Don’t just #EndSARS, Scrap the Police — Why I think so and the Alternatives
NO TIME FOR FLUFF. THESE ARE URGENT TIMES.
In this article, I have four goals I seek to achieve.
- Castigate the gross inefficiency of the entire Nigerian Police Force
- Advance arguments in favour of scrapping the entire Nigeria Police Force based on its uselessness and quasi-terrorist orientation
- Propose a series of alternative frameworks for the effective policing of the Nigerian state
- Analyse the flaws in my proposals and see if it is possible to find workable solutions to them
Background of the Problem
Before I go into these, I must establish the reason for this. I am writing this article when the overarching goal is to #EndSARS, the brutish division of the Nigerian Police Force, created to curb the menace of armed robbery in the 90s. I support this goal, but I believe that it is incomplete without the scrapping of the entire Nigerian Police Force.
It is not the case that SARS is an exception, while the general Police Force is pristinely clean. No. Back to back for years, the Nigerian Police Force has been ranked the most corrupt public institution in Nigeria. Do you know what that means? Not even the non-functional local governments, or the toothless National Assembly, or the blind executives in Aso Rock who allocate billions to themselves in estacode are as corrupt as the average officer in black. It means that if any government wanted to fight corruption, the first place to start should be the office of the Inspector-General of Police.
For the sake of context, especially for those in my generation, we should understand that police brutality is not something that started in the 21st century. We establish that the creation of security forces in Nigeria, starting with the West Africa Constabulary in the pre-independence era, was never to secure the lives and properties of the Nigerians. It protected the colonisers from the people whom they had enslaved.
Nigeria adopted a real federal structure upon independence, which saw each region set up a policing structure unique to itself. However, the incursion of the military into our politics and the allegations that regional governments used police to intimidate opponents in elections, made many to believe that if the police were centrally controlled, it would be impartial towards all.
Over 50 years have passed and we all know better, but still, we should forgive our elders for their naivete. They didn’t know better.
I recommend that you stream ‘Alagbon Close’ by the late Fela Kuti. Fela has a lot of songs talking about police and military brutality, but none I think comes very close to describing the sheer disrespect for status or human life that SARS exhibits. SARS was not in existence when Fela sang this song, but like a friend of mine recently said, the problems that Fela sang about are still with us.
SARS (Special Anti-Robbery Squad) like the name suggests, tackled the spate of armed robberies in the 90s. This was the age when armed robbers like Anini were so popular, they appeared on public occasions and shut down entire roads while they calmly collected the valuables of commuters.
In its early days, SARS was effective, mostly because it was independent and thus free from most of the corrupt bureaucracy of the Nigerian Police.
There’s a saying amongst the Igbo that when the hunter learns to shoot without missing the bird will learn to fly without perching.
The criminals grew and went online. Rather than follow them online, SARS remained stuck in the same methods and prefers to use profiling to victimise innocent Nigerians. If all they did was shake you down for carrying a laptop and phone and you could prove you weren’t a Yahoo Boy, and then they would let you go, we might accuse them of being highhanded but most of us would still feel secure with them.
But that’s not how they operate. All for dressing sharp, carrying a laptop bag, you can get nabbed. It’s unsafe to keep credit and debit alerts on my phone because of SARS. Young men have to think about whether they need to take their laptops with them when going out. It’s better to keep your best clothes in the wardrobe. Now the tech ideas we share are about developing an app that can tell you the route where SARS operatives are so you can avoid them in advance.
That’s the country we live in. A country that provides no minimums. We have no jobs. No roads. No excellent schools, no healthcare, no justice, no protection. The goal of most people in my generation is just to make as much money as possible to fund plans to get out of Nigeria.
The Hypocrisy of #ReformSARS & Reforms in General
That’s why I consider the counter-calls for #ReformSARS to be mischievous. It’s like someone saying ‘Not all Men…’ when women talk about rape or gender-based violence. If you wait until someone raises an issue, before raising the counter-argument, then your goal is to obfuscate and take away traction from the other person’s momentum.
