For many years, the debate on whether or not Nigeria needs to reform its police system from a unitary one to a federal one, which will allow the states to form and control their own police forces, has been a very heated and divisive one. Both sides are passionate about their arguments and have lot of support. The opponents of a state police system are fearful that it could likely be a tool in the hands of state governors and be used to witch-hunt political opponents. Additionally, they fear that it could lead to the breakup of Nigeria as state police forces will have strong ethnic, regional or religious bias.
On the other hand, proponents of a truly federal police system or state police, such as myself, see the on-going Constitutional Review Exercise as an opportunity to amend Section 214 of the 1999 Constitution, which deals with the law forming the Nigeria Police Force, and gives only the Federal Government the power to create a police force or any of its arms for the purpose of policing throughout Nigeria.
There is no denying the fact that the Nigeria Police Force needs structural reforms to restore it to its past glory of decades ago. Not only are we severely under-policed, with only about 350, ooo policemen to protect 160 million Nigerians (of the 300, 000, 100, 000 are said to be guarding ‘special private citizens’; another 100, 000 exist only on paper, leaving the rest of us with 150, 000 policemen). But beyond having an understaffed police force, we also have an under-trained, ill-motivated police force. Their remunerations and service of conditions are very poor; even worse, corruption permeates the force from the very top to the least officer. It is so bad that we have now abandoned the police force to be peopled by those who cannot get a job anywhere else. Hence, it has become an all-comers’ affair: riff-raffs, criminals and what not are able to join as there is no due diligence on prospective police officers.
But these are not the reasons why I strongly advocate for a state police system in the hope that these problems will be corrected; it is because our police system is too bureaucratic due to its unitary nature. Decisions are taken very slowly, and it takes an incident that is well-publicised to cause the Force to move swiftly. There is also the situation where many cases stall because the investigating or police prosecuting officer is suddenly transferred out of the state and a new officer has to get acquainted with the facts of the case, if the case does not become forgotten.
Our present unitary police system makes nonsense of our supposed federalism as a nation, where the centre (Federal Government) is meant to assume responsibilities of only those things which states will be unable to do. There was a time when policing was the responsible of the local government (native authorities) and it was done efficiently. However, as policing became regionalized and then nationalized, the quality of policing got worse. Unbundling the police as it is now will be necessary to improve policing across the country.
Already, as it is right now, almost every state ‘donates’ money and equipment to the police commands in their states, which is an indication that states will be able to fund police forces. Not only that, there are a few states such as Kano and Ogun that have formed vigilante services that have the power to arrest suspected criminals. This is another indication of the readiness and willingness of states to be able to form and run local police forces. It will also give strength to the definition of governors as ‘Chief Security Officers’ of their states. It is ironic to confer on governors such responsibilities but without the attendant powers to really be able to take charge of security within their borders.
I completely understand the fears of opponents of state police forces that it could be used by governors as tools of political oppression. However, I believe an effective system to perform oversight functions over the local police forces can be put in place. It can be made mandatory that each state appoints an independent police oversight board which shall watch over the actions of the police force.
State police forces will also strengthen the concept of community policing. Ideally, a police force is supposed to recruit from its local community. This is because such police officers have a better knowledge of the environment they are assigned to protect. They can speak the language, they can map out trouble spots and can create policies relevant to that environment. However, it is not so in Nigeria where someone who lived his entire life in say, Bayelsa, is then posted to Kano, an environment completely alien to him. He is not only unable to speak the lingua franca, he is not conversant with the environment and he has no contacts to be able to feed him information and intelligence.
I also do not believe that state police forces will lean more on their ethnic, regional and religious sentiments, hence possibly causing the breakup of Nigeria. It is hard to imagine two states going to war using their police forces as armies. We also fail to remember that the presence of state police forces would not mean the abolishment of the military. They can always be called upon to restore law and order in situations where the police force is overwhelmed.
Another argument against the establishment of state police forces is that it can enable a criminal to commit a crime in one state and escape to another. Since the police force of the state in which the crime was committed has no jurisdiction outside the state, he will effectively be a free man. This I believe can be solved by fostering corruption among police forces to enable investigation of crimes go beyond state borders; this together with a national database of crimes and criminals can go a long way in solving this. Also, it will help to define certain crimes, such as say, kidnapping, terrorism and bank robbery as being within the exclusive purview of the federal security forces. In such cases, the State Security Services will be in charge of investigating and prosecuting the suspects.
I believe that the aim of this Constitutional Review Exercise is to take us closer to a truly federal nation. There is no federal nation that has a centrally organized police system or force for the entire country. As mentioned by a pro-state police senator in an interview, not only do countries such as the United States of America and the United Kingdom have federal police systems, but also countries like Ethiopia, Pakistan and India which are closer to us in terms of development operate such systems. And as in every other thing with a federal system, competition makes each component want to improve on its services and environment as it directly impacts the quality of life there.
In conclusion, I am by no means suggesting that allowing state police forces in Nigeria is the silver bullet to solving our disastrous policing system. But allowing state police forces makes the problem easier to solve because it is easier to manage smaller police forces than one large, humongous national police force.