Police Reform for Human Rights in Nigeria

It will be difficult for Nigeria to make progress on petty official corruption, or to enhance local security, without a robust conversation about the state of the Nigeria Police Force (NPF).  So President Goodluck Jonathan’s announcement of a Presidential Committee on the Reform of the Nigeria Police should have been enthusiastically embraced by a public tired of paying bribes on the highway, or living among armed bandits who always seem to slip away. After all, citizens consistently report lower levels of trust in the police than the military — this in a country with a history of half a dozen dictatorships since independence.

Unfortunately, the Commission was destined to follow its predecessors into the dustbin, with limited terms of reference and little support outside of government, including among non-governmental organizations that had been studying the issue for years.  The Network on Police Reform in Nigeria opted to form a parallel reform process.  Its report amounts to a powerful critique of the administration’s approach to the security sector, and it offers a thoughtful analysis of the deeper structural problems that undermine public safety and that lead to misguided strategies for dealing with Boko Haram and other security threats.  Some of the factors that undermine police effectiveness, according to the six-person panel of experts are:

  • A constitutional and statutory framework that has created a “lack of operational autonomy, which has led to politicization and lack of professionalism.”  The constitution and the existing laws governing the police force need to be amended to distinguish between operational authority (which governs day-to-day functioning) and policy guidance.
  • An over-centralized command structure. One of the consultants to the panel explained to me that this is not simply an issue of decentralization, it also relates to the failures to curb corruption and hold abusive police accountable.  At present, reports of violations move up the existing chain of command, rather than being investigated by independent offices.
  • A lack of specialization, making the force ill-equipped to deal with complex crimes or to offer diverse career opportunities.
  • An unusually brief training period, with insufficient emphasis on human rights and community policing techniques.

You can download the complete report, “Civil Society Panel on Police Reform,” here.  There is an especially thought-provoking discussion about whether the police should remain national, or whether subnational officials should have some control over police. Noting old concerns that this could contribute to the fragmentation of Nigeria, the panel said “these arguments are mere mantras” by people who wish to avoid “hard thinking.”  The panel called for “a much more informed debate on the subject.” The reality is that it will be difficult for the police to engage communities and build the trust needed for crime prevention, without some type of devolution of authority.  But state-level violence remains a serious issue, and Nigerian law enforcement needs to do more than put new wine in old bottles if it is going to seriously deal with Boko Haram and other complex public safety challenges.

“We have received numerous reports of mass arrests, extra-judicial killings, torture, and prolonged detention without due process of law.  While officials have initiated investigations in some of these cases, all too often those responsible have not been held accountable. Many Nigerians believe that the excessive use of force by security forces, often operating through Joint Task Force patrols, has alienated local populations and fueled support for Boko Haram.”  –U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, Mike Posner

During a visit to Nigeria last week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Labor, and Human Rights, Michael Posner, pointed out that ending the insecurity requires prosecution of Boko Haram members for the use of violence, which has killed hundreds.  But it requires accountability all around.  “We are also seriously concerned about abuses by members of the Nigerian security forces in combating Boko Haram’s extremist violence,” he said in Lagos.

To be more effective, Nigeria’s police will have to be more accountable.  Donors (including the U.S.), and some human rights groups will continue to have concerns about the wisdom of decentralizing Nigeria’s police.  But the CSO Panel is right that it is time to have a more comprehensive discussion of the issue, and I find the argument that it could enhance accountability an important one to debate.

4 thoughts on “Police Reform for Human Rights in Nigeria

  1. Chike Chukudebelu

    Lost in all this academic analysis is a simple fact: corrupt politicians don’t wan’t an efficient and corruption-free police force, they never have and never will.

    Secondly, there’s the assumption that the US government and/or Western-supported NGOs will solve these problems – they won’t.

    About “centralisation” or “de-centralisation” of the Police, that is equally simple. Would a Yoruba tenant have a fair hearing from an Igbo dominated Police Force if he has problems with his Igbo landlord? Highly unlikely, so a centralised Police is the best for Nigeria at this point in time.

  2. Carl LeVan

    Thanks for your thoughts. Of course corrupt politicians don’t want a good police force! In fact, that’s a major reason why Nigerian civil society groups formed their own reform process. So the question is whether this parallel process can broaden the constituency for reform and generate pressure to move it forward.

    Nothing in this post presumes that donors are driving this, or that they should be. But the Nigerian government is seeking outside assistance.

    As for de/centralization: I am still thinking that one through, and your concerns are valid. An even greater fear is that state-level chains of command would put the police under the control of corrupt, parochial governors. However the Civil Society Panel, whose report you can read above, makes a good (and interesting!) case that the chain of command as currently structured makes it impossible to hold corrupt police accountable. “Decentralization” is almost a misnomer, as they described it to me a few weeks ago, since it would be part of a broader restructuring that would enable officers and overseers at different levels to file complaints with fewer fears of retaliation — and more incentives for accountability.

  3. Chike Chukudebelu

    Thanks for your response, I’m not an expert (I’m an engineer), but I have a keen interest in Nigeria’s history – and I’m Nigerian and I live in Nigeria.

    1. Nigeria did not start with a centralised Police. We had the Native Authority Police in the North, Court Marshals in the East etc. During the First Republic, sometimes it was virtually impossible for political figures from other parts of Nigeria to campaign due to their opponents control of the local Police.

    So the centralisation of Police was done to solve a real problem.

    2. We are no longer dealing with theory here. We have a fair idea of what the local Police will look and act like. In Kano state for example, it will be heavily influenced by the Hisbah – with a heavy Islamic influence. If anyone suggests that such an outfit (given expanded powers of arrest) will have a positive influence on national cohesion, he/she is either extremely naive or joking.

    I live in Lagos and the behaviour of LASTMA (Lagos State Traffic Management Authority) shows us what a future “Lagos State Police” will look like. Most thoughtful Lagosians don’t want it, for good reason.

    3. Nigerian politicians are corrupt, but they are not stupid. The numerous “reform committees” are an attempt to create the illusion of progress. These men (and women) know that a corrupt Police enables election victory (the way they practice politics) and they will ensure the status quo remains.

    4. Have you considered the possibility that the Army has traditionally opposed a strong, professional and efficient Police Force as it would “challenge its dominance”. Nigeria has had a long succession of Military/ex-Military rulers and the emasculation of the Police is not that surprising if one considers that context.

    5. True, donors are not driving this process, nor do they need to.

  4. wizzo

    hi concerning the corruption and the violation o human right.
    my brother has recently be arrested in lagos hes been accused of laptop theft.
    but the shocking thing about the arest is that, they had no evidence apart from the words from the acuser. they detained him for 4 days basically on the second day he went to court even tho there warent enough evidence he was granted bail by court but the police kept him for another two days and demands money from my parents before they can see him. is this legal? i live in the uk london and i have been trying my very best to get to a right source to help with this problem.


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