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This weekend I drove quite a lot in my town (Port Harcourt) and had more than enough opportunities to be stopped by the Nigerian Police on their routine stop and greet checkpoints. It gave me the opportunity to think about why they exist, how they work and what could be better. I don’t think I’ll address all the issues that came to my mind here but I will try.

Do you remember when we were children and used to play police and thief? The job of the appointed police was to catch the thief (plain and simple, right?) I always chose to be the police (don’t ask me why but being the thief was simply not fashionable to me). I watched police shows growing up (as well as some movies like Beverly Hills Cop etc) and my fascination for guns was added to my love for the profession as an ideal career to aspire to. What do you want to be when you grow up? A policeman, Little Boy Blue would reply.

When I would say I wanted to be a police officer people would look at me funny. I began to understand that the Nigerian policeman was not as glamorous as the foreign one when Samanja (the Nigerian sergeant major show that was popular when I was growing up) aired on national TV. Samanja was a comic relief character in a show designed to enlighten northerners about the Nigerian army (help recruitment) as well as introduce the Nigerian military to the general civilian population. But his gaffes and generally uneducated slapstick humour had the unintended effect for me of lowering the police profession to one for “not so bright or successful” people. I didn’t want to be a Nigerian policeman anymore.

The Nigerian Police is the face of the Nigerian govt to the people. It is a daily reminder of how your country is, how much help you have access to, how you will be treated if for any reason you have to deal with the government. How will the government react to your expired papers? To someone stealing your mangoes from your selling tray? To someone breaking into your compound to kidnap your daughter? All these can be answered by your interactions with the Nigerian Police.

From my observation the Nigerian government (police) is looking for your money. They are the perfect blend of harsh (to the weak) and subservient (to the rich/powerful). If you drive a keke (rickshaw) or a taxi expect to be harassed for money and delayed for a full search for no reason. If you are driving a Benz jeep, expect to be hailed and greeted while a request for water money is presented. With a little money and boldness, you can breeze through any checkpoint and be on your way. You can even hire the police to escort you in your jeep for a fixed amount a month so you can be waved on no matter what you are carrying. Na we get Nigeria nau. (We own the country).

The funniest and saddest part is when you need the police to actually do their supposed work. Call the hotline for emergency response because armed robbers are in your area and get aired (you all know how that joke goes). Gunshots sound out on the road and the police have made themselves scarce in the surrounding undergrowth. The Police is not well equipped to track financial crimes, so we created the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. The police is not able to handle corruption and bribery cases (ironic yeah) so we have the Independent Corrupt Practices Commission. The anti terrorism squad is clearly not enough so we have the famed DSS to help out. The Nigerian police does not have a functioning cyber crimes or special victims unit.

What then does the Nigerian police exist for? Honestly I want to know. For escorting people to prison? The number of people awaiting trial in the prisons is overwhelming. And when these cases do go to trial eventually conviction rates are so low (either because the police did not construct their case properly or because many of the criminal crimes cannot be proven in the first place). So, what job does the Nigerian police actually do?

They harass peaceful, law-abiding citizens with their checkpoints and stop and searches. That’s all I see. It feels like the British colonial masters trained the Nigerian police as a unitary, people-suppressing force to ensure that the flow of revenue from natural resources was uninterrupted. Nigeria, upon gaining independence, simply carried on the same structure and template, forgetting that the needs for a police force would change from that era of colonialism. (Or did they really change? Didn’t we just substitute one form of exploitative colonialism for another?)

The Nigerian policeman is given a baton (or a gun) and sent out to the streets to be visible as a show of force so the citizens do not get any funny ideas to challenge the government (or looting power) of the day. They are not visibly physically fit (none of these pot-bellied sergeants and corporals I see can outrun me, I’m sorry this is not even a brag because I’m not the most physically fit person in the world). Those Hollywood scenes you see of a policeman chasing a criminal through crowded neighbourhoods, scaling walls and colliding with baskets and trucks of fruit never happen in Nigeria. How could they when the average policewoman cannot run 100m in 16 seconds?

The Nigerian policeman is mainly skilled in colonial type clerical duties: file pushing, form stamping, signature collection, paper checking, data verification, spot-the-difference challenges with expired and valid vehicle papers. It seems they were not trained to think through cases and see through people and hidden intentions like the Beverly Hills cop I watched as a child. The very setup of the Nigerian police force is tailored for bureaucracy: state commands reporting to divisional commands reporting to regional commands reporting to central command. In a country of 200 million people, we have a pyramid of slow acting, delayed response/decision-making security apparatus only skilled at intimidating the common man (and sweet talking the rich and powerful).

I think it’s time to rethink the Nigerian police. It is time to recruit intelligent people (best thinkers in school and best athletes as well). It is time to decentralise the entire structure and make them accountable on a state level (without recourse to a bewildered, uninformed, insensitive central command and presidency). It is time to pay them well! It is time to renovate the living quarters/barracks of these police officers for their families. It is time to re-orientate the entire police force and make them understand that their role is to fight crime in all its forms, proactively and reactively, not to intimidate the citizens of the country by a show of force (sirens everywhere) so they remain subservient to a thieving, looting political leadership.

The Nigerian Police is not your friend but they very well should be.