Growing state of insecurity and the helplessness of the police in the face of challenges posed by ethnic and religious militia like Boko Haram renew calls for the establishment of state police
By ADEJUWON SOYINKA
He lies on the bed unable to sleep. Not necessarily because the room was slightly hot. After all, he should by now be used to the hot, humid temperature of Maiduguri, the Borno State capital. But his stomach pains are intense. His neck hurts too. So are his hands. “You were lucky”, doctors at the University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, UMTH told him. “You could have lost your arm.”
Indeed, Badigma Bukar, 45, was lucky. Though he almost lost an arm, he could have lost more than that. Bukar was in the vicinity of Budum Market in Central Maiduguri on Saturday, July 23, when a bomb, ostensibly planted by Boko Haram, a violent Islamic sect went off. Targeted at a military patrol in the area, the bomb instantly wounded three soldiers. The soldiers were men of the Joint Military Task Force, JTF, deployed to Maiduguri to fish out members of the violent group.
The explosive also claimed eight lives and wounded several other civilians. Bukar was one of lucky few to have made it alive to the hospital. Amnesty International says 23 other people were not so lucky. They were not victims of the bomb explosion. Rather, they were victims of a reprisal attack mounted by men of the JTF. Out of frustration of not being able to easily identify members of Boko Haram, JTF men reportedly responded by shooting and killing a number of people at random. They did not stop at that. They also allegedly burnt down the market and several cars within the vicinity.
Amnesty International said, “Soldiers went on the rampage. They shot several people and burned all their shops and properties and burned their cars.” The incident of July 23 was not a one off thing. It had happened before. A 13-year-old boy was one of those killed in a military operation at Kaleri area of Maiduguri on Saturday, July 9 after members of Boko Haram dropped a bomb inside a military tent in the area killing 19 soldiers.
Although military authorities insisted that only five soldiers died in that incident, men of the JTF however killed 40 people in Kaleri in a reprisal attack. “House-to-house searches, brutalisation, unlawful arrests, killings and disappearances have been the operating practice in Maiduguri for some months now. Unless steps are taken to ensure security forces operate within the law and respect human rights at all times, the next time Boko Haram attacks or kills a soldier, we are likely to see the same thing happen again,” said Tawanda Hondora, Amnesty International deputy director for Africa.
Victor Ebhaleme, a colonel and spokesperson of the JTF, justifies the house-to-house search. He accused members of the public of shielding members of Boko Haram and of having prior information about attacks against the military. Ebhaleme may be right. For instance, the bomb that exploded near a military checkpoint in Bulumkutu about three weeks ago and injured at least four soldiers was said to have been dropped by a little boy. Residents confided in the magazine that they saw the boy dropping a polythene bag containing the explosive beside a huge billboard near the checkpoint but could not approach men of the JTF, apparently for fear of reprisals from members of Boko Haram.
Part of the problem is also that the military men are mostly alien to the environment and so may not be familiar with the area and the people they were sent to protect. Yomi Onasile, a retired commissioner of police, said this should not come as a surprise. “A place would be better policed by the people from that area because they speak the language. This helps in getting information and gathering intelligence, and by extension, the prevention of crime,” he said. Onasile added that, “language is a very powerful tool when it comes to gathering intelligence and security because if I go to a place and I want to gather information and can speak the language, it helps me, than for me to go there and start speaking the language they don’t understand. Even if they understand English, they feel more at home with their language.”
To further drive home his point, Onasile gave a personal experience: “When I was commissioner of police in Abia State and the language was Igbo and I was Yoruba, I always needed an interpreter if I was going to deal with an illiterate who didn’t understand English. So along the line, the man could say something and the officer (interpreter) might say something else, because he has his own interests. But when I was moved to Ekiti (State) where I speak the language, I found that I was able to police Ekiti better while I was getting information. The old men, market women would just come and start speaking Yoruba to me because they felt so comfortable with me…. So, there is nothing as good as serving in your state, if possible, officers should serve in their local government area.”
Onasile is not alone in holding this view. He has support in Amusa Bello, another retired commissioner of police who served in Anambra State but would now rather vote for the creation of state police in Nigeria. “I think Nigeria is ripe for state policing. One merit is that officers of the state police are indigenes and they know the terrain and topography of the state. They will be able to know the criminals and fish them out,” Bello said.
Bello and Onasile believe that if the country already has state police in place, the frustrating situation JTF members now find themselves in would not have arisen. Besides that, Onasile said men of the JTF would also have found it difficult to indiscriminately shoot at Maiduguri residents if they were indigenes of that area. “When you serve in your state, there is that commitment that this is my state, if anything happens, it affects you, unless we want to deceive ourselves. I wont feel the same way if I was serving in say Jalingo now, and something happens, the way I would react to it may be different. Also, some officers are not as committed as they should be because they are not serving where they should belong,” Onasile said.
