Most Nigerians agree that we need change in many aspects of our national life and national institutions. But in my mind, if there is one place, we needed urgent and revolutionary change, it is in the Nigeria Police (force or service). This is because Nigeria Police is fully symptomatic of what is troubling Nigeria and therefore, if we get the police right, many other matters will fall into place. For example, our perennial low position on the Transparency International global Corruption Perception Index (CPI) is influenced strongly by the pathetic picture of our policemen extorting money from drivers in the full glare of the public. It must however be pointed out that this seems to be an embedded culture of the Nigeria police, which has long characterized the force, almost from creation.
This matter has troubled me for many years and I had taken a few actions to see if I could help stop this practice without any iota of success while putting my life at risk. First was as a primary school pupil in the early 60’s in Port Harcourt. We often passed through a police checkpoint on our way to and from School. We often would watch as a lorry, or bus driver would be flagged down and while the driver was being interrogated, the conductor would run to a spot and dropped some money. Perhaps they were afraid to collect personally then, unlike now that some policemen, collect cash, count it and return change while everybody is on the queue, watching, waiting and cursing. Even as primary school pupils we felt there was something repugnant about this practice. So one day, we decided to raid the cash collection point. We succeeded in taking out the cash bank but before we could spring to safety, they caught up with us and beat the hell out of us and seized our school bags. Now when I look back, I thank God that the police at the checkpoints or on patrol in those days did not carry arms otherwise we may have been casualties of ‘accidental discharge’ or may have been charged with “unarmed” robbery.
My second attempt was when one Inspector General of Police (IGP) came to town in the early 2000’s threatening fire for fire. I was impressed. He said he would reform the police and curb corruption in the police. I fell in love. One Christmas season, I was driving my family home when I came to a police checkpoint somewhere in the Eastern part of the country and I noticed a policeman collecting money from drivers openly. I was stung. ‘Is this man not aware of the campaign by the fire for fire IGP?’ I parked my car, ignored the protestations of my wife and went to talk to the policeman. ‘OC, why are you doing this, have you not heard of the warning of your new IGP ?’ ‘ Na who be that?’ he queried me. He then went on to answer his question’ Na that thief? No mind the man. That one na thief. Me I no be thief. Na beg I dey beg. If you get, you give me, if you no get, I go let you pass’. I shook my head and walked back to the car to continue my journey. My visibly angry wife asked me what transpired and I told her. She thanked God that the man was calm and not agitated and begged me to stop risking my life, more so when I had her and the kids in the car.
My third attempt was a couple of years ago when a well educated kinsman was made IGP. I was thrilled and believed he would share my disdain for this demeaning police conduct. I went to him. After congratulating him and thanking God for bringing our ‘own’ person to this important post, I begged him to leave a legacy and etch his name in gold. I told him to do all in his power to stop policemen from collecting money from road users in the glare of the public. I explained to him what damage that was doing to the image of the police and the country as a whole. I went further to assure him, that as the Chairman of the Nigerian Economic Summit Group (NESG) then, that I could try to use my influence in the Organized Private Sector to raise a foundation that would monthly, release an amount equivalent to all the money that the police would collect at the road blocks. I told him that the money could be released to state commissioners of police for easy disbursement to all the formations. In other words, the police would not lose much if at all. They could be guaranteed a minimum of ‘extra income ‘ contributed by the private sector, to supplement their well known poor salaries, if only they would stop collecting ‘egunje’ on the roads. I was shocked that my IGP friend was not enthused by this my ‘innovative ‘ proposal. I had hoped that he was going to ask me for a guarantee or would request that we passed the entire monthly allocation to the Headquarters for onward transmission down the line, so that no one would be left out. Rather, he went on to defend the police, telling me that the nation had the police they deserved. He turned down my offer and I was heart-broken.
In my submissions since then I have consistently asserted that we needed a new Nigeria police. That if possible, we should dissolve this current police formation and create a new one from the scratch. My colleagues and even friends in the police tell me it is not possible. But this regular decapitation of the top leadership has not worked and I still believe that it will not work. During the 5 year reign of President Goodluck Jonathan, he had 6 IGPs, and yet it is debatable if there was any significant change. President Muhammadu Buhari (PMB) retired several DIGs and AIGs to make way for the current IGP Ibrahim Idris. Every new IGP will entertain us with his wish list and some would end up leaving the police worse than they met it. And remember that I am focusing so far only on the matter of extortion on the highways and even on the ‘low ways’ where ‘Okada’ drivers and bicycle riders are the victims. I have not talked of crime prevention/ control or operational effectiveness. Everyone knows that in the area of crime prevention, the performance of our police is pathetic, hence most Nigerians now seek other ways to help themselves. Of course the military is now doing more of the police work and in the process, some are being taught the ways of the Nigerian Police. And that’s part of my concern for the proposed state police. How will they be different from the current federal police?
Last weekend I travelled by road from Port Harcourt to Onitsha and back. Between PH and Owerri alone, I counted 32 police checkpoints, complemented by military check points. What on the earth can these number of check points be accomplishing over such a short distance? Is there a war going on in that part of the nation? And what is worse is that no real check was going on any where? All I noticed was conversations between drivers and policemen and exchange of money and threat by some police to shoot defiant drivers! I did not see any car booth opened and only occasionally saw drivers bring out driver’s licence or motor particulars. After delaying you on the queue, and when you levelled up with them at the road block, they would ask: “what do you have for your boys?” After wasting your time and making you miss appointments or come late to meetings, they still want to extract money from you! What impudence!
How can this practice of our police on our roads improve our ease of doing business rating or global competitiveness? I therefore suggest that the presidential task force on the ease of doing business chaired by Vice President Osinbajo (VPO) must put some focus on this police road block menace. Since Ibrahim Idris came to power I have often seen adverts on the television talking of a new police, with new values and work ethics. I have often heard that the IGP had asked all police formations to dismantle road blocks from highways and only do stop and search? I am asking if the police formations in the PH-Owerri-Onitsha axis are still under the authority of this IGP or are they autonomous?
I do not know what legacy IGP Idris would like to leave behind him. I do not know where anyone can say that the police is doing well. Is it in crime prevention or crime control or in the prosecution of criminals? If they are not doing well in any of these areas, and he cannot stop the policemen from extorting money from road users, can he at least stop them from worsening the ease of doing business ranking of Nigeria? I have heard stories of so much wickedness in the Nigeria Police. Every year, so much is budgeted, yet little gets to the police stations. There was a time you would buy your own stationery to write a statement in the police station. There was a time we were told that police men bought their uniforms and boots from their meagre salaries or from the proceeds of ‘egunje’ . I just hope and pray that IGP Ibrahim Kpotun Idris will bring these stories to an end. I also pray that he, the Police service commission and the Ministry of Interior will rehabilitate the Police barracks and make them decent places to live and raise normal children not ‘barracks’ children.
Mazi Sam Ohuabunwa OFR