Driving in Nigeria can be manic or character building, depending on how you choose to see it. Close to nearly every traffic light, roads are adorned with law enforcement agents securing citizenry, or, their next meal ticket. Supposedly banned, police still litter the streets with checkpoints notorious for worsening traffic. Suffixed with ‘sah’ if your car is deemed worthy, or robed with aggression if you are a commercial vehicle driver, Nigerian police officers are known for demanding unmerited compensation.

Pedestrians, unfortunately, are not exempt from these operations. Instead, they are seen as a way to leverage returns on officers’ investment in certain postings; arrested for things as trivial as wandering – which is no longer considered an offence by law – or, for refusing to pay bribes. More absurdly, some point fingers at Nigerian police for the rise in food prices. They reportedly demand levies for food produce transported by road, and in turn, local ‘bukas' pass on the cost of these bribes to customers. Such extortive practices, especially in a time of general economic hardship, affect people other than the immediate victims. 


Buyers Beware Or Perhaps, Be Aware

For the majority of the urban poor who cannot afford the hidden costs of living incurred from bribery, they find themselves excluded from protection. For the poor, especially, dependence on the state for goods and services, combined with limited choice due to the lack of wealth, leaves them susceptible to extortion. What is played on is the premise that security is offered 'freely' by the state, as well as the asymmetry of information between the force and the people. That is, the fact that many Nigerians do not know their constitutional rights.

Refuting two key economic assumptions, bribery in Nigeria shows that: one, public goods can be excludable. Secondly, though imperfect information is assumed to cause market failures, here, the absence of 'perfect’ information – that is, knowing one’s rights – creates a pseudo-market as police officers compete for the most ploughed routes and wealthiest neighbourhoods.

One finds that though the police may claim to be your ‘friend’, they sure do not mix friendship with business, as justice is for sale to the highest bidder. Injustice, on the other hand, is not cheap either; with bribes extorted, as at 2010, accounting for an annual average of ₦20 billion.


If Not Market Failure, Then What?

One impediment to eradicating police corruption is the lack of reformative will within the force. Usually, the money collected flows up the chain of command with subordinates paying a cut of earnings to superiors. Many junior members of the police force are stuck in a vicious cycle, compelled to prey on citizens as they are, in turn, preyed on by ‘oga at the top’.

As illustrated by the examples of former Inspector General of Police, Tafa Balogun, and former Presidential Committee on Police Equipment Fund Coordinator Kenny Martins, funds allocated by the government to the police force tend to be mismanaged and embezzled for personal gain. Meanwhile, senior-ranked officers facilitate 'transactions' – that is, waiver offences, or "outsource" officers for personal security, all at a price.

Therefore, to preserve their area of (re)deployment or simply for personal gain, junior officers choose to monetise protection. Bribery, one finds, is institutionalised, enforced by the fact that every rank is involved in the game. And so, impunity ensues. It is perpetuated by government failure to ensure accountability and transparency in the force. This, in addition to poor working conditions, limits the capacity to serve and protect; instead installing a mentality of “every man must chop.” 


Bribe Or Your Pride?

Going by the 2015 African Edition of the Global Corruption Barometer, the bribery rate in Nigeria stands at 43%. That is, nearly 85 million Nigerians are involved in the act of offering, promising, giving, accepting or soliciting an advantage or a bribe. Of a thousand Nigerians surveyed in a 2013 nationwide report, 81% attested to paying a bribe to a police officer. Many people will scoff that this rate is much higher. 

These figures suggest that whether coerced, marginal or voluntary, the availability of bribes (supply) and “forced” willingness of citizens may have a role to play in the perpetration (demand) of graft and bribery. In a country like Nigeria where time is money and serving time can be bought, bribery is not only normalised but neutralised. It is embedded in handshakes and coated with ‘happy Sunday’.

Rather than do what is right – follow due process and refuse to pay bribes – most people would choose the seemingly easy way out. After all, one could argue, challenging this broken system could lead to “arbitrary arrest[s], unlawful detention, and threats” or, in cases like Mr Ekpo, a loss of life and livelihood. Continuing in this light, however, fuels and fixates the culture of extortion; making bribery a collective abuse of the system. So, the next time you share an encounter with the Nigerian police, which would you choose: paying a bribe, or swallowing your pride and bearing the consequences? 


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