The worst thing about the people who champion #ReformSARS is that they somehow think they are on the intellectual high road. But you’re not. Tacitly or not, you further legitimise a broken system. Anyone with a sense of history knows that ‘reform’ is the most abused word in Nigeria. If reform was an election, the 2007 and 2019 elections would be free and fair compared to it.
We’ve been reforming the petroleum industry for decades. Look at all the progress we’ve made. Our petroleum sector is the most transparent in the world. We’ve been reforming the electricity industry, that’s why estimated billing is now a thing of the past. We’ve reformed the civil service. Nigeria is not like one of those wasteful countries where they duplicate agencies of government or spend 70% of the budget on recurrent expenditure.
You see how good we are at reform. Don’t you see it? So, let’s take that energy and reform the police, right? Just a little panel here, a committee there, one well-publicized sacking, and a nicely worded press release. That should do it, right?
When the government says they want to reform, that’s what it always boils down to — a panel, a report, a committee to review the report of the panel, some nice photo ops of the Chairman of the Committee presenting the revised report of the panel to the President, Vice or a Minister, then another committee to review the revised report to draw out an implementation plan, until we hear nothing about it.
I’m not making this up, please. I’m not that creative. Google ‘Oronsaye Report’, Google ‘Oputa Panel’, Google ‘National Conference 2014’.
Why do you think Okonjo-Iweala wrote an entire book titled, ‘Reforming the Unreformable’?
Think. The Nigerian political and economic elite are too smart for reform. They will manipulate it to still come out on top.
This is why we don’t want #ReformSARS. We want to #EndSARS. Like Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, we want to break the wheel.
Why the Nigeria Police Force should be scrapped
I will now move to the next part of this essay where I will advance arguments for scrapping the entire Nigerian Police Force, based on its uselessness and quasi-terrorist tendencies, just like I said in my opening.
Do a throwback with me to the period when lockdowns were still fully in force. One Million Boys, a deadly gang of robbers who used to be an Ikorodu legend, suddenly became the hottest thing in the South-West. They were everywhere, raiding entire communities, night after night, stealing their belongings.
They visited my community. I still remember that night. I’m studying for law school from my home, so most nights, I’m awake trying to figure out why I studied law all these years ago when my mates chose Economics.
That night, the sporadic gunshots sent me jumping from my reading table to hide behind a cushion in my father’s house. And my name is supposed to be Akin. Safe to say, I closed the books and switched off the lights in the house so as not to attract attention to our house. Na person wey dey alive dey snap call to bar picture.
The next morning, we learned that One Million Boys had raided the nearby town, and that we were next. That night, we started our vigilante. Old tires, disused water tanks, anything that could burn, set up at different points in the community. Those who had Dane guns brought them out of hiding and started shooting in the air. I’m glad to say that One Million Boys never came back.
My story is not unique. Many of you reading this can relate perfectly. Where were the police when all this happened? Most likely, they were on lockdown too like the rest of us, I mean, we’re all in this, together, right?
I feel safer with armed robbers. I know that if I cooperate and give them what they want, I’ll lose my belongings, but I might not get a scratch. But the police?
How do you want to salvage this? Some might say there are good eggs in the police, so it makes no sense to scrap the entire setup. There are good politicians in Nigeria too, look at how much they’ve achieved. Sweden and Norway are taking notes from us on how to build an egalitarian society. Canada? They’ve got nothing on us. Nigerian politicians are so good that Justin Trudeau spent a year at Aso Rock taking notes before running for Prime Minister.
You see how effective our good politicians are right? I’m sure you can also see the amazing job by our good police officers. They’re so good it takes a magnifying glass to see their achievements. Their success is so great that you need to look deep, look closely, you need to sift through the hay; you need to take your time to study them, you’ll find them.
