Olayinka Omolere, MBA Student, Haas Business School

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  • Fiscal Policy
  • Governance
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Political independence is crucial in Nigerian police reform 11 Jul 2017

President Donald Trump's dismissal of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director, James Comey, touched off a firestorm of reactions and criticism. Although the American President has undisputed authority to fire an FBI director, this prerogative had only been used once before, due to an exceptional and documented case of ethical misconduct.
America's premier law enforcement body is designed to be apolitical and independent in performing its functions. Hence, US Senate confirmation is required to appoint FBI director, for a ten-year tenure that would span changes at the White House. That James Comey could pursue an investigation into close associates of an incumbent President is an indicator of the institution's freedom to investigate crimes.

Nigeria has a different situation. Discounting the constitutional immunity conferred on certain elected officials, one can hardly expect the Nigerian Police Force to seriously investigate potential crimes by the President or his favoured political associates. This is because the NPF lacks political independence.  

Perhaps a vestige of extended military rule, the laws governing the NPF render it supremely beholden to the President. The Nigerian President and his/her representatives are legally empowered with operational control of the police force. Such an arrangement is abnormal among modern democracies.

Gary T. Max, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Professor Emeritus of Sociology, defines a democratic police body as one that uses police powers according to the rule of law, not the whims of rulers or police agents and is publicly accountable. The NPF falls short on both counts by design.

Nigeria has cycled through at least 10 Inspector Generals of the police since 1999 because IGs serve at the pleasure of the President. The President can unilaterally appoint and dismiss IGs at any point. But if justice is to be served, without fear or bias, the police should have professional independence. Political oversight of the police is required for public accountability, but this must not equal political control or influence over police investigation, arrest of suspects and prosecution.

Since 1999, there have been three committees constituted by the presidency to examine police reform. There has also been the Civil Society Panel on Police reform (CSO panel). They all reached similar conclusions on a non-renewable term of four or five years for Police IGs, operational independence from the executive, and explicit procedures for appointing and replacing police chiefs must include legislative approval and public hearings.

These recommendations and numerous others have not been implemented till date. The speaker of the House of Representatives, Yakubu Dogara, has also called for the involvement of the National Assembly in the appointment and removal of the Inspector-General of Police, 'to ensure operational independence and command integrity.'

Apart from undue political control of its leadership, the NPF is bedevilled with a reputation problem. In the Nigerian society, the police is a by-word for corruption. Arguably, one of the more frequent interactions of average Nigerians with a federal government representative is through armed police officers demanding bribes at roadblocks. 33% of the respondents to the National Crime and Safety Survey conducted by the CLEEN Foundation said they had paid, or been asked to pay, bribes by police officers.

There are other issues with the police. Despite frequent denials by police authorities, there are considerable allegations and supporting anecdotal and documentary evidence that the Nigerian police engages in human rights abuses, torture, perverting the course of justice, and illegal killings while failing in its core duties of providing security. Such evidence is not only collected by the usual suspects, international civil society organisations like Amnesty International and local CSOs including Network on Police Reform in Nigeria and the CLEEN Foundation, but it is also acknowledged in the federal government's own police reform reports and by top police officials.

In the Presidential Committee on the Reform of the Nigeria Police Force 2006 report, headed by Muhammad Dan Mandami, a litany of allegations against the police is presented, including stealing from suspects or accident victims, demanding money for bail and supplying arms to robbers. The committee, in its observations, conceded that these were the result of inadequate funding, poor training and weak monitoring controls. These factors persist over a decade after. Recently, the current IG Ibrahim Idris stated that of the N16 billion appropriated to the NPF in the 2016 budget for capital projects, only N4 billion, about 25 per cent, was released to the police as at the end of the year.

A state Police Commissioner said last year that the average police station gets a paltry sum of N45,000 to cover running costs for three months. If police officers cannot fund normal running expenses from their official budget, they are likely to seek funding from unofficial and illegal sources.

Concerning torture and extra-judicial killings, the Muhammad Dan Mandami committee report points to low respect for human rights coupled with inadequate training and infrastructure for traditional investigation methods, as the reason police officers resort to torture in performing investigations.  

There is so much to fix in the NPF. Thankfully, the roadmap to follow already exists in multiple reform proposals. Any meaningful reform of the police must be underpinned by its operational independence from the political leaders. The 1999 Constitution and the Police Act will need to be amended in this regard to ensure the NPF is accountable to the public.

The police is requesting more officers and money. Mr. Ibrahim Idris said the police wants to recruit 150,000 officers over the next five years, which will increase personnel by roughly 40%. His request is understandable, and the NPF deserves much better funding. However, allocating more resources alone will not guarantee professional and efficient policing without concurrent changes to undesirable aspects of the institution's culture and practices.

Arguably, the needed reform will require more of political commitment than allocation of more money to the NPF in annual budgets. The Nigerian police must do away with its repressive legacy and routine abuses of its privileged position to regain the trust of Nigerian communities. The force must take deliberate actions to be accountable, law-abiding and respectful of human rights. In-depth training programmes will facilitate a culture switch, and specific programmes must be designed for handling crimes involving women and vulnerable groups.

Police oversight mechanisms and institutions must be strengthened, responsive and transparent. The duties of other security agencies should be delineated, separate from those of the police, to reduce conflicts and enhance inter-agency cooperation.

The recommendation for 'state policing' has gained support in recent years, although it is such a vague terminology. There is the notion that state policing is a mechanism for ensuring the police rank-and-file is well known in the community they serve. This will more likely be the case if the officers were recruited from the communities they serve.

Advocates of state policing also have the notion that the 'control' of the state police should be ceded to the Governors to enhance their role as the chief security officers in their state. However, devolution of the political control of the police to the state level without first enhancing professionalism in the force may be counterproductive. With 'state police,' we risk diversifying the sources of dysfunction of policing across the states of the federation. It is even doubtful that a significantly high number of the states can take on the additional responsibility of funding their own police force, given they already struggle to pay salaries to civil servants and have accumulated huge project loans.

The reform of the Nigerian police can be accomplished. But it will require political will. The country has, in recent time, been faced with various security challenges that have required the deployment of the military. This has encroached on the function of the police. However, truly professional policing, extricated from corruption, incompetence and abuses that are associated with the current NPF, is required for any sense of normalcy to return to our communities.

Olayinka Omolere is a research analyst and consultant based in Lagos.