For decades, the Nigeria Police Force has acquired an egregious reputation for recurrent brutality primarily through one of its units, the now-defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), created in 1992. Indeed, the thrust of everyday public discourse and media reports has been mainly on the atrocious activities of the disbanded squad (Ayodele and Aderinto, 2014; Osumah, 2019).
Recently, in October, massive protests rocked the streets of many states across Nigeria over the atrocious activities of some harmful elements of the defunct SARS. The #EndSARS protests, as it is tagged, even resonated at the international level. Incontrovertibly, the fact that the Police, ordinarily required to restore law and order and offer protection to citizens, was the thrust of the protests resulted in a complete erosion of public confidence. This is a wakeup call to regenerate public confidence in the Police.
Amid the ubiquity of the protests, the Nigerian government undertook specific reforms to restore public confidence in the Force, which have been greeted with scepticism. For this reason, alternative or complementary strategic measures are required to regenerate public confidence in the Police. This essay outlines the realities of police brutality and initiatives undertaken to regenerate public confidence. It also proposes alternative strategic solution options to restore public confidence.
Realities of Police Brutality and Erosion of Public Confidence
the Nigerian Police, especially the tainted elements of the disbanded SARS unit, have been implicated in widespread human rights violations, extrajudicial killings, torture, arbitrary arrests, unlawful detention and extortion. The officers of the squad had reportedly targeted and detained young men between the ages of 18 and 35 for cybercrime or online fraud, only on the evidence of owning or in possession of laptops or smartphones, and then demanding excessive bail fees before release. During street raids on people watching a football match or drinking at pubs, these unscrupulous security officers also make arrests in an avalanche style and subject the victims to unlawful detention under horrible conditions (Agbiboa, 2013; Osumah, 2019).
Following visits to SARS detention centres in Abuja in 2016, Amnesty International reported that 130 detainees were living in overcrowded cells and regularly subjected to torture including hanging, starvations, beatings, shootings and mock executions. Also, in June 2020, Amnesty International documented at least 82 cases of torture, ill-treatment and extrajudicial killings by the SARS between January 2017 and May 2020. Many of the incidents of ill-treatment stirred frustration and anger, which sparked massive protests by citizens, mainly youths, in several cities across the country in the past weeks.
Efforts to rebuild public confidence
On account of the specific matters which the protests were premised, the Federal Government of Nigeria has given certain undertakings. It dissolved the infamous SARS whose operatives were involved in harassment, intimidation, and violations of human rights of the ordinary citizens. The Inspector-General of Police (IGP) has established a new unit tagged Special Weapon Tactical (SWAT) squad to undertake the duties of the SARS. A training programme has reportedly begun for officers for the new unit. Similarly, as directed by the Federal Government, many state governors have established panels for judicial investigations into incidents of police brutality and ensure that justice is served and fast.
In Lagos State, Governor Sanwo-Olu has named 20 policemen who are to face prosecution for various alleged acts of brutality. Also, each of the 36 State governors and the minister of the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja, has been directed by the Federal Government to put in place Victims Trust Fund to compensate verified victims and casualties of police brutality. In Lagos State, the governor has announced
N200 million fund for victims of police brutality. Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, on his social media page, sent a series of tweets to apologise to the protesting youths for not acting fast to address the excesses of the defunct SARS.
However, these initiatives have not significantly improved public confidence, mostly among the protesters. While SARS was dissolved and replaced with SWAT, protesters have said that this initiative is a mere change of name and not real change. This point is arguably valid, because the toxic elements of the disbanded SARS unit, were drawn from the Police where the same set of features that will be utilised in the new squad, SWAT, are to be drawn.
Moreover, the announcement of the dissolution of SARS was being made for the fourth time. Also, scepticism is shown toward the judicial panels of inquiry because reports and recommendations of such panels are rarely implemented. The same reservation is expressed about the proposed Victims Trust Funds and the promise by the Federal Government to improve the police personnel welfare. Indeed, there are antecedents. In 2018, the Federal Government announced an increment in police salaries and since then nothing has changed.
Strategic Alternative Policy Options
In the light of the scepticism which has greeted government initiatives amid protests for police reform, alternative and complementary strategic policy options are imperative to regenerate public confidence in the Police.
Psychological audit: Candidates for enlistment into the Police Force should be made to undergo psychological evaluation or psychiatric test in certified institutions. Officers deployed for a particular operation, like that of the defunct SARS, should at regular intervals be exposed to psychological testing and mental health examination as practised in the USA. Added to this, police personnel should be sent on regular and proper refresher training programmes on useful arms handling and civil engagement rules.
Serving of Justice: Federal Government should muster enough political will to genuinely support serving justice to errant police personnel to serve as deterrence to potential violators of fundamental human rights. This action will help to end the culture of impunity and regenerate public confidence. This process will be achieved when agencies such as the Nigeria Police Service Commission and the National Human Rights Commission effectively supervise and monitor activities of police personnel and take necessary but lawful actions for wrongdoing by an officer. Lessons can be drawn from practices in the U.S.
Digitalisation of policing: Digital policing is required to ensure the accountability of police officers in their engagements with the public. For example, through the use of body cameras by Police, the civility of police-citizen engagements in California has been improved. This model should be adopted in Nigeria.
Testimonial advertorial: Granted that most officers have indulged in human rights abuses, few good officers have been helpful to the public. The Police Force should use members of the public who have had a positive encounter with good police officers for testimonial advertorials. This development would contribute to the regeneration of the much-desired level of public confidence in the Police. For this to be effective, the Police need to forge closer collaboration with the media. Also, direct access of the public to the leadership of the Police is imperative.
Better Welfare for Police Personnel: The government should be genuinely committed to the welfare of the police personnel in terms of increase in their remuneration, provision of reliable insurance scheme, retirement benefits, functional logistical and operational tools as well as good accommodations with modern facilities. Although the Federal Government has repeatedly made promises in this direction, it should back the promises by genuine commitment in real-time.
Compensation of Victims: There should be compensation for victims of police brutality. Although no amount is adequate to compensate for life lost, such compensation could serve as socio-psychological reassurance and reinforcement to them and their families. The Victims Support Fund proposed by the government should be backed by existing commitments rather than being mere platitudes.
For decades, there is increasing erosion of public confidence in the Nigerian Police Force due to the atrocious conducts of some officers. The loss of confidence in the recent past has found expression in massive youth protests and calls for police reform. Amid the protests, the government announced measures to regenerate public trust, which has been greeted with scepticism. This issue calls for more strategic alternative policy options. Some alternative policy options include a psychological audit of police personnel, digitalisation of policing, testimonial advertorial, better welfare packages for the police personnel, and compensation of victims of police brutality.
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