The Nigerian Police Force (NPF) is a creation of the Nigerian Constitution. Being a creation of the constitution, the NPF’s existence has validity. The constitution also provides that, “members of the Nigeria Police Force shall have such powers and duties as may be conferred on them by law.” Given this provision, any power and responsibility conferred upon the NPF by law (usually an Act of the National Assembly) has constitutional validity. While the constitution creates/establishes, it doesn’t provide explicit details within it on how this institution should operate and so to understand the structure of the Nigerian Police Force, we must turn to the Police Act. The National Assembly, acting under the powers conferred upon it by the Nigerian Constitution, enacted the Police Act [No.4 1967] – an act to make provision for the organisation, discipline, powers and duties of the police. Under the Police Act, the police have a duty to perform the following:

a) Prevention and detection of crime

b) Apprehension of offender

c) The preservation of law and order

d) The protection of life and property.

Since the protection of life and property is the responsibility of the Police, one then wonders how they have become a threat to the life of Nigerians and how the way to go about their responsibilities undermines constitutionally guaranteed rights?

Police Brutality in Nigeria

Acts of police brutality by officers of the Nigerian Police Force while discharging their duties are not new in Nigeria. These actions range from extrajudicial executions, excessive use of force, torture and other cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment, and on occasions, death in custody. Agitations by the citizens towards the continued perpetration of acts of police brutality is not of a recent origin either. What is heartbreaking however, is that the response to the outcry of Nigerians to not be killed is met by more brutal conducts. The Police Act provides that “In the individual exercise of his powers as a police officer, every police officer shall be personally liable for any misuse of his powers, or any act done in excess of his authority.” This provision connotes an effort to check the conduct of police officers however, in reality, especially in recent times, the enforcement of this provision is very rare. What we see however is police officers, particularly officers of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS), a special unit within the Nigerian Police Force, manhandling and harassing citizens and threatening to shoot them with the certainty that “nothing will happen.”

[1] Section 214 of the 1999 Constitution of the Federal Republic of Nigeria (as amended)

[2] Section 214(2)(b)

[3] Section 214(2)(a)

[4] Section 314 of the Police Act Cap P19, LFN 1990

Sometime in October 2020, Nigerian citizens in different parts of the country took to the streets to protest (peacefully) against the conduct of officers of the SARS and push for its disbandment. These protests were both online and offline and sparked countrywide agitations that lasted for over a week. The primary goal of this protest/movement was to #EndSARS. SARS, a special unit within the NPF established in 1992 to address the issue of rampant armed robbery in Nigeria at the time, had gradually morphed into the nightmare they were created to dispel. With the success of their operations also came reports of abuse of power. A pattern of extorting civilians, detaining and torturing them, sexually assaulting and out rightly killing citizens soon began to emerge with SARS officers. The outrage was fueled not only by acts of police brutality but also by the fact that this group within the space of 3 years had been disbanded/dissolved about four times! So how are they still functional?

The response of the Federal government to the outcry of Nigerians to disband this group was a decision to change their name from SARS to SWAT and minor adjustments which held no real change. There is indeed no doubt that “when you have police officers who abuse citizens, you erode public confidence in law enforcement. That makes the job of good police officers unsafe.”  The problem with acts of police brutality that is not addressed is that people lose faith in law enforcement and when this happens, even good law enforcement officers have to fight for their credibility in addition to the existing difficulty in performing their duties.

Reforming the Nigerian Police Force.

A reform becomes necessary when the need to improve lacunas in what is existing or completely overhaul an existing system because it no longer serves its intended purpose, exists. The challenges the police face are not new to us. From being poorly paid, to being understaffed, under equipped and lacking in training effective enough to assist them in fulfilling their duties. These challenges however are not justifications to maltreat civilians. No average Nigerian has it easy and so if our challenges are the basis for which we exert cruelty, imagine the chaos that will be.

Firstly, the Nigerian government must make the respect and protection of human rights a priority in the reform of security forces. Government must make sure that all responsible for human rights violations within the ranks of the security forces are brought to justice, and guarantee redress and reparation for the victims of such violations.

Also, I believe that disbanding the SARS is a step in the right direction towards any plan to reform the police. The unit as it exists today has a terrible reputation that precedes it and a government seeking to regain trust and rebuild its citizen’s confidence in the law enforcement agency must root out likely areas of distrust.

[5] The Washington Post, Why people are talking about Nigeria and #EndSARS?

[6] Amnesty International, SECURITY FORCES: Serving to protect and respect human rights? December 2002

Improving the value placed on law enforcement officers: This government must show that it values the lives of the officers who have undertaken to lay down their lives in service to their country. It must do this by improving their pay, providing quality accommodation and securing the future of their dependents in the event they die in active service.

These are not all that can be done, however there’s work to be done in reforming police and there’s no better time to act than now.

1 Comment

  1. This is a beautiful piece. The reform starts within the police system. Better pay, better working conditions and then a better law that prioritizes the fundamental human rights concerns of its citizen. Thumbs up.

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