Crimes Of The Crime Fighters: The Nigerian Police Force

Countless ordinary Nigerians attempting to make precarious ends meet as taxi drivers, market traders, and shopkeepers are accosted on a daily basis by armed police officers who demand bribes and commit human rights abuses against them as a means of extorting money. Those who fail to pay are frequently threatened with arrest and physical harm. Far too often these threats are carried out. Meanwhile, victims of crime are obliged to pay the police from the moment they enter a police station to file a complaint until the day their case is brought before a court. (That's if such case sees the walls of a court room) In the shadows, high-level police officials embezzle staggering sums of public funds meant to cover basic police operations. Senior police officers also enforce a perverse system of “returns” in which rank-and-file officers are compelled to pay up the chain of command a share of the money they extort from the public. Those charged with police oversight, discipline, and reform have for years failed to take effective action, thereby reinforcing impunity for police officers of all ranks who regularly perpetrate crimes against the citizens they are mandated to protect.

Many Nigerian police officers conduct themselves in an exemplary manner, working in difficult and often dangerous conditions—some 250 policemen and women were shot and killed in the line of duty in 2009—but for many Nigerians the police force has utterly failed to fulfill its mandate of providing public security. Indeed, a little above 80 years after its birth, members of the force are viewed more as predators than protectors, and the Nigeria Police Force has become a symbol in Nigeria of unfettered corruption, mismanagement, and abuse.

Extortion, embezzlement, and other corrupt practices by Nigeria’s police undermine the fundamental human rights of Nigerians in two key ways. First, the most direct effect of police corruption on ordinary citizens stems from the myriad human rights abuses committed by police officers in the process of extorting money. These abuses range from arbitrary arrest and unlawful detention to threats and acts of violence, including physical and sexual assault, torture, and even extrajudicial killings.

The police frequently extort money from the public at taxi stands, in marketplaces, or while going about their daily lives. However, the most common venue for extortion occurs at police roadblocks, ostensibly put in place to combat crime. In practice, these checkpoints have become a lucrative criminal venture for the police who routinely demand bribes from drivers and passengers alike, in some places enforcing a de facto standardized toll. Motorists are frequently detained and endure harassment and threats until they or their family members negotiate payment for their release. Second, these criminal acts by the police, coupled with their failure to perform many of their most basic functions, severely undermine the rule of law in Nigeria. The police routinely 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.

Ordinary Nigerians are further denied equal protection under the law due to a widespread practice whereby senior police officers sell for their own personal enrichment police protection to Nigeria’s wealthy elite. By the inspector general of police’s own account, in 2009 at least 100,000 police officers were working as personal guards for the wealthy, at the expense of the majority. In addition, the abject failure of the police to provide for the security of ordinary citizens has led some communities to turn for protection to armed vigilante groups who often operate outside the law and commit further abuses.

Police corruption affects nearly every Nigerian, though it disproportionately impacts Nigeria’s poor. Those in precarious economic situations, scraping out a living day to day, are more susceptible to police extortion because of the profound effects that unlawful detention, or the mere threat of arbitrary arrest, have on their livelihoods. The sums regularly demanded by the police also represent a larger portion of the poor’s income. Moreover, many Nigerians are simply unable to pay the bribes required for basic police services.

Underlying many of these abuses is a cycle of corruption driven by senior police officers who siphon off police funds at the top and enforce a scheme of collecting illicit “returns” from the money extorted by junior officers.

High-level embezzlement of public funds destined for the police force indirectly impacts human rights, as senior officials have squandered and stolen vast sums of money that could have gone toward improving the capacity of the police to conduct patrols, respond to emergency calls, or investigate crimes. In the most notorious case, in 2005, the then-Inspector General of Police Tafa Balogun resigned and was charged with embezzlement, bribe-taking, and laundering more than US$98 million. In a plea bargain agreement later that year, he pleaded guilty to failing to declare his assets. The court sentenced him to six months in prison and ordered his assets seized. The deficits from massive embezzlement and misappropriation of police funds lead the police to routinely demand bribes from complainants to fund criminal investigations and to use torture as their primary tool for collecting evidence from criminal suspects.

In recent years, the government has launched several police reform initiatives, increased funding to the police force, and improved police wages. Yet the government has generally failed to hold accountable police officers who squander and steal police funds, much less the rank-and-file who commit abuses. Public complaint mechanisms, internal police controls, and civilian oversight remain weak, underfunded, and largely ineffective. The Nigerian government in general and the police leadership in particular have thus far lacked the political will to address these structural problems, follow through on reform initiatives, and implement effective police oversight and accountability.

The Nigerian government should launch an independent inquiry into corruption within the police force, focusing on the embezzlement and misappropriation of police funds, the corrupt system of returns, and the sale of police services by high-level police officials. The Nigerian government, including the National Assembly, and the anti-corruption commissions should improve transparency and accountability in the police force by reforming and ensuring better coordination of oversight mechanisms; and authorities should investigate and prosecute without delay police officers implicated in extortion, embezzlement, and human rights abuses.

Dominic C.C (ISMN)

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