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State police, crime, and Nigerian-style revenge justice

For years, the concept of policing, preventing, and addressing crimes has fascinated various societies and theorists. It has inspired the likes of French philosopher Michel…

For years, the concept of policing, preventing, and addressing crimes has fascinated various societies and theorists. It has inspired the likes of French philosopher Michel Foucault, who claimed that we can gauge a society’s evolution by examining how it deals with criminals. How has one society transitioned from revelling in the brutal horse-drawn quartering of criminals to constructing luxury prisons or correctional facilities for convicts?

If, we apply Foucault’s measure to the Nigerian system, what would it reveal? Where would our policing and criminal justice system place us as a people and a nation on the scale of evolving societies?

In theory, the Nigerian system underwent cosmetic changes when the Nigerian Prisons Services was renamed the Nigerian Correctional Services, aiming to transform it from a place for prisoners to a facility for inmates. It transitioned from being a “gidan horo” (house of punishment) to a “gidan gyaran hali” (house for behavioural correction), aspiring, in theory, to be more correctional than punitive. While this is a good beginning, it seems that the reforms are out of order.

When convicts are processed through an unchanged and dangerous policing system to arrive at a reformed correctional system, it doesn’t necessarily align, does it? We have long known that police reforms are urgently needed. In recent weeks, the need for desperate reforms has spurred debates about state police.

Does Nigeria need state police? Perhaps it does. God knows our security situation is craving for all sorts of interventions. But is that what we really need? From where I stand, what the country needs is not a state police to serve pecuniary, political, and ethnic interests, but an effective and professional police force. The discussion about state police only arises because the Nigerian Police Force (NPF) continues to fail in its basic functions, with no sincere commitment to comprehensive reforms. If the NPF functioned properly, protected communities, investigated crimes, and made arrests as it should, all this noise about state police would be unnecessary.

In 2020, after the #EndSARS protests, reforms were promised to make the police more humane, responsive, and modern. Video clips of “special training” for a new police squad went viral, mostly for their comical nature rather than anything else. At least it was a start. Unfortunately, it never translated into tangible improvements in the service. So, this has brought us back here where we are still debating state police as an alternative to genuine police reform. What we are trying to do is to address the symptom, not the disease itself. Our fondness for distraction is incurable. If we vented half of this energy we are venting on state police into pushing for police reforms, we would have made significant progress by now.

At the end of this verbal joust, the truth is, we might end up creating state police, and a few years down the line, we would still be here, caught up in this rut of underperforming security services. If we can’t keep and maintain a professional police, realistically, we can’t expect to create and sustain a professional state police. Historically, states have been notorious for keeping things professional, and we are all familiar with the many political, ethnic, and religious dynamics in the states that could lend themselves to derailing the state police project or worse, hijacking them. A good number of these are the things that derailed the NPF that we are currently asking to be sidelined in favour of the state police—things like subjective recruitment or non-recruitment, endemic corruption, and the police’s failure to police itself. In the states, these will only triple.

These failures have led to the vigilante-style justice system that has become our culture, which is often dished out by the police, vigilantes, and communities, including the military. Public lynchings are still in fashion in 21st-century Nigeria, and punitive military expeditions to “level” errant communities are still in vogue.

Recently, when 17 Nigerian soldiers were brutally murdered in Ukuoma, the military besieged the coastal communities in Bayelsa and Delta states to hunt down the killers. Unfortunately, not only the guilty were punished, but even those who knew nothing about how the slaughter happened.

Every time something like this happens, we are all accustomed to the fact that the military will raid the community, shoot whoever they shoot, and inflict corporal punishment on the more fortunate ones. Zaki Biam and Odi are recent testimonies to this. There is hardly ever a plan to isolate the perpetrators of a crime so the community as a whole is punished.

We are so accustomed to this system of communal punishment for individual transgressions that some clerics have attributed some communal tragedies, like plagues or hardships, to divine punishment for the transgressions of a few. So, when a random tribesman commits an offence, the whole community punishes the whole of the perpetrator’s community. And the police, when in pursuit of a fugitive, would all too happily lock up the suspects’ father or mother. They would look up his chickens too if they knew that would force him out of hiding.

With our communities still disposed to internecine angst, rivalries, and explosions of occasional madness, it is hard to see how we can build community police on these foundations. Constructing a community police force on this very faulty foundation is a huge risk. It is also a conveniently lazy one; one that allows us to avoid the difficult but essential task of reforming the police, training its rank and file to be professional, increasing