The state vs federal debate for policing in Nigeria

Oct 15, 2020|Afolabi Adekaiyaoja

On Sunday evening, buoyed by a sense of victory, we made our way to Louis Edet House, the Police headquarters in Abuja, to meet with the Nigerian Police Force and demand the release of the detained protesters.

A few hours before we started marching, Mohammed Adamu, the Inspector General of Police (IGP), had become the centre of national attention after announcing the scrapping of the SARS police unit. The announcement meant that we had a brief window where we could collectively ask for the release of all protesters, now that the government justifies their cause. 

Young, eager and uplifted by what seemed like a policy u-turn, the energy in our protest march was palpable. For a moment, it seemed as though we had just forced the hand of Nigeria’s government, and struck back at the overzealous police unit.

Nevertheless, the moment was short-lived, the peace was temporary. Before we knew it, we were running for our lives. Police water cannons hit us. We felt the harsh sting of tear gas and the well-known experience of police brutality as they beat us, smashed our phones and arrested us. 

This is the irony of governance in Nigeria.

The story of the October 2020 #EndSars movement is unlikely to ever be forgotten. For participants, some who have been arrested, killed, assaulted by paid thugs, and brutalised by police, it was a reminder of the strength in our numbers. This protest has reminded us that we have power.

However, by the time the protests end, if they ever do, we will be forced to reflect on how we measure victory. What is it we want? How would we know when we get it? Why are the protesters so insistent on running a leaderless campaign? Are street protests the new normal? 

Despite the answers to these questions, the one thing we all agree on is that Nigeria is in desperate need of police reform. Not just SARS reform, but police reform. Nobody in their right senses believes that the Nigeria police is their friend. They are to be avoided at all costs, lest their trigger happy fingers create more chaos than they are worth. At the same time, how can we continue to live in a society where nobody is held accountable, and there is no law and order?


State Police or Federal Police

One of the biggest agitations, made louder in recent days, has been for the introduction of state policing.  The debate around the issue is partly ideological, but being that we are not an idealistic nation, the issue is sometimes mistaken for a practical one.

On the ideological level, there is the question of Nigeria’s federalism. Our federalism is by definition a decentralised system, with state executives running 36 individual units. These state executives are kings in their own ways. They control property, budgets, courts and appointments. Yet, control of the police is centralised in Abuja. Why?

The culprit is Section 214 of the Nigerian Constitution. When interpreted it means that there can only be one Nigerian Police Force, at the federal level. The IGP heads that Police Force. And that IGP is accountable only to one person, the Commander in Chief and President. 

But that is not what really grinds the gears of the state police agitators.

At the state level, each state also has a Commissioner of Police, similar to other functions like Finance, Sports, Health, Water and Justice. But the catch is that these Police Commissioners get appointed by the central government, not the state government. And, Commissioners of Police take instructions from the IGP in Abuja. Sometimes, the Commissioner of Police may receive a directive from a state governor, but they are within their legal rights to demand that the President first approves such orders.

In essence, state governors can do everything but enforce law and order within their own states. Ironically, part of the justification for this system is the Catch 22 thinking. It is justified on the basis that it is in the Constitution, and so it should not be amended because it is the Constitution that put this framework in place.

However, this constitutional framework is always under attack.

One of the most prominent reasons is that the centralised police is incapable of securing Nigerian lives and property. As recently as 2018, the Nigerian Army was deployed in thirty of our thirty-six states, performing functions that ordinarily should be carried out by the police. 

The argument goes that if it's broken, fix it. Of course, this assumes that state governors will be capable of providing necessary security once the law devolves power to them. And regardless of the level evidence to prove this, the argument persists.

Another popular criticism is control. The recent protests have shown us that the inability of state governors to control the armed government officials within their states makes it difficult to manage the state. They don’t control the police because the policemen take orders from Abuja. At least in theory.

Put a different way; it is the equivalent of a king having an army in his territory controlled by someone else.

Therefore, the argument goes that in a country with state-run police forces, governors would be fully responsible for the actions of the policemen and responsible for their reform. This can satisfy the concerns of some in the  North who cite the positive work that SARS officers have done in fighting the Boko Haram insurgency—state authorities can tailor police efforts to unique challenges.

Finally, the third most popular argument is that policing is better done by people from that territory. This is the classic ‘son of the soil’ debate that policemen in Benue should be from Benue. It is easy to challenge.

It's a particularly difficult argument to hold because grassroot control in other parts of Nigerian politics has not successfully led to the sort of accountability that is imagined will come about from local policing. Nevertheless, the argument goes that there will be better police-people relations if communities and local governments use their own people. 

But as always, especially in Nigeria, there’s a flip side to these arguments.


How things could turn out on the other foot

For starters, in the hands of an overzealous governor, the police can be a dangerous tool to wield. It can undermine state and federal elections, leave opposition strongholds unprotected and base officers hiring, promotion and dismissal on local politics. 

On a more alarming level, state police units may become very powerful and begin to take up arms against the federal government. State secessions may even become more viable options if governors build up their fiefdoms. In some cases, governors may turn to warlords, aggressively defending their state territory with the help of the state police. The centre becomes weak. The states break off.

When it comes to control, most states will struggle to successfully finance their state police units if they struggle to pay the minimum wage and are so reliant on federal allocation. This risk of underfunding can create very different levels of policing across the country. For instance, taxpayers in states like Lagos may better fund their police units, leaving low-income states like Yobe with little to no security.

Inequality then widens drastically, creating the risk of poorly policed states that cannot fund their security. 

Despite all these arguments, the reality is that the Nigerian police is just a microcosm of the Nigerian state—hampered by inefficiency and still reeling from the sustained legacy of general mismanagement. Police officers are only scarier than most other institutions for one reason—they are licensed to end lives.

We know that our police officers receive poor pay, which leads to the often-cited accusations of bribery. A government survey showed police officers are the most likely of all civil servants to seek and take bribes. But that does not justify their failures.

It is now well-documented that this is the fourth attempt at reorganising, overhauling, disbanding, dissolving and whatever other adjectives you can find for reforming the police. All other attempts have failed, leaving us with two grave assumptions. 

Firstly, the Inspector-General of Police does not have a real command of the men and women under his control, leading to more assumptions: the force is too big, some commands are too influential, or the officers have no discipline. Either way, it does point to the fact that radical reform is needed. 

This leads on to the second assumption—it is no longer enough just to reform SARS, overhaul of the entire police structure is necessary. 

Attempting to redeploy officers from SARS will not change anything. The bad eggs will simply spread. Anecdotal evidence about police officers trying to join SARS because of its ability to exploit Nigerians suggest that the institution by design is beyond repair. 

The recent protests have been different for several reasons. But the biggest legacy has been the reawakening of the political consciousness of millions of Nigerians. The largest voting bloc in the country is now actively making demands to drive change, and the rest of the country is now aware that it has to listen. 

The truth is that the biggest bet we are making is on Nigerians, young and old, no longer tolerating police impunity. That alone is worth betting on.

Many young Nigerians have already given blood, toil, sweat and tears for this movement. And sadly, few have given their lives. It is for them and those unborn that we cannot afford not to meet this moment. Police reform has to be on the table, in some form or shape.

Luckily, with the energy of the many making a stand, things might change after all.


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