For these retired police officers, having a state police in a federation like Nigeria would really help in the face of the current security challenge posed by ethnic and religious militias like Boko Haram. Onasile for instance argued that the reason the police and JTF may be having serious difficulties getting information about Boko Haram is because, “people are scared of giving information to people they don’t know, except we want to deceive ourselves, because you believe that he cannot harm you that he is one of you. When I was at Alagbon, there was a case involving someone from my town. The only reason why he came to give information was when he heard that I was from Ijebu Igbo and he’s been in the cell for about five days and asked to see me. He told me the information we needed to solve the case and we recovered the stolen goods. Even in a family, you are more comfortable with your family, than a stranger, because it’s more beneficial to you.”
Frank Oditah, a retired commissioner of police also believes that Nigeria is now ripe for state police. “The advantages include the fact that state police would get the commitment of the indigenes who would be more devout to combat crime knowing that the security of their own people is involved, they would have better knowledge of the state and would be ready to protect the state,” Oditah said.
Another advantage of state police, according to Oditah is that it will lead to the creation of jobs for unemployed youths since the force must be made of people from the state and it would give state governors good reasons to invest in their police. This is equally the view of Rilwan Akiolu, the Oba of Lagos who said “most of the requirements of the police are not provided by the federal government, they are now being provided by the state government and as the saying goes, the one that pays the piper calls the tune.”
With this, the Oba of Lagos may just have hit the bull’s eye. For instance, to tackle the security challenge headlong, the Babatunde Fashola-led Lagos State government set up a Security Trust Fund through which the state government collaborates with the private sector to provide logistics for the police. This effort resulted in the provision of several logistics support for the police and an annual investment of about N2.3 billion on the police in Lagos. From that effort the state government has equipped the state command of the federal police to swiftly respond to distress calls, thereby reducing the rate of crimes in the state to the barest minimum.
Section 215(2) of the 1999 Constitution states that “the Nigeria Police Force shall be under the command of the Inspector-General of Police and any contingents of the Nigeria Police Force stationed in a state shall, subject to the authority of the Inspector-General of Police, be under the command of Commissioner of Police of that state.”
This, perhaps, explains why Fashola said, “I think now is the time to stop playing games, the time to stop presenting untenable arguments, to stop presenting arguments whose foundation is based on probabilities as the only reason why we are not ready to try a new thing; that time is past.” As the National Assembly plans for another round of constitutional amendment, Fashola is one of those already calling for an overhaul of the structure of the federation including fiscal federalism and the need for states to run a separate police from the federal command. Explaining why the state government has decided to invest that much on the police, Fashola said, “Democracy means nothing if people are being kidnapped on a daily basis and the state governor can do no more than say ‘Yes, I am the chief security officer of the state.’ There must be some practical solutions to this.” Fashola warned that the solution to violent crime in the country would remain elusive if “we remain in the same place, doing the same thing and expecting different result.”
Although calls for state police was earlier seen as a partisan thing coming from governors in the opposition party, it has since transcended political divides. Today, it is no longer news that even governors of states controlled by the ruling Peoples Democratic Party, PDP now canvass for the creation of state police. Top among them is Chibuike Amaechi, Rivers State governor who also doubles as chairman, Governors’ Forum. In a recent interview with the magazine, Amaechi said as things stand now, governors are only chief security officers of their states on paper. His views get support from as far away as Jos, the Plateau State capital where Jonah Jang, the state governor has repeatedly lamented his inability to have control of the police at the state level.
Godswill Akpabio, Akwa Ibom State governor, equally supports this view. Akpabio said going by the traditions of Nigerians, community policing would be the best way of stamping out criminals and criminality. “This is because at the community level, the people all know themselves and they can easily spot out a stranger or any suspicious movement and report same to the community head,” Akpabio said. To buttress his point, the Akwa Ibom governor drew examples from the First Republic where regional and local police were deployed to effectively combat crime.
With this example, the Akwa Ibom State governor may however have inadvertently supplied those who are opposed to the idea of state police with some ammunition. Those in this school of thought are always quick to recall how politicians used regional and local police to suppress opposition voices in the First Republic. One of such persons is Mohammed Adoke, minister of justice and attorney-general of the federation. Speaking during his screening by members of the National Assembly recently, Adoke said he was not in support of state police because of the ways it was abused by politicians during the First Republic. He argued that abuse of regional and local police also contributed to the collapse of the First Republic.