The Bible says that no one has a light and keeps it under a bed. He puts it where it can illuminate the entire room. If there were really good men in the Nigeria Police Force, I shouldn’t be losing my sleep writing this article by 1:36 am.
Oh, don’t scrap the police because the rate of crime will skyrocket.
So, the crime that is going on now, is what, dress rehearsal abi?
Fulani Herdsmen are the 4th deadliest terrorist group on Earth. Being a farmer in the Middle Belt is a dangerous career choice. Under Gov. Ayodele Fayose, farmers and hunters had to take responsibility for their security. That action that seemed crazy back then is what we now call Amotekun. Even before Amotekun, Lagos State set up the Lagos Neighbourhood Safety Corps. What about National Security and Civil Defence Corps? They almost set up the National Peace Corps in 2018 if not because President Buhari killed the idea.
If the police are so effective in curbing crime, then why does our political class keep trying to create subtle alternatives to them? If armed robbers hit your home what number would you call? You’ll remember 911, but then you’ll remember that this is actual life, not a Hollywood movie. Then you’ll remember Jesus because only he can save you.
It was just a few months ago that the NCC launched an official emergency number for Nigeria — 112. I can’t say whether it works because I’ve not tested it. It’s not advisable to call an emergency number when you have no actual emergency. So, we’ve had a Nigeria Police Force for over 50 years, and they didn’t even have one number we could reach them with.
Let me tell you something funny I heard about the Nigerian Police. Someone came back from abroad with her dog. The dog got missing, and she had the idea of reporting to the police, our police, our personal police. Feel free to start laughing if you guess where this story goes.
When she got to the police station, both she and the person who accompanied her to the station where detained for wasting the time of the officer on duty with such a frivolous complaint.
I mean, we can’t even trust them to find us when we get missing, and you expect them to find a dog? Bingo? In Nigeria? Please, Officer, lock them and throw away the key!
This is the institution you want us to preserve. This organised crime cartel that has legal backing. Thieves hide in uncompleted buildings and wear masks, but police officers wear badges with their names proudly on it. They have spacious compounds erected for them where they can keep their loot. They have elaborate systems that ensure the Godfather at the top gets to wet his beak. If Mario Puzo were alive and could study the Nigeria Police, he would have spun off a book on the Nigerian Mafia known as the Nigerian Police Force.
Failure of Centralised Policing
Globally, the centralised approach to policing is failing, worse in some places in than others. We saw the George Floyd protests a few months back in the USA, and now we have something similar in Nigeria. When you build a police force that is centrally controlled in Nigeria and bears no allegiance or similarity with the community it polices, what you have is an occupation army. In what world is it sane that police officers live in barracks? Barracks? Think about it. We transferred something that works for the military to a security agency that is supposed to be integrated with the community it protects. How can you be familiar with the faces and activities in a community if you don’t live amongst the people?
I know that not all police officers live in barracks, but that they even exist is an aberration we’ve accepted way too long.
My Proposed Alternative — Bottom-up Policing
Amid the crisis that is Nigerian security, there have been some haphazard experiments that prove the Nigerian Police Force is not the beginning and end of law and order in Nigeria. I shall now switch to discussing my alternative model for policing.
What I propose is a communal approach to policing, where every citizen is a police officer and rotates duty according to a commonly agreed roster. Think of it like how tenants in a Face-Me-I-Face-You apartment have a roster for sweeping the corridor.
This new police should be built from the grassroots upward, not from the top. There should be no central management, either by the federal or state government. Not even the local councils should have control over it. Every adult in a community would submit their names to the community leaders, who would work out a system for rotating duty. Depending on the size of a community, a person might not be on duty for more than a few days in a year. On other days, you could go about with your normal lives. The community would apply for gun licenses and pool funds to set up offices for this police force. This way, the equipment and the offices used by the police officers would be the property of the community. Today, I might be the officer carrying the gun and stopping vehicles on the road to search. Tomorrow, I’m the driver of the car who is being stopped by my neighbour, now on police duty. How likely do you think I am to shoot someone who lives across the street? When everyone in the community is part of the local police force, it is easy to pick out unknown faces who are not part of the system.
