Last week, irate Nigerians flooded the streets of Onitsha to protest a police officer’s unwarranted and absolutely senseless killing of Edwin Eze, a commuter bus driver. A day after the riots, police authorities in Anambra State made much of the news that the rogue police officer who pulled the trigger had been charged to court – and sacked.
The trigger-happy officer, Corporal Samuel Ajana, had apparently fired at the driver following a dispute over a bribe. According to the driver’s fare collector, the driver’s capital crime was to give N20 when the police demanded N50. When the recalcitrant driver drove off, Mr. Ajana hopped on a motorcycle and gave chase. Cornering the bus, he aimed his gun at the driver and – in a flash – unleashed mayhem.
In the illogical, absurd creed that reigns in Nigeria, a man’s life is worth wasting over N30! That, in a nutshell, is a picture of how much an average Nigerian’s life is worth in the eyes of agents of the Nigerian state. The hapless driver came face to face with this unstated, but potent, conclusion: that a Nigerian is, in the final reckoning, worth much less than any animal. You can’t buy a chicken in any Nigerian market for N50; but it is not uncommon for Nigerian police officers to maim or kill Nigerians who refuse, or are slow, to hand over a “levy” of N20 (or thereabouts) at ubiquitous road blocks mounted by the police.
Corporal Ajana’s bloodlust came close to igniting a sectarian fuse in Onitsha as (ultimately misleading) news spread that the perpetrator of the killing was an Hausa officer. Since Boko Haram’s Christmas Day bombing of a Catholic Church in Madalla, Niger State – an attack that claimed a disproportionate number of Igbo lives – Nigeria has seen sectarian and ethnic temperatures approach boiling levels.
The Nigerian government’s incapacity to handle the worsening climate of insecurity could easily stimulate aggrieved segments of the citizenry to resort to violent, if ill-advised, self-help. Indeed, as the remains of the casualties of the Madalla and other terrorist assaults were conveyed home for burial – some of the bodies charred or dismembered beyond recognition – it’s a great miracle of tact and restraint that Igbos did not set upon Hausas in the southeast in an orgy of retaliation. To hurt innocent Hausas in the southeast is for me as reprehensible as Boko Haram’s gruesome sport of targeting innocent Igbos, Christians and fellow Moslems.
Still, for a moment last week – with the mistaken notion that an Hausa police officer was behind the murder of an Igbo driver – tempers flared in Onitsha. Many Hausa traders and residents of the commercial city reportedly fled across the River Niger and sought refuge in Asaba.
My hunch is that the breadth, spontaneity and indignation of the Onitsha protests bespeak a new burgeoning determination by Nigerians to resist their degradation – and their animalization. If one’s conjecture is correct, then the rampaging crowd in Onitsha was fueled by something of the rage that animated the outraged millions who, weeks earlier, massed in streets, from Lagos to Kano, to denounce President Goodluck Jonathan’s callous decision to increase the price of fuel.
Both acts – Jonathan’s raising of fuel price and Corporal Ajana’s killing of an unarmed citizen – flowed from the same disdain for that being called “the ordinary Nigerian.”
There are, of course, two Nigerias – and two sets of Nigerians. Opposed to the “ordinary Nigerian” is the set called “prominent Nigerians,” “chieftains,” or “stakeholders.” The former are routinely slaughtered at police checkpoints, whilst the latter – even when they are certified criminals – are guarded round-the-clock by a retinue of servile police officers. “Ordinary Nigerians” go for days and weeks without electric power, their slummy homes besieged by merciless mosquitoes, obese rats and die-hard cockroaches; “prominent Nigerians,” by contrast, own massive generators that supply them with power, build massive homes to house their inflated egos, and dream up ever more depraved ways of, one, stealing from the commonwealth and, two, pauperizing a majority of their misfortunate citizens.
If the police believe that they have addressed the crime that happened in Onitsha by firing Corporal Ajana, and putting him to trial, they should think again. The rot in the Nigerian police is so deeply rooted that the removal of one or two Ajanas is definitely not a solution – only a ghastly joke. The institution called the Nigerian police – like most institutions in Nigeria – is fundamentally diseased, and demands a radical rooting out of its culture.
As currently shaped, the Nigerian police are not a crime-fighting, law enforcement body; it is, instead, a crime-stimulating, crime-perpetuating organism. Far from viewing themselves as enemies of criminals, many officers of the Nigeria police set out to profit from crime. The police plague Nigerians with their ever-present road blocks. The posts are hardly ever in the service of combating crime. No, their main purpose is to brusquely demand, and collect, “levies” from motorists. The odd motorist who balks at handing over the naira, or who’s foolhardy enough to bid to make a lower payment, risks being dispatched the way Driver Eze was.
I’m willing to bet that, asked to enumerate the duties of the police, most Nigerians are likely to list bribe-taking as first choice. If bribes were collected only from beleaguered motorists, that would be bad enough. But police officers often collude with more serious criminals. Take the case of Lotachukwu Ezeudu, an accountancy student at the University of Nigeria who was kidnapped on September 26, 2009 and has since not been seen. Prosecutors in Enugu accuse a former Divisional Police Officer, Sam Chukwu, of complicity in the crime. Chukwu is on the run, and the police authorities in Abuja seem reluctant to do the right thing by declaring him wanted. Besides, last year, a senior police officer in Funtua, Katsina State reportedly signed a fraudulent letter designed to offer an alibi to one of the suspects. The officer’s letter claimed that the suspect, Moses Uche Amajor, came to the Funtua police on September 25 with a report that armed robbers had stolen money and documents from him. If that’s true, then Mr. Amajor would have a strong alibi. But prosecutors in the case have pooh-poohed the alibi, yet the officer who tried to provide it – and thus to derail justice – has faced no official punishment.
To achieve itself as a serious law enforcement tool, the Nigeria police needs must undergo a drastic culture change. Its officers as well as rank and file would need professional training in the basics of their functions. They would require significant ethical re-orientation. Once these fall in place, then the police would need to be both equipped and remunerated.
Sadly, the needed transformation of the police cannot proceed when so much else about the Nigerian state is broken, deformed and warped. The Nigerian state is arranged by criminal elements to serve their interests. Such a disordered, anomalous arrangement cannot afford or abide a professionally attuned police alive to its responsibilities. In the end, the malaise in the police is a subtext of a broader disquiet in the Nigerian body politic.
Last week, the Nation of Nigeria reported that Nigeria’s 109 senators would soon take delivery of their Toyota Land Cruiser SUVs. The price tag, according to the newspaper, is $100,724 each. If the report is true, then we behold a cadre of “prominent, stake holding” Nigerians at their game of mindless squander < span style="font-style: italic;">fest. If senators can get away with that scale of greed, then what logic must we muster against sun-scorched, wretchedly paid police officers who demand N50, and are determined to shoot when denied it?