Some days ago, on my way to the NimC office in Calabar to collect my National ID Card I saw a police pickup truck along the Murtala Muhammed Highway. In characteristically Nigerian style, the siren was blaring loudly ordering all other vehicles to make way. Of course they were obliged. Who wants to experience “accidental discharge?” In the back of the truck were policemen and three stark naked individuals: a lady and two men. There was blood all over their bodies. One of the naked men was lying on the floor of the truck while the other man and the lady were sitting. I started wondering why they were not given clothes to wear. It kind of skipped my mind as it was about ten minutes to four and government offices close by 4pm. Later that night however, I was reminded of the incident when someone in a group chat that I am a member of posted pictures and videos of the same naked individuals I had seen earlier with the caption, “This happened live in Calabar at Parliamentary Road. Luck ran out of them today. They robbed a man at Water Board and they were caught.” In the video, a soldier could be seen with a horsewhip in hand, conducting the shameful orchestra. And from his actions, he was deriving much pleasure from his achievement. The only positive from the event was that they were not lynched on the spot. But there are lots of negatives. One of the negatives was stripping them naked, and this was encouraged by a soldier who was present. Then the police arrived to take the suspects into custody, and then decided not only to take them naked, but also parade them around town naked. What was the Police doing with the suspects along the Murtala Mohammed Highway around Army Junction? Why were they coming from 8 Miles when the event took place along Marian Road? They did not even care that there could be children along the road or in cars driving by. What kind of security agents do we have in Nigeria?
To understand the behavior of our security agents, it is important to understand their history. The Nigeria police, and by extension, the Nigerian military was formed during the colonial days to protect the colonial masters. The British understood that they were outnumbered in a foreign land, and therefore set out to form a police force whose allegiance was completely to them. The Police was consequently against the Nigerian people, while it did everything to protect their British masters. Since most of the elite at that time were also supporters of the British, police protection was extended to them also. Hence when the British left in 1960, the Nigerian elite just stepped into their place. The function of the police did not change; it was only adjusted to take care of the new masters. Most of the things we inherited from the British, including laws, have not changed considerable, even till today. So we now have security agencies that are against the Nigerian people. The same template was subsequently used to form other security agencies. Which explains why they all have the same attitude towards Nigerians.
The implication is that security agencies have common disdain for the Nigerian people. They demean Nigerians at the slightest opportunity. The way they strut with their guns leaves us with no doubt about how they see the rest of us. They don’t talk to us like we have any rights. When people are arrested by the police, the first thing they tell them at the station is, “Remove your clothes!” It doesn’t matter what they came in for. If two neighbours have issues and one reports the matter to the people, the reported party would be asked to strip at the station. Domestic issues are treated the same way. Same with debt issues; the debtor would be stripped naked before any question is asked. Everybody in police custody across Nigeria is wearing only his/her underwear, and is even among the lucky ones. Even war prisoners are treated better. I always wonder whether it is stated in the Police Act that everyone invited to the station should be stripped naked. And this is usually the first of several abuses meted out to suspects and ‘invitees’. It is deliberate and it sends out a message: Your rights do not matter in here!
But then, Nigerians deserve better. We have not committed any crime to warrant such treatments at the hands of the same people who should be protecting us. We cannot continue to have a police force where the officers are a law unto themselves. Every day, there are abuses, killings, and intimidation of Nigerians. One can be killed and afterward be labeled an arm robber. And if family members dare to say anything, they too are terrorized. It’s like no one can call these officers to order. What they are doing is deliberate and it’s because they know they can get away with it. It is why they make you pay for bail and then ask you to sign a statement that you didn’t pay anything, when it is written boldly that “BAIL IS FREE!” It is insulting when we are told that “the Police is your friend.” They are not! Someone who has no regard for your fundamental human rights cannot be your friend. Someone who can kill you without any provocation cannot be your friend. The truth is Nigerians do not trust the police they’ve got. They don’t feel safe having policemen around. That’s not how it should be. The Police should represent safety.
We can sit down and complain all day, or we can do something about it. The Police cannot change if left to themselves. How many times have we heard from the Inspector General of Police (IGP) that roadblocks are illegal? How many times have we heard that bribe collection by policemen is a crime? How many times have we heard that illegal detention is illegal? How many times have they told us that “Bail is free?” Why haven’t things changed? Is it that the officers do not obey the instructions of the IGP? Who polices the police when they misbehave? I try to believe that there are good people in the Police Force, and indeed, there are; but having such unbelievable beliefs is extremely difficult, especially as it is made even more difficult every day by their actions.
The Police Act needs to be amended to give us the type of police we desire. We desire a Police Force that is on the side of Nigerians; a Force whose officers have utmost respect for the rights of Nigerians.
The Police Act should be amended to stipulate stringent punishment to any police officer who manhandles a Nigerian. A suspect should not be interrogated in the absence of a lawyer. If the suspect has no lawyer, then provisions should be made to get a lawyer from the Nigerian Human Rights Commission. Getting the lawyers from the Human Rights Commission will prevent the conniving of “Charge and bail” lawyers with the police against the interest of the suspect. It will also reduce cases where police officers coerce incriminating statements from suspects.
The National Assembly must pass and amend existing laws to give us a Police Force whose priority is the enforcement of our fundamental human rights; a Police Force that we can indeed call our friend. Any officer caught violating the right of Nigerians should be sacked from the police and sent to jail. A body should be set up – and if such a body already exists, it should be empowered – to check the activities of police officers. Matters of right violations should be given speedy trial. And it should be extended to other security agencies as well. Having a police we can trust should be among our demands from the National Assembly, and other political office holders. If the National Assembly refuses to oblige us, then we should vote them out and put in people who will carry out our demands. Our vote is our power. Let’s use!