Admittedly, there are certain core functions of the police that cannot be easily rotated and require specialization and experience. To compensate for this, we can set up a program where every citizen gets para-military training necessary for the specialised work of policing. Luckily, there is a legal basis for this, as the 1999 Constitution already provides for this in section 220 which provides:
1. The Federation shall establish and maintain adequate facilities for carrying into effect any Act of the National Assembly providing for compulsory military training or military service for citizens of Nigeria
2. Until an Act of the National Assembly is made in that behalf the President may maintain adequate facilities in any secondary or post-secondary educational institution in Nigeria for giving military training in any such institution which desires to have the training
By expressly referring to secondary schools, the drafters of the constitution intended that we adopt a catch them young approach in building security personnel for Nigeria. I believe that this provision can serve our purpose in building alternatives to the Nigeria Police Force. In the transition period between the outright scrapping of the centrally managed NPF, and the onboarding of over 8,814 police forces (based on the number of wards in Nigeria), military and para-military personnel should be attached to all secondary schools and higher institutions to provide training to all citizens from 14 years of age upwards. If you’re old enough to testify in court, then you’re old enough to learn how to protect yourself. This period might last up to 2 years to 3 years. Within the first year, most citizens should have gained the skills and experience to take over basic traffic control, simple crime investigation, and interacting with the court system.
As these citizens start rotation of police duty, the NPF will gradually be rolled back to handle state and nationwide operations. By the second or third year, most citizens should be experienced enough to handle the technical and administrative aspects of policing.
At this level, the organization is no longer communal. Several communities may agglomerate, based on shared values and history, for the general administration of their police forces.
I’ll illustrate it. I live at Ofada in Ogun State. Assuming this proposed structure was already in place, I would be a part of the Ofada Police Force. Based on the population strength of the town, it’s possible that I would only be on police duty in August, for example. When I am not on duty, I would go about my business and continue taking part in training.
But Ofada does not exist in isolation. It close to Owode, then Loburo, Mowe, Pakuro, Ibafo, and a host of other communities. Movement across these towns is very fluid, so even if each of them sets up their local police, they cannot but interact. All these towns can come together to set up a joint administration of their police forces, where everyone who is already a member of their police force is automatically a member of the joint force. The same principle of rotation would also apply, subject to a level of experience. A 17-year-old officer wouldn’t expect to be called up for service at the joint level, but a 35-year-old me (I’m not yet 35 oh, na just example) with at least 10 years’ experience in local policing could be called to serve at that administrative level for 2 to 3 months.
Let me point out that we would pay this service out of the treasury of the state, be it the local government or state government in question. So, while I leave my legal practice to ensure that traffic flows smoothly, I’m getting paid for it, and my job will remain vacant for me till I get back.
It is possible that in implementation, it might take longer, and there might be challenges that will crop up which will have to be nipped in the bud. But if we are dedicated to it, we can roll back the Nigeria Police Force in a space of 5 years at least.
If you’ve noticed I referred to communities so far, instead of local governments. It was intentional. If you inspect around you, you notice that Nigerians identify more with their CDAs, their street associations, age grades, and even trade unions than the virtually non-existent local governments. Hinging security plans on a tier of government that can’t even manage primary schools is to declare our post-police plans dead on arrival.
It is very possible that at the end of this process, what will be left of the Nigeria Police Force will be a tiny, elite force, similar to the FBI, or it might be outrightly phased out. Either way, the Nigeria Police Force as it is today will be as good as gone.
Legitimate Concerns about Scrapping the Nigeria Police Force
Now I shall address concerns raised about the consequences of scrapping the NPF. I talked to some of my friends and they mentioned some of them.
The first was that it is like throwing away the baby with the bathwater. It would amount to overkill if we scrap the police. Also, it might lead to insecurity and a free for all.