But Akiolu who retired from the police as a deputy inspector-general, DIG of police would have none of that. “Even the federal police, was it not abused at a time by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration? Did Obasanjo not arrest some people in Lagos and detain them in Abuja until I started shouting at Sunday Ehindero? The present commissioner for agriculture in Lagos State suffered something like that. You see, it depends on the integrity, if you have fear of God, state police or federal police. It is dedication, loyalty, fear of God and respect for rule of law,” Akiolu said. Beyond this, Bello said fears of abuse could easily be handled through appropriate legislation.
Assuming this obstacle is cleared, Osa Iyinbo, a Nigerian based in the United States still believes that there would still be other challenges. “To whom will the police owe their allegiance? If we have a state police how many ‘superior’ state officials, politicians and so-called political godfathers or moneybags that dot each and every state will surrender themselves to the authority of their protégé or ward? Do not forget our ‘revered’ traditional rulers who have elected to become partisan politicians, instead of being father to all. In Nigeria, your guess is as good as mine,” Iyinbo said. Innocent Chukwuma, managing director, CLEEN Foundation, a non-governmental organisation, equally entertain some fears. “There may be crisis if it is not properly handled. Unscrupulous elements in the society can hijack state police to deliberately cause religious or tribal crisis in a state. Nigerian states comprise of indigenes and visitors who have lived together for years,” Chukwuma said.
Ehindero, a retired inspector-general, IG of police shares similar sentiments. The former police chief said state police “cannot address the high level of insecurity in the country. I don’t think state policing is the solution to crime control; it will further aggravate the situation. Some governors will take undue advantage of state police to harass the public. Decentralising the police will not bring solution to crime; government should rather make the police more efficient and effective through proper funding.”
These arguments notwithstanding, Onasile insists that Nigeria is too big to be policed centrally by a single federal police. “When we have a police population of about 400,000 men and officers and we just have one person as the head. It’s not easy for that person to know most of the officers. And for him to be aware of everything that is going on in the police. If something happens to a constable, the IG is to be informed. If something happens in Bayelsa or Jalingo, the IG who is in Abuja, has to be informed and then he has to say or do something. So, when would he have time to do other things or plan strategies and so on?” Onasile asked.
As a way out, Ahmed Babankowa, retired police officer and chieftain of the Arewa Consultative Forum, ACF canvasses a hybrid. “In controlling crime and making sure that internal security is secured, you need to split the force into six with each geographical zone having a chief police officer and these officers should have autonomy, their funding, training and all other requisites should also be autonomous. They should be completely independent and that is not to say that we should not have an IG,” Babankowa said. Under the hybrid arrangement he is canvassing, Babankowa said the role of the IG would then be supervisory while the regional chief police officers will compete in warding off crime as no one will want to harbour criminals within his zone.
Should Nigeria adopt the option of a state police, it would be going the way of Britain whose police maintain separate areas of jurisdiction ranging from county to county, Borough or a group of many counties. The Metropolitan Police (under the Home Office), which covers an area of 15 miles radius, does not have jurisdiction over London, which has its own city police. Apart from this, the railway, dockyards, and armed forces have their own police. There are also other specialised units like motor patrols, police dog handlers and an anti-riot mounted branch.
The US on its part has many police agencies that exist separately. While the state police take charge of highways and enforcement of state laws, cities have their separate police under the authority of a commissioner, who is an appointee of the mayor. At the federal level, there are nine agencies that work hand in hand with local police formations. Another country that operates a decentralised police is France. While the gendarmerie is supervised by the armed forces, the Surete Generale is under the authority of provincial prefects, the equivalent of governors. Paris, the capital, has its own police, called the Paris Prefecture.
The Nigeria police too took off along the same line. When Britain established the Nigeria Police Force in 1861, it started with a 30-member consular guard in the Lagos Colony. It followed this up in 1879 with a 1,200 paramilitary Hausa Constabulary. Seventeen years later, it formed the Lagos Police and in 1894 the Niger Coast Constabulary in Calabar, under the authority of Niger Coast Protectorate. In 1888, the Royal Niger Company set up the Royal Niger Company Constabulary in Lokoja.
But in the early 1900s, these were collapsed into two: the Northern Nigeria Police and the Southern Nigeria Police. Although there was an amalgamation of the northern and southern protectorates in 1914, the two regions maintained two separate police forces until 1930 when they were merged to form the Nigeria Police Force with headquarters in Lagos. That merger is what has grown to become the centralised police system, which is at variance to a federal system. That is why governors complain that they are chief security officers only in names. Will the next constitutional amendment exercise address this issue in favour of true federalism and effective policing? That is one question that is being raised now.
Additional Reports by
OLOLADE ADEWUYI, JULIANA EZEOKE,
AYODEJI ADEYEMI, ARUKAINO UMUKORO
and FOLASHADE ADEBAYO