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Column No.6: Are the police our friends, or fiends?

A drive around the city last Thursday evening reminded me how little has changed from many months ago when I originally wrote the piece you’re…

A drive around the city last Thursday evening reminded me how little has changed from many months ago when I originally wrote the piece you’re about to re-read below. Business-as-usual doesn’t even begin to cut it. It’s like our policemen cannot change, ever. But I refuse to lose hope. – Abdulkareem.

I once heard a story, about a lady – let’s call her ‘Rakiya’ – driving along the road from the Utako/Wuye axis, up to the bridge which would take one to Zone 4 on the right, or Wuse II by the left. She drove up to the traffic light, which was still green with about seven seconds to go, then onto the bridge, as she was headed to 4U Superstores. Suddenly, two policemen from both sides of the road, leapt in front of her moving car. She braked, almost hitting one of the cops, who began to slam her bonnet and angrily ask her to open her car door. She did, and he hopped in, directing her to drive down the bridge by the left so they could go to the police station, as she was ‘under arrest’.

But Rakiya had other plans. You see, her husband is an army officer, so she drove away, very fast with the self-inviting cop in her car towards the barracks, because she didn’t feel safe. The story goes that the cop even tried to wrest the steering wheel of the Toyota Corolla from her, but she held on. A couple of turns later, they were driving up a bridge leading to the barracks along the highway. At this point, it’s said that the policeman knelt down – or whatever passed for kneeling down in a car – and begged her to drop him off before the checkpoint ahead, manned by soldiers. She obliged, without a word, as he bolted out of the car, panting. But before he slammed her door shut, he begged her for taxi fare to return to his location. ‘Walk,’ Rakiya replied, as she drove away, according to the story.

Now, there are many things to note about the above tale. First, it’s just a story, bandied about by mouth, and not necessarily true. But if you’re a Nigerian, you’d have to agree that things like that have happened, and probably still happen. I have witnessed, many times, how the policemen at that very junction swarm (yes, swarm) a motorist who allegedly beat traffic lights. They stand or sit in wait, after the lights, to nab ‘offenders’. Now, whatever happened to being proactive by perching by the lights, keeping a watchful eye, and seeing to it that no-one beats them? Must we always be reactive, only waiting for an opportunity to arrest? Isn’t it better to be a crime-preventing force?

Anyways, back to the police checkpoints of Wuse II: There are roughly four that constantly get my goat. Not for being there (God knows we need the police today, more than ever), but for the way they do their job, or don’t. There’s the one you have to pass when leaving Wuse II for Zone 4, the one just by AP Plaza, the one by Airtel Junction, and the one just before the bridge at Banex Junction. I don’t even have enough space to list out my observations about them. I’ll just request the powers-that-be to observe them, and do the needful.

However, that’s not to say that some of the cops manning the above-mentioned checkpoint aren’t courteous or professional while at work. I have a boss who’s quite critical of the Nigeria Police Force, but even he is quick to note that it’s not a hopeless case. In meetings, after lampooning them, he would still end it all by asking, rhetorically of course, that we imagine Nigeria – for one day – without the police. Even without a wild imagination, a picture of chaos comes to mind.

And that’s exactly why an urgent reform of the Nigeria Police Force is needed. On the political front, the Police Reform Bill, which was sponsored by a coalition of civil society organisations, was slowed down by the Covid-19 lockdown. But it was passed by the Senate on the 8th of July 2020. Even though there are controversies around aspects of it said to be problematic, any issues should be quickly resolved. There are far too many internal security problems in the nation – far too much at stake – for any of us to just fold our arms and watch.

I have friends – relatives, even – serving and retired cops, and I must say they are excellent, exemplary women and men. Maybe because of that, I am able to balance the fact that it would be wrong to bunch up the entire force to be made up of bad eggs. But I have also witnessed a good number of incidents wherein policemen behaved badly. In some cases, I even sternly reprimanded the erring cop, or cops. But in others, especially when they are armed, I keep mum. You have to know when a situation ‘pass your power’, and could go from bad to worse in seconds. It’s just like a friend of mine once said on Facebook, that Nigerian policemen are said to be our friends, à la the force’s old PR slogan. ‘But even as a word, friend easily becomes fiend,’ she concluded. I’m inclined to agree.

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