Skip to main content

In Nigeria, COVID-19 brings home the need for effective criminal justice complaint channels

Nigerian Police Officers
Samuel Asimi

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

The government of Nigeria has taken a variety of measures to control the spread of the novel coronavirus, including restrictions on movement that are being enforced by law enforcement agencies and the military. Although inter-agency cooperation between the police and other institutions has increased as a result, enforcement of the lock-down has also amplified existing challenges around human rights abuses and bureaucratic corruption within these state institutions.

In April, the National Human Rights Commission reported that security agents had killed 18 people in the first two weeks of the lockdown. This was more than the number of national COVID-19 fatalities at that time. The report noted the excessive use of force by the agents.

The police and the military have also been accused of profiteering from the lockdown by taking bribes from motorists in exchange for free passage at checkpoints.

Amidst the pandemic, organised crime has actually been on the rise. The Nigerian National Drug Law Enforcement Agency is still arresting drug traffickers who have continued operations despite the lockdown. Security agents who have turned checkpoints into cash cows provides some clue as to how this happened. Cybercrime has also increased through the sale of fake medical products online.

In April 2020, the Head of the Nigeria Police had to place the INTERPOL unit in the country on red alert due to the rise in organised crime. This comes on top of already dangerous situation: Nigeria tops the organised crime 2019 index for Africa, released by the Pan-African program ENACT: Enhancing Africa’s response to transnational organised crime.

Corruption in law enforcement agencies only exacerbates the situation further.

In 2017, the Civil Society Legislative Advocacy Centre (CISLAC), Transparency International’s national chapter in Nigeria, conducted an assessment of three criminal justice institutions in Nigeria: the Nigerian Police, the National Drug Law Enforcement Agency and the Federal High Court.

Among the challenges discovered was the absence of effective complaint channels. Where complaint channels were present, there was little or no public awareness of them.

Since 2017, there have been noteworthy improvements by the Nigerian Police in this area, through various interventions like the Force’s Complaints Response Unit (CRU) which has helped to address misconduct by police officers. The unit deploys various tech tools in handling complaints and has contributed to a decrease in bribe-taking by members of the police from about 46 per cent in 2017 to 33 per cent in 2019, according to the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) and UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Nonetheless, the police still has the highest prevalence of bribery reported in the survey, a statistic borne out by Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer for Africa. The police clearly need to do more to ensure accountability.

Corruption in African countries is hindering economic, political and social development. It is a major barrier to economic growth, good governance and basic freedoms, such as freedom of speech or citizens’ right to hold governments to account.

GCB Africa - 10th Edition 2019

When it comes to reporting corrupt practices generally, there is a common feeling of helplessness and hopelessness amongst citizens. According to the 2019 NBS-UNODC survey, only 3.6 per cent of citizens reported their last bribe payment to an official institution capable of conducting an investigation or otherwise following up and acting on that report. Of this number, 51 per cent of those who reported a bribery incident experienced either no follow up, were discouraged from reporting or suffered negative consequences. Thirty five per cent of those who didn’t report considered bribery common practice, while 28 per cent felt that reporting was pointless and nobody would care.

One can only wonder how much worse the outcome of such a survey would be today, considering the restrictions on movement which have hampered citizens’ ability to file reports and follow-up on corrupt practices.

COVID-19 is bringing a fact to our doorstep: Citizens should be able to easily report misconduct by officials from the comfort of their homes. It is essential for all institutions in Nigeria, especially in the corruption-prone areas of law enforcement and security, to take lessons from the police force’s CRU and establish channels that enable citizens to report their grievances.

There is also a need for these institutions to ensure that these complaints are dealt with and feedback is given to citizens who make these complaints. This will shore up confidence, trust and citizens’ sense of ownership of public institutions.