Police Reforms: Can It Be Done Now?

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Insecurity has become one of Nigeria’s biggest challenges.  Every region of the country faces a cocktail of security threats: terrorism, armed banditry, farmer-herders clash, ransom kidnap, cult killings and gang wars, etc.  The insecurity worsens as the state loses its monopoly over the legitimate use of force. 

The government employs various options to regain control of the situation, including introducing a Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS).  For years, young Nigerians complained about the high-handedness of this Force and alleged that they engaged in extrajudicial killings.  In response, the government disbanded and reconstituted the unit four times since 2017.

Police Reforms: Can It Be Done Now?
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In early October 2020, Nigerian youths took to the streets to call on the Federal Government to close down SARS.  While the protesters have remained disciplined with their singular message, #EndSARSnow, there is an insinuation that it could be a cover to demand police reforms and, by extension, improved governance outcomes in Nigeria.

After initial bluster and delays, the Inspector-General of Police acquiesced to their demands by, once again, disbanding the unit and announced its replacement with a Special Weapons and Tactics Team (SWAT).  President Muhammadu Buhari followed up by announcing that the changes were the first steps towards extensive police reforms.  However, given the level of citizens’ distrust in their government, it is no surprise that the #EndSARS protesters remained in the streets refusing to accept a nomenclature change as evidence of enduring reforms.

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Nigerians have been policed by force since the colonial times.  The colonial police’s primary function was to advance the colonialist’s economic and political agenda (Kupoluyi & Nwogwugwu, 2015; Alemika, 2010). The police were not accountable to the people and engaged in brutal subjugation of local populations.  The oppressive tactics of that era fractured the relationship between the citizens and the police.  The distrust has lingered to date.

Over time, Nigeria’s police force became synonymous with brutality, incivility, illegal arrest and detention, extrajudicial killing, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability, abuse of due process, and more.  As stated in Alemika (2010), police culture reflects the government’s character as the former is mainly the vanguard of the status quo.  The repressive nature of the state continues to engender protests and demands for reforms by civil society.  Although Nigerian governments have made several efforts to revamp the police, none has achieved sustained impact.

The October 2020 protests may be different from the others.  Nigeria is in a vortex of maladies that may combine to trigger a clamour for more fundamental change: high unemployment, poverty, poor governance outcomes, seeming insensitivity of the political class, corruption, insecurity, bleak economic outlook, among other issues.  The young Nigerians, who are leading the protests, have more tools at their disposal to become more effective in presenting their grievances.

The Police Can Be Your Friend

Reform remains the pathway to effectively address the gamut of security and criminal justice problems in Nigeria.  As the police remain the most visible institution in the security sector, their reform is vital for lasting human security (Groenewald & Peake, 2004).  The reforms will enable a transformation of the values, culture, policies, and practices of the Force to ensure respect for democratic values and human rights.

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A step in the reformation drive will be the full implementation of the recently enacted Nigeria Police Bill, 2020.  Fully implemented, the Act will help in building a more effective policing system, driven by the principles of transparency and accountability, protection of human rights, and effective crime prevention.  The Act enhances professionalism in the Force through improved training.  It covers everything from the Nigerian Police Force’s composition and duties, functions and powers of the officers and the general administration, to police public complaints.

The Act accounts for funding, a significant issue militating against improved service delivery by the Force.  Various scholars have argued that improved remuneration will curtail unprofessionalism and other vices.  The Act includes provisions that disincentivise unprofessional behaviour by providing guidelines for disciplinary action against errant officers.  Furthermore, it proposes improving civilian-police relationships through enhanced cooperation and partnerships to prevent and manage crimes effectively.

Easier Written than Done

Various factors challenge the effective implementation of police reforms in Nigeria, with a lack of political will as the most significant.  A prerequisite for any successful change is the political leadership’s intent and commitment to put action to words.  As Hills (2012) notes, even when the reform process is accepted, political will is still required to ensure its effective implementation.  Scholars have argued the need to increase the number of police personnel and their remuneration.  However, the government consistently fails to release the budget required by the police to perform their duties.

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Nigeria has made attempts at police reforms in the past.  Various Presidential Committees and Panels set up by successive Nigerian governments recommended a total overhaul and transformation of the entire police force for optimal performance.  However, these various efforts have yielded marginal successes, as most of the recommendations of these panels have not been implemented (Chukwuma, 2008).  Over the years, the government has promised several times to reform SARS.  Nothing has been done despite the pledges.

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A significant challenge to police reforms is the legal framework establishing the Nigerian Police Force.  Recently, the government’s efforts at police reforms suffered a setback when the Court of Appeal declared that the Nigeria Police Act 2020 was unconstitutional and void, especially in the areas that affect the Police Service Commission.  The government of Nigeria cannot make much progress with police reforms until it overcomes the constitutional challenge.

Related to the issue of the constitutional amendment is the debate around the decentralisation of the police.  A significant challenge is the government’s inability to achieve a consensus on the nation’s security architecture and the revamping of policing.  The discussion, which has elicited strong arguments for and against state police, is captured in the January 2020 Nextier Report titled, “State Police? If Yes, How?”.

Even when there is an agreement on the desired reforms, and the government has the required funding, Nigeria’s public institutions still have significant capacity challenges.  According to Agagu (2008), these institutions are unable to drive reforms.  Olaopa (2020) affirms that the leadership and administration of the public service are fundamental to the success of the nation’s reformation process.  The problem becomes dire when Nigeria’s public service must reform to drive the Nigerian Police Force’s reforms.

Improved resource allocation will not solve the problem if the idea of reform is not accepted and adopted by the police’s rank and file.  While the Nigeria Police Act, 2020 may mainstream knowledge about human rights, it may not achieve any sustained impact if the “institutions’ organisational culture and mindset are not fundamentally changed from the inside” (Müller,2020).  Respect for human rights is thus highly dependent on professional ethics and the Force’s ability to investigate and punish wrongdoing and incentivise good conduct.

Reformation Drivers

Nigeria faces several existential challenges which the reformation of the police alone cannot solve.  Reformation must go beyond the police to involve the entire security and justice sector reform, civil service reform, and constitutional review.  It will be crucial to address all issues of national life: electricity, security, provision of basics amenities, good governance, and many others.  Indeed, a whole-of-government approach is required to reform the police.

Over the years, there has grown a vibrant civil society voice driving conversation, monitoring, advocating for the protection and promotion of human rights. Synergy and cooperation among members of this Fourth Republic are highly needed to continue to heat the debate about budget oversights and legal consequences of wrongdoing and the demand for transparency and accountability from public officeholders.

Apart from support to civic groups, there is also the need for development agencies and external donors to aid police reform implementation. This support could be by assisting the Police and other security agencies in providing human rights education, building the essential infrastructure, developing the curriculum, and training for the effective administration of criminal justice.

To improve the reputation of the Police and improve civil-security policing, the government should collaborate with civil society organisations to create awareness and drive advocacy to help mainstream issues of democratic policing.  The buy-in of security agents and citizens will help enhance community partnerships in crime prevention and management.

Conclusion

Insecurity has worsened in the country with a dire economic outlook.  Increasing levels of poverty and the inability to meet basic needs expose the people (civilians and security personnel) to the allure of crime to make ends meet.  Reforming the police alone will be counter-productive if the underlying elements of insecurity, such as corruption, social disparities and inequality, are not resolved.  The task is challenging, but the government has started well with the passage of the Nigeria Police Act 2020.  The government (and its partners) must muster the political will to navigate the hurdles and ensure implementation.  The current protests provide the impetus to drive through with the implementation.

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