Like I established earlier, the Nigerian Police is not a pristine institution that just harbors the tumour called SARS. The entire Nigerian Police Force is a tumour on the Nigerian state. Excising SARS is like cutting out a part of a large tumour and expecting the body to heal. No, it won’t. In a matter of time, the tumour will grow, recover whatever you cut away, and become as big as it was before.
A farmer who has a weed problem on his farm doesn’t trim the leaves of the weeds. He uproots or sprays them so they die from the root upwards. There is nothing to redeem, nothing to salvage in our police.
That is why I’m not satisfied with just ending SARS. Because if we achieve this, most of these operatives will be reabsorbed into the major force. So instead of dressing like thugs, they will be neatly dressed in well-ironed uniforms, with the same animalistic tendencies. So, what really would have changed? We might get some respite for a while, but once they deem that the coast has cleared, they will return to their wicked ways.
Another concern was that it would not be easy for us to achieve a police-less state because we are a third world economy with a lack of functioning institutions. But is my argument that it is the lack of institutions that makes it easier for us to achieve this — to build new institutions. We don’t have over 250 years of nation-building like the USA to tear down. We have just 60–100 years, depending on whether you count from independence or amalgamation. And even at that, we have hardly invested in building institutions, so what is there to lose?
It is easier for a country like Nigeria to set up Amotekun or neighbourhood vigilantes than the USA. We have more flexible institutions. Our cultural value systems are still in place to provide a basis for them. This is not the case with a thoroughly westernized society like the USA. And even there, the City of Minneapolis, the place where George Floyd was killed, scrapped their police force in the aftermath of the protests.
In Economics, there is something called a sunk cost. It is the cost of continuing along a chosen path when it is not working for fear of what the alternative might be. This is the same as arguing that we should maintain the police. This institution has been a failure since 1960, but we want to stick with it because we are afraid of the alternative.
You’re on the Titanic, you see that it is sinking, and you will go down with it, but you afraid of jumping out the ship into the ocean, and swimming in any direction.
Here, I haven’t just said scrap the police. I have provided an alternative that is democratic and derives its mandate from the people, not the authorities.
A third concern is the lack of accountability that has destroyed many institutions in Nigeria. It is possible that even a new police force, whether following my proposed model, can still be corrupted. I believe my model, which is based on people policing the communities they live in, is far less prone to corruption and highhandedness. But such fears are legitimate and should not be swept aside. To provide a solution to this, I will once again take recourse to the 1999 Constitutions. Part 1 of its Third Schedule, provides for two bodies, namely the Nigeria Police Council, and the Police Service Commission. Because the makeup of the Nigeria Police Council requires that the Inspector-General of the Police be a member, it will probably be redundant or scrapped in a post-police society.
The Police Service Commission (PSC) need not be composed of police officers. Already, it has the power to discipline any police officer of rank in the force. We can amend this scope to cover all operatives of the various police forces in Nigeria while they are on or off duty. So the same way I can lodge a complaint with the NCC (Nigerian Communications Commission) or the FCCPC (Federal Competition and Consumer Protection Commission), I should be able to do the same with the PSC if Mr. Maduka, the man who sells provisions on my street, slaps me while he is on police duty. We should introduce a further amendment to ensure that the Chairman and members of the PSC are popularly elected to remove executive control from them. Procedures would then be established for reporting excessive actions or isolated cases of police brutality (if any), and the conclusion of the investigation, with punishment. A strong punishment I would propose is to ban the person for life or some years, depending on the level of grievance. In a society where everyone looks forward to police duty, the inability to serve should occasion social stigma that compels others to be of honourable conduct when on duty.
A friend of mine raised the fact that community policing has historically not been effective in Nigeria and it is not likely that it would be better than what we have. He further pointed out that what was lacking was accountability and enforcement mechanisms, which I agree with. In the latter part of his comment, I believe I have addressed my proposal about the PSC.
