police to deal effectively with criminal activities across the nation.
Nigeria needs to re-introduce local policing. It could be by the creation of state police or some other local structure. We need to do this now as failure to do so means continuing to live with the menace of barbaric militias and vigilantes of all shades and pretentions. For sure, we can’t make headway with the current police structure which is not only unbearably costly but also largely operates without the full benefit of “local knowledge.”
Equipping and motivating the Nigeria Police Force, as is being advocated by some people, will not make any fundamental difference. The Nigeria Police Force is not fundamentally a community police force which can match criminals in the use and application of “local knowledge.” This is the main problem, and this is why we need local police. It is the local police, when re-introduced, we should equip and motivate, not the Nigeria Police Force.
At independence, fired by the zeal to build a strong united nation, we had unified armed forces, unified prison service, etc. So, in that nationalistic mood, we also mistakenly created a national police force which had under-performed over the years. It is high time we corrected that mistake and decentralised this troubled Nigeria Police Force whose serious handicap has made our armed forces to operate routinely as the “first line of defence,” and militarise the society.
Naturally, the NPF hierarchy may not favour a break up of its “empire” while others may have genuine fears of political abuse of the state police. But who says there is no political abuse under the present arrangement when even the EFCC, a federal civil agency, was able to coerce some legislators into impeaching some state governors a few years ago. We must sacrifice political expediency in favour of effective crime fighting to usher in the much needed peace and security under which the welfare of our people can be stabilised. Our ongoing constitutional reviews must give serious consideration to the state/local police and bring it about immediately as a compliment to our security arrangements in the country. The issue should be considered along with devolution of powers to the States and allocation of revenue to go with it.
The power to the States to establish state police should be granted by law stipulating conditions and standards the breach of which could warrant the withdrawal of such license. The federal government should institute a supervisory authority or inspectorate whose periodic reports may be placed before the National Assembly. This is in addition to the federal power to declare a state of emergency where there is any abuse or action which threatens peace and stability in any state. “Distant hose can’t put out local fire.” This truism is enough reason for those in authority to re-examine the issues and authorise the establishment of state police which, naturally, will be better placed to fill the huge vacuum in intelligence and crime fighting capability at the grassroots and our metropolitan centres. The time to act and save this nation is now!
Dr. Bukar Usman, a retired Federal Permanent Secretary in the Presidency lives in Abuja.