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#ENDSARS: Accountability and political will needed to win public trust in the Nigeria police

Image: : Terry Jerry A'wase (IACC Social Entrepreneur)

Samuel Asimi

Criminal Justice & Anti-Corruption Program Officer, Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (TI Nigeria)

October is a significant month in Nigeria, largely celebrated and remembered as the month in which the country gained independence. However, October 2020 – which marked 60 years of independence – saw mainly young people taking to the streets in an unprecedented wave of peaceful protests against widespread police brutality which has bedevilled the country.

Unlike some protests in Nigeria, these peaceful demonstrations lasted for about two weeks, with coordinated protests across major cities around the world. These protests played a key role in the dissolution of the Federal Special Anti-Robbery Squad (FSARS), a unit of the Nigeria Police Force notorious for its extra-judicial killings and heavy-handedness. The dissolution by the Head of the Nigeria Police, under the directive of the President of Nigeria, led to a new Special Weapons and Tactical (SWAT) team being formed to replace the FSARS.

Despite this move, the #ENDSARS protesters have stated that the government is insincere in putting an end to police brutality. In the past, promises to carry out police reforms to end police brutality have failed to deliver change, and police impunity continued unabated. The Nigeria Police is reported to have killed 92 people between March 2019 and February 2020 in extra-judicial killings, with analysts suggesting that even this is underestimated as many of these killings are unreported.

Bribery in the Nigeria Police

The prevalence of bribery within the police in Nigeria is at astronomical levels. A national bribery report released in December 2019 found that between 2018 and 2019, the police had a bribery prevalence rate of 33%. This fact is also supported by evidence from Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer for Africa which shows the Nigeria police having one of the highest prevalence of bribery on the continent. Police corruption has proven to inflict significant damage in terms of socio-economic and security. An example of this was in December 2019 when a truck driver was reportedly shot dead by a police officer for refusing to pay a bribe of 50 Naira ($0.13USD) at a checkpoint.

In recent times, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Transparency International’s national chapter in Nigeria, and other representatives from the civil society, citizens and the media, have called for police reforms. One of the results of this effort is the passage of the Police Act 2020 which was signed by the President in September 2020.

The Police Act 2020: Addressing integrity, human rights, and community partnership

The Police Act 2020 seeks to provide policing techniques that are in line with global best practices of democratic policing. The Act streamlines the operations of the Nigeria Police with the Administration of Criminal Justice Act (ACJA) 2015, which specifically highlights respect of human rights when arresting suspects, keeping records of arrest at federal and state levels, and clear grounds of arrest.

The lack of integrity in the Nigerian police is a major problem. CISLAC has been implementing the CRIMJUST project since 2017, which is aimed at improving the institutional integrity of the Nigerian Police, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA) and the Federal High Court. In 2017, CISLAC, under the criminal justice project, assessed these institutions. One recommendation was the need to train and re-train officials of these agencies on ethics and integrity. Provisions in the Police Act 2020 cover the mandatory training of officers.

The Police Act also seeks to strengthen the Police Complaints Response Unit (CRU) by ensuring that the presence of the Unit is spread across all the 36 states in Nigeria and the Federal Capital Territory, as opposed to its current central location in the capital Abuja. Established in 2015, the CRU, which is known as the ‘customer care centre’ of the Nigerian Police Force, receives complaints of police misconduct via calls, SMS, email and social media platforms. In order to bridge the trust gap between citizens, the unit has partnered with CSOs like CISLAC’s Advocacy and Legal Advice Centre (ALAC) to receive complaints.

Having the CRU across all states in the country would ensure accountability in an institution that has been accused of sweeping complaints under the carpet. A report by Amnesty International depicts the failure of authorities to bring perpetrators to justice. Out of the 82 cases of misconduct documented in the report, not one police officer was investigated, prosecuted, convicted or even sanctioned.

Another important measure provided by the Act is the creation of Community Policing Committees at state and divisional levels. This key policing model, which has been advocated for by experts, will see representatives of communities sit alongside police officers with the duty to maintain partnership and cooperation between the police and the communities they police.

This Act also seeks to cater for the welfare of police officers, an area which has been overlooked by policy makers. This is done through the creation of the Police Reward Fund which seeks to reward members of the police who have exhibited acts of exemplary service, payment to widows and children of deceased members of the police force, as well as taking care of funeral expenses.

Now that the act has been signed, the challenge is the absence of political will to fully implement the law. A example of this can be seen with the Police Trust Fund Establishment Act, enacted in June 2019. It took the president approximately a year to constitute the board of a fund intended to provide for the welfare and training of the Police over a period of six years. The trust fund is yet to be fully operationalized.

Protesters of the #ENDSARS movement demonstrated their ability to organise and sustain a protest. The protesters raised funds through conventional and non-conventional means, like crypto currency to cover food, medical expenses, and other needs. Some protest venues saw protesters hiring private security guards for protection against alleged state-sponsored thugs who hijacked the protests in some areas.

It is important that the government make good on their promise of deep police reforms, as the protesters have shown their willingness to further push for change through sophisticated means, while prioritizing peace. The current initiative of setting up the judicial panels of enquiry by state governments, under the directive of Nigeria’s National Executive Council, and the commitment of governments at various levels to end police brutality is commendable. However, it is imperative that the Nigerian Government #ENDSARS by going beyond pronouncements to action that ensures the full and active implementation of the Police Act 2020.