To Serve and Protect?

To Serve and Protect?

The Nigeria Police Force, with the different colours worn by its officers, serves as the most obvious representation of the country’s stand against criminality, and enforcers of law and order. Whereas this noble description serves well on paper, the reality for many Nigerians is disappointingly grim. The NPF surely has a smattering of good officers, but a sizable majority of its officers have no clue what it means to “serve and protect”. The reality for Nigerians is that these bad eggs are not protectors, but purveyors of pain and death, from whom Nigerians deserve to be protected.

In the boisterous city of Port Harcourt lies a road, famous not for transportation, but for the thriving street market that exists there. The Creek Road market, having experienced so much success, has now encroached into parts of the adjoining streets that run parallel to Creek Road. It is in the midst of this chaotic street market that a police officer chose to add more black paint to the police’s already darkened reputation.

On Saturday, 11 May 2016, an off-duty police officer, Inspector Theresa Ogan, was fatally shot at Creek Road’s Cultural Centre Junction. She was shot by a policeman, part of a team that was behind a commercial bus. Two accounts exist for a part of the shooting escapade. One account says that the police officers were angry that the bus driver blocked their path, an offence for which several Nigerians have been subjected to police brutality. The other account says the police van was trailing the bus for transporting illicit diesel. Regardless of whichever account is true, the policeman in question cocked his rifle to shoot at the bus, presumably at the tyres, but his bullet went straight to Insp. Ogan, who was at the market haggling with a trader like an “ordinary” citizen. Realizing their crime, the police officers zoomed away.

Mrs Ogan left her home that fateful day, thinking it would be a quick dash to the market. She never knew that her family would never see her again—alive. With her husband retired from work, she was the family’s major breadwinner. Now, her children have been deprived of their mother, victim of an unwarranted death at the hands of her supposed comrade.

Is Insp. Ogan the first to die unlawfully? Over the years, several Nigerians have lost their lives to trigger-happy police officers. While not doubting the bravery of some police officers, who truly serve and protect, many Nigerians believe that police officers are more likely to shoot at unarmed civilians, rather than engage armed bandits in a duel. With shameful cowardice disguised as over-reaching braggadocio, these useless eggs are experts at brutalizing Nigerians, and ridiculously inept at fighting crime. Asking them to fight crime is even a fantasy, akin to asking dogs to lay eggs. Can an expert criminal fight crime? Can Beelzebub cast out demons?

This is a country where police officers have shot at drivers for refusing to give a “constitutionally-endorsed” gift (not bribe!). Lives have been lost because an ineffectual legally-armed criminal felt collecting ₦20, ₦50 or ₦100 from drivers is a right, whose infringement is punishable by death. Nigerians have mysteriously died in police custody during interrogations under inhumane conditions. In several cases, the occurrence of a robbery in an area means that people in the area become suspects to be arrested at will. The police have been known to execute mass arrests of anyone seen on a given street, under the cover of dubious interrogations. Those arrested have to pay money for “free bail”, while the unlucky ones may be charged with crimes for which they have no clue.

Let’s go back a bit. Why did the policeman shoot in a crowded area? The mass of stationary and moving bodies and vehicles at the Cultural Centre Junction make it difficult to move without touching someone else. In such a chaotic area, why would any sensible person use a gun. Even if one assumes, without conceding, that the bus driver was a criminal, is it not better for him to escape than for innocent bystanders to lose their lives. Are the rules of engagement and the doctrine of collateral damage not supposed to be guided by common sense?

To be fair to the police force, like I have said earlier, not all officers are bad. The problem here is that the deeds of the bad ones overwhelm the good; therefore, the force is bad! To borrow a leaf from President Buhari, many Nigerians are corrupt; therefore, “Nigerians are corrupt”, maybe even fantastically. The police force has much work to do to clean up its bad image and gain the trust and admiration of Nigerians.

On the issue of Insp. Ogan’s death, a police officer said officers are lectured every Tuesday, and each morning, instructions are issued to obey civil rules. If this is the case, then the instructions are meeting deaf ears, or the hearers see them as a charade being spoken by superiors who are cut from the same cloth. It is well known that the official extortionists on Nigerian roads make daily returns to superiors in the offices, meaning that a number of officers are enforcers of the filth in the force. This has to change!

President Buhari needs to clean up the police force. It would not take a day, not even a year, but the force needs to be put on a route towards redemption. Beyond mere words and fanciful insincere TV adverts, the clean-up has to be strategic and precise. The police are staunch defenders of corruption in Nigeria. Buhari CANNOT fight corruption if the institution that ought to enforce rules is itself a nest of corrupt vipers. The police’s Complaints Response Unit should be strengthened for better operation. Nigerians need encouragement to report police infractions, and such reports should be taken seriously without victimizing the complainers nor making them to pass through discouraging hurdles. Nigeria just cannot change without the police changing.

About Inspector Theresa Ogan, I expect the police to find the ineffectual clown who killed her. Since she is a police inspector, it can be assumed that she has colleagues who would push to find the killer cop. However, what would happen if she were not an inspector, but a mere “Mrs Ogan”? That is a not-too-encouraging thought.

PS. Please pardon my use of forceful descriptives.

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