Concerning the former part, I wish to point out that failure has not been of community policing, but our approach to community policing. We have tried to copy the federal approach, set up a force subject to central control, be it at the state level or local level, and therefore accountable to only one authority. This top-down approach to policing is where we keep getting it wrong.
A bottom-up approach to policing like the one I proposed which is freely made up of citizens protecting the streets they live in, the churches and mosques they worship, the places their children go to school, is more viable than whatever we’ve repeatedly tried and failed at.
Another concern was that scrapping the police might give room for thugs and other criminals to hold sway. That’s why in proposing this idea, I gave room for a transition of up to 5 years, where the central police are gradually rolled back and the local police forces step in immediately where they leave. If this approach is meticulously followed, it should leave little or no room for new avenues of crime.
We should also remember that those thugs are also citizens like us. Many of them have families, and some of us have experienced when they have stepped in to secure us. In two towns that I have lived in, Ile-Ife and Ofada, I have seen thugs step in to maintain roads abandoned by the government (although they usually request a little something from commuters as a reward for their efforts). These thugs and other criminals are a symptom of the failure of the Nigerian state. An approach to security like the model I have recommended which will involve them as residents of their community, with the benefit of compensation and training, is sure to ensure that a good number of them will turn a new leaf. There will always be those addicted to the underworld, but we will be able to easily fish them out when we all police ourselves.
I should also add that one advantage of making every citizen a police officer is that in a matter of years, it will create a new consciousness of vigilance amongst all Nigerians. When we all have military training and have served repeatedly, we will always be on guard, even when not on the uniform. Every person will apply their training and experience to spot criminals, every person will detect a hidden bomb, maybe defuse one, rescue a kidnapped child. A communal and democratic approach to policing would be a true return to old African values of shared security and communal living, where everyone looked out for each other.
Another point that no one raised, but I thought of was about what might happen to the personnel of the Nigeria Police Force after this agency is scrapped? Shouldn’t I care? But I’ll be honest, I don’t. I don’t care about criminals. If someone killed my loved ones, raped, or stole from me, do you expect that I should care about them? I might forgive them as a good Christian, but should I care about them?
Operatives of the Nigerian Police Force are guilty of all these atrocities and more. If I’m not expected to care about criminals, why should I care about the police officers who are just as bad as them, or even worse? I should hate them. Criminals owe me nothing. In most cases, they are victims of the state, just like me. The police are supposed to protect me, and they behave worse than criminals. I should feel nothing but the deepest contempt for them.
However, I recognise the threat that they pose to my post-police society. So, I will suggest a solution for dealing with them, not because I care about them, but I recognise their nuisance value and why it must be curbed.
During the 5 years of transition, we should place a halt on further recruitment into the Nigerian Police Force. Instead, ad hoc panels should be set up across Nigeria, corresponding to the existing police commands. These panels should be either be composed of members who were directly elected or composed of local traditional and religious leaders, depending on the preferences of the community in question. These panels would hold hearings on all cases of extra-judicial killings, police brutality, and abuse of power by the men in black as it affects their community. It would mandate all police officers to appear before these panels to testify if need be. Failure to testify or cooperate should attract summary dismissal and, possibly, incarceration.
We should give these panels a fixed deadline to complete their hearings, maybe 18 months. Each of them would then send a report to the Police Service Commission, which would start prosecution of all erring officers. We might have to set up special courts to expedite these cases. We won’t get everyone, but we will send a simple message to all the new police forces that it is no longer business as usual. I should also point out that we will hand the weapons in each police command to the host community for arming their new police force.
There are no easy fixes to our police challenges. The easier and quicker a solution, the more likely it is to be a scam. I have no hope in the men in black. I feel only fear when I see them. I don’t want that. I want to meet a police officer on the road and crack a joke with him, ask him about his or her children, tell him to greet his wife for me, and then go my way.
I want the phrase, ‘Police is your friend’, to have real meaning. I don’t fear my friends, I love them.
If you want that also, let’s not stop at #EndSARS, lets #ScrapThePolice.