The other day at an ‘amala joint’ somewhere in Kado, Abuja, I was rewarding myself with a steamy plate of pounded yam and peppery goat stew, when I overheard a conversation from the table behind mine. From the topics being discussed, I almost immediately guessed the trio who sat there were policemen who worked with an elected official, a senator or a member of the House of Reps. They were in plain clothes, so they probably were off duty that day. Their talk ranged from the new ridiculously high fuel price and the moronic defenses offered by ‘experts’ on TV, to domestic stuff about wives, children and even an impending naming ceremony. These are all important, but one in particular stood out for me.
One of the off-duty cops said he feels like he has a fever, and another one said it’s probably malaria. The third one, in-between mouthfuls of stewed kpomo said, matter-of-factly, that it is exhaustion. He added: “After a day of going up and down in Hilux trucks or uncomfortable escort vehicles, you come back with Oga (a senator, I’m guessing) and he proceeds into his air conditioned office while we sit under our usual tree, at the mercy of the elements, flies, and mosquitoes. There’s no decent food available under the tree, too. Don’t even talk about water. We literally have to fend for ourselves in the worst possible way one could imagine.” The table was silent.
The first cop then narrated an incident when he tried to wander into the NASS building deliberately, just so he could feel a little bit of air-conditioning, but instead got a stare-down from a disrespectful DSS guy who asked him what he was looking for there. He said he ignored the fellow security agent, and went in but ended not enjoying it at all due to the disrespect he received at the entrance. The second cop followed with a recollection of his, of when a high-ranking military officer who came for a visit and parked beside them looked at them most pitifully. “Why are you all looking so miserable? Try and be happy for your own sakes o’. The clowns you work for don’t care about you, and will just use, abuse, and dump you.”
The trio continued to talk, about how an off-day was unheard of, and how they would not be allowed to go for personal emergencies like burials, naming ceremonies, weddings, etc. As I heard this part, I remembered how in the recent past a story broke about a VIP’s wife (not even the VIP himself) who sent a policeman to go fetch her a plate of food at a reception. She has since explained in news articles that it’s not what it looked like, but we Nigerians who know how these things go just rolled our collective eyes. ‘Police abuse’, after all, is real. But I digress.
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At this point, my meal was finished and I went to wash my hands and take my leave. But before I did, I took a look at the policemen. They all looked fairly well-built, and what are called ‘Gallant MOPOL’ in Naija-speak. But there was nothing gallant about their morale. Come to think of it, where on Earth is it acceptable or the norm for a coterie of armed policemen to always accompany a lawmaker, if not Nigeria? As if that was not bad enough, the very personnel who ‘guard’ the lawmakers, are maltreated in many cases. Granted, not all are, because there exist good lawmakers, too, you know. But I still cannot wrap my head around all this ‘VIP protection’ drama.
My mind wandered to how every single Inspector-General of Police in Nigeria abolishes checkpoints, but same checkpoint spring up again the very next week. I won’t even run a check even though my memory is fuzzy on this, but has “VIP protection’ not been scrapped too? The amount of personnel and resources wasted on ‘convoys’ is ridiculously high, and equally impractical. Even private citizens pay for VIP protection, I have reliably learnt, much to my bewilderment. I am still traumatized by an image which once went viral, of a Nigerian policeman (a whole ‘Gallant MOPOL o’!) holding an umbrella to protect a Chinese man inspecting a construction site in Lekki. I kid you not. That is how bad it is.
Finally, I think the Police Service Commission, currently under the leadership of ex-IGP Mr. Solomon Arase, needs to address the welfare of our policemen, and this whole ‘VIP protection’ wahala that is nothing but an exercise in misplaced priorities. Arase was a fine senior officer who served his appointment meritoriously, and who I am sure will do no less at the PSC, so I am dropping the gauntlet at his feet. It is high time something serious and lasting is done about the ongoing and rampant ‘police abuse’ and other types of denigration in our country. Maybe that is when we will finally get the kind of cops we truly deserve.
All this said, I am under no illusions about the rot in our systems. Yes, the average Nigerian policeman is not a saint. I mean, who is, right? I’ve written column after column bashing the bad eggs, so the fact that there are black sheep in the force is not even remotely lost on me. But a little exercise my former boss always posed whenever people get carried away a figurative lynching of the Nigeria Police Force, is to imagine our society – our reality, even – for twenty-four hours without our policemen. That would be catastrophic, wouldn’t it?