Still on Police Brutality.
By Terver Atsar
Ordinarily the presence of Policemen should invoke a sense of security and safety to the innocent and law-abiding citizen. But in Nigeria, the reverse is the case. The average Nigerian would rather live without the Police in his life. An encounter, any encounter, with the Nigerian Police is more likely to leave you with a bruised body or spirit or both, than protect your rights as a citizen. In fact as far as the typical Police Officer is concerned, the non-uniformed citizen has no rights to start with, and so there is really nothing to protect. Indeed one of the major ‘offences ‘a Nigerian can commit against a Policeman is the attempt to lay claim to any rights.
You therefore can claim the right of way on the road with other road users, but it immediately becomes an offence to do that once the Police show up, usually driving on the wrong lane of the road. With the police, traffic rules are suspended or reversed; whichever suits their motives at the moment. When they are behind you in traffic, you must immediately give way for them to pass even if it means moving into the gutter, otherwise, you stand the risk of becoming a ‘criminal’. You would count yourself lucky if they only bashed your car and let you go.
When a Navy officer (more correctly his ratings) assaulted Lady Okere recently in Lagos, it made headlines probably because the lady in question was well connected, but hundreds of Nigerians suffer worst fate in the hands of the Police everyday and nothing is heard of it. Victims most often fear the possibility of unending harassment by the Force, should they seek redress or they have come to accept this as one of the many ill fates the Nigerian must go through in life.
And there is this tendency for the police as an institution to tend to protect their own. When complaints are made against errant officers, these are hardly investigated. Rather the complainant is harassed, hounded, and intimidated to abandon their quest for justice.
I witnessed one of such untoward megalomaniac displays last Saturday. I was driving in the Rumuogba area of Port Harcourt, near the Mini Okoro Police Station along old Aba Road. Suddenly a Police vehicle pulled out from the opposite lane and attempted to cross over, right in front of the Hilux van that was directly in front of my car. It was a wrong move because; there was no U-turn there, neither an exit. They had obviously wanted to take one-way in effort to beat the traffic. In the process they brushed the front headlamp of the Hilux, which belonged to one of the popular Hotels and fast-food companies in town.
The driver of the Hilux, in an apparent move to acquire evidence of the wrongdoing of the Policemen, came down, took out his camera and attempted to take a picture of the two vehicles. This ‘arrogant’ move infuriated the Policemen who pounced on the helpless man, seized the camera from him and dragged him into the nearby Police Station. They also impounded the Hilux van. I could not follow up to know the end of the story, but I could afford to hazard a guess. The man would be charged with obstruction of duty or attempted ‘assault’ on a Police officer or worst still he could end up a robbery suspect in the police cell. It would be easy for the Police to place a gun in the Hilux vehicle and then claim it was a weapon they found on the poor fellow.
An investigation could reveal that many innocent Nigerians are held in detention cells without either trial or even valid charges. They are there all the same because some Policeman somewhere misapplied the power of the state vested in him.
As they dragged the man away as if they have just apprehended a man on their ‘wanted’ list, anger welled inside me. But frankly I was helpless and even afraid to intervene. The danger of falling to the bullets of a trigger-happy cop who would see my intervention as an insult was quite real. If I see an ordinary citizen assaulting another, I could call the Police to intervene, but when the aggressor turns out to be the Police, whom could I call upon? This was my dilemma and it also typifies the dilemma of our dear nation. Here in our Nigeria, the Law keeper is also the lawbreaker. The Lawmaker is also the chief abuser of the law. The custodian of our collective wealth is the master plunderer.
Perhaps apart from PHCN, The Nigeria Police happens to be the most disappointing public institution. Just like PHCN, you see their officers everywhere but only for the unhelpful reasons. When you see a PHCN official on your street, he has not come to give you light or to ensure that you have light; rather he has come to give you a bill for the service his organization never rendered. Likewise, seeing a Policeman around your house or street does not invoke a sense of security or safety. Rather the average Nigerian is afraid, suspicious and chary of the Police.
But how did we get here? The Police have not always been like this. There was a time in this country when the Police was truly the friend of the people. Then was when a stranded person could look for the nearest Police Station to seek refuge and assistance. Try that today and you may most likely end up a prisoner. The Police will charge you for ‘wondering’. They will ask why you ventured out of your house without knowing where you were going. If you are ‘lucky’, they my only extort money from you and let you go.
Yes the Police have not always been like this, there was a time they could risk their lives to save people from accidents or hoodlums, but not anymore. Today they cause accidents at illegal checkpoints and then take to their heels.
Attempts have repeatedly been made to link police extortion to their poor remuneration, but it is doubtful if these arguments can go far in justifying Police brutality and other antisocial behaviors like rape of women under detention. How for instance could we excuse a Police officer, who leaves his wife at home and decides to sleep with helpless detainees against their will, on his low pay? If poor pay could lead people to commit rape, then this vice should be more prevalent among the thousands of unemployed graduates roving the streets with no money in their pockets or wives to go home to.
I believe the decay in the moral integrity of men and women of the Police force could be linked to deterioration in their training standards and lack of proper orientation on the core values of the organisation and their constitutional duties to the citizenry. With the older generation of Police officers gradually drifting from the service to politics and associated corrupt practices, the other ranks may have been left to fend for themselves. Even the Bible says a child left to himself would cause shame to his mother (Proverb. 29:15). When young recruits come out of the Police Training School and their first point of duty is on the highways to ‘collect toll’, then it is not surprising the brutes that they turn out to be.
The re-branding efforts for the country must include the Police Force. This must start with the senior officers and flow down to the ranks. Consequence management must be applied on errant officers without fear or favour. This would send a strong message down the ranks that it is not business as usual. Discipline as a core value must be restored in the force. As Yar’Adua shops for a new IG, he must look out for an officer who is committed to the rule of law.
If truth must be told, the current Inspector General of Police, Mike Okiro, is one man who hates Police brutality, extortion and intimidation of citizens on the nation’s highways. Since assuming office, he has consistently hammered down the message that it is illegal for Police to mount roadblocks, thereby restricting the freedom of movement of the citizens, or harass and terrorize innocent citizens who are going about their normal businesses. He also announced the banning of the indiscriminate use of sirens by law enforcement agents.
But sadly he stopped at stern warnings without corresponding action. This is not enough .To date, no Police Commissioner has been sanctioned on account of the illegal acts of the men under his command as promised by Okiro, despite the rampant disregard for his numerous bans he pronounced, in all parts of the country.
The Police should set up a special disciplinary committee in each Local Government Area made up of the senior police officers of proven integrity, and chaired by the DPO to act as a public complaints bureau. The committee should be empowered to listen to victims of police brutality, extortion and other sundry crimes committed by Policemen, investigate those allegations and if found true, recommend to the PSC appropriate punishments for the officers involved. Serious cases like rape, assault, and murder should attract dismissal and prosecution in the courts of law. This done we would be on the way to stamping out Police brutality and abuse of power.