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ONOVO NOT YET OUR FRIEND

And what, pray, is the actual conduct of the police? In itself, this question is as stupid as it is predictable. Is there any Nigerian…

And what, pray, is the actual conduct of the police? In itself, this question is as stupid as it is predictable. Is there any Nigerian of whatever persuasion, whether living at home or abroad, who needs to be told what the actual character of the Nigerian police is? Apart from casual experiences, some of us, if not most of us, have the scars to remind us of our various sour encounters with the police. These are the lucky ones among us; those of us not so lucky have neither scars nor experiences to recall, they are dead; killed by what has become known as “accidental discharge” from police weapons. And then, to drive home the point about the worthlessness of human life in our country, police murderers rarely, if ever, get prosecuted even where they are caught with their guns smoking.  

This discussion, by the way, has nothing to do with the damning report released last week by the influential NGO, Human Rights Watch (HRW), on the level of rot in the Nigeria Police. For us in Nigeria, suffering and discussing police problems is an everyday affair. This discussion is an impotent tribute to the 20+ people who lost their lives in an inferno that happened in Lagos last week.

According to every available media report, the tragedy happened around 11am last Sunday along the ever busy, often chaotic, Lagos-Ibadan express road. Quoting eye witness reports, several newspapers reported that the accident was caused by an illegal roadblock mounted by policemen along the highway. The eye witnesses, some of whom narrowly escaped being burnt alive, said the illegal police road block had caused a long line of vehicles waiting to be cleared. Then, as if from somewhere out of hell, a trailer at the mercy of someone probably dazed by intoxicants, got out of control and rammed into the long queue of vehicles at the roadblock. Thereafter, all hell broke loose; the trailer from hell caught fire, igniting the inferno that claimed what some media reports put at between 20 and 30 lives, including very young children.

What happened after that tragic Sunday was very much in keeping with our national traditional way when such things happen. While the relatives of those involved in the accident were grieving and burying their dead and tending to the wounded without any kind of assistance from the government,  the Inspector-General of Police (IGP), Mr Ogbonna Onovo, who in all probability, got to hear about the incident like everybody else—through the media—issued a statement after about 24 hours. In the statement, the IGP was quoted by some newspapers, demanding to know “the names of the particular policemen” who mounted the roadblock that is said to be the cause of the accident!

If you are thinking what I am thinking, we should then ask the IGP to explain the rationale for wanting to know the names of the police officers who mounted the roadblock. What does Onovo need the names of the “illegal road blockers for, when he can chop off the head of whoever the police commissioner is that would allow such illegality to happen under his watch? The IG had explained that if he got their names then he would be able to know from which state or unit they came from and who authorized them to mount the roadblock. Fair enough, but definitely, not nearly good enough or reassuring enough. A tragedy of such magnitude requires more convincing response than what the IGP said. One would have expected that the President, from whichever part of the globe he was, should have condoled the victims and demanded an explanation from the IGP; the IGP in turn ought to have left nobody in doubt that come what may, heads will roll and the first to be on the chopping board would either be the IGP’s or that of the commissioner of police in the state.

But a whole week has gone by now since the incident and nobody has been suspended or indicted and no probe panel or commission of enquiry set up by the police or any relevant agency of government. Believe me, being a Nigerian is simply hellish! In some countries right here in Africa, even if those twenty wasted lives were those of animals, they would have received greater respect if they died in this manner.

Again, predictably, the police authorities have denied that there was a roadblock anywhere near where the accident occurred. That, of course would be the end of the matter because those who are supposed to investigate and tell us what really happened have already reached the conclusion that their men are innocent.  Then you wonder, did IGP Onovo get the “names”?  How would he react if somebody sends him an anonymous text message saying that the policemen who mounted the roadblock had name tags bearing names like Marshall Harry, Bola Ige, Funsho Williams, Dipo Dina etc? In any case, whether there was an illegal roadblock at that particular point where the tragedy happened or not, Nigerians are only too painfully aware that illegal roadblocks dot our highways from Lagos to Maiduguri and from Sokoto to Port Harcourt. We also know that this is not the first time that such wicked roadblocks are fingered as the cause of such fatal accidents along our highways.

IGP Onovo really needs to wake up from whatever illusions he is having about the demands of his job. At the time of his appointment, his rating was exceedingly high but the challenges confronting him are casting doubts on that rating (ahem, Professor Jega are you there?). It is true that Onovo inherited a police force that is highly undisciplined and that within the short period he has been IG, he has caused certain improvements to be made. Among such improvements are increases in the “burial allowance” and insurance payments that the force gives out to officers and men who die in the line of duty. Before Onovo the burial allowance was as low as N20,000 and insurance payment only slightly higher;  Onovo from January 1, has raised the allowance to about N100,000 minimum. He is also credited with outlawing roadblocks since last January, but the open defiance of that order is more a dent than a credit to his authority. Apart from that, virtually everything policemen need to function properly is lacking; their weapons are outdated and insufficient, their salary despite the review, still inadequate; where patrol vehicles are available, the particular unit is expected to source funds by whatever means, to fuel and maintain such vehicles, and a lot of other obstacles.

And then of course, there is the tacky but reasonable observation by some criminologists that if people don’t break laws, they don’t have to bribe the police, a hypothesis that renders us vicariously responsible for some of our troubles. There is also the complicity and or ineffectiveness of other law enforcement agencies. In the case of the Lagos incident for instance, it is no excuse that just because there is an illegal roadblock some demented driver should come crashing into stationary vehicles. If his brakes failed, as some reports suggested, why did they fail? Conceivably, if the Vehicle Inspection Officers (VIOs) and the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) are doing their jobs and paying greater attention to how and what motorists drive on the highways, rather than concentrating on rich state capitals and fussing over seat bells, the number of lunatics behind wheels would be reduced while most of the vehicles with expired lifespan would be cleared off our roads.

In the end though, it would be the police that would be the most critical element, whether we are talking about safety on our highways, in our houses or for the success of any national development project. The free and fair election that the country is struggling to have next year, for instance, cannot be possible without a disciplined, well-equipped police force. This is why IGP Onovo needs to produce something exceptional in order to give the country a credible police force that is truly a friend and not the fiend next door that many perceive it to be.

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