On Thursday, I was on the phone with a friend who intimated me of the gory details about the security situation in Owerri, the Imo State capital. She narrated at length how the police, using insecurity as a pretext, commonly round up random citizens in public places, most especially bars, otherwise known as beer parlours.
Our conversation reminded me of how my younger brother narrowly escaped one of such routine mass arrests by the defunct Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) wing of the Nigerian Police Force in 2019. Upon release, one of his friends who was arrested on that ill-fated hangout narrated how the police officers tortured him mercilessly and forced him into confessing that he is a yahoo boy—the Nigerian lingo for Internet fraudster—before his parents, whom they had contacted to come and secure his freedom, in order to extort money—in the guise of bail— from them.
These arbitrary arrests, detention and extortion which characterised the SARS, led to the nationwide protest for the disbandment of the police unit under the motto #EndSARS in October 2020. On October 11, 2020, after about one week of street protests against the blatant acts of harassment, torture, extortion perpetrated on young Nigerians by the lawless, uncouth, uncultured and vicious group, the then Inspector General of Police, Mohammed Adamu, dissolved the unit.
Years after the scrapping of the anti-robbery unit, however, the reason for the rallying cry of Nigerians during the nationwide #EndSARS protest two years ago, is still waxing strong. Like the phone conversation with my friend revealed, the Nigerian Police Force still engages in unprofessional, corrupt, and criminal conduct, acting like a terror group against the people it was meant to protect. Making themselves predators rather than protectors, police officers commit myriad of human rights abuses, ranging from arbitrary arrests and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, inciting physical and sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings, against ordinary Nigerians.
Reports abound of armed police officers subjecting motorists—commercial and private—to routine extortion under threat of arrest, detention and physical injury at police roadblocks and checkpoints. Ordinarily mounted to monitor the movement of people and combat crime, these checkpoints, which have become a dreaded area for citizens, especially if they have nothing to give to the officers for pure water, have become a lucrative criminal avenue for the police. The extortion of money from motorists at police checkpoints has become a routine that it has taken on the nature of a standardized toll. Failure to comply, motorists risk being severely beaten, physically assaulted, or even shot to death.
To extort money from motorists at checkpoints, the police apply all sort of tactics. The most common being the impounding of cars, tricycles (keke) and motorcycles on the pretext that the driver’s registration papers are incomplete, only to be released after the driver has paid the demanded sum. They usually tell you, “You will have to give us something or we’ll take you to the station and you’ll have to pay even more to bail yourself out, so pay up now.”
Speaking of bail, on the wall of every police station, are posters that clearly says bail is free but in the real sense, the posters are only for decoration of the stations. You cannot enter a police station and leave without cooperating with the police officers. No matter the kind of offence, you have to pay your way out. Refuse to pay for bail while claiming to know your fundamental human rights as a citizen, and you might just land yourself in detention until you are ready to cooperate.
Extortion has become so ingrained in the system that it has become a norm for the police to brazenly extort money from victims to investigate a given criminal case, which leaves those who refuse or are unable to pay without access to justice. Meanwhile, criminal suspects with money can simply bribe the police to avoid arrest, detention, or prosecution, to influence the outcome of a criminal investigation, or to turn the investigation against the victim.
There is no way you can escape providing one thing or another if you have a complaint with the police and want it taken seriously. To lodge a complaint with the Nigerian Police, you’d have to pay the police to initiate, conduct an investigation, and refer the case to the state prosecutor. And if you are unable or unwilling to provide the money for fuel or paper as demanded, the case will be tossed away and forgotten. Moreso, in a situation where the complainant is unable or unwilling to pay the money illegally demanded by the police, or if the accused in the case is richer or more powerful, the tide might turn against the complainant, who risk being framed by the police on false charges—from being a complainant, he can turn into a suspect overnight. This has had the consequence of citizens shying away from reporting crimes because of the fear of being victimized by the police.
Besides extorting from and victimising citizens, failure to dispense justice is also the hallmark of the Nigerian Police, just as it has utterly failed to fulfill its mandate of providing public security. From all corners of the country, stories abound of how poor and innocent citizens are often made to bear the brunt of the law unjustly. Stories abound of people being indiscriminately arrested after a crime incidence, while the criminals might have fled the scene to safety. And the people arbitrarily arrested during the raid are often charged to court on framed charges because they could not bail themselves out, while the culprits remain at large.
Such unprofessional, corrupt, and criminal conduct on the part of Nigerian police officers, therefore, calls to question the verity of the cliché: the police are your friends. Indeed, in a country like Nigeria, where the ordinary citizen thinks the policeman is anything but a friend, the verity of the cliché needs to be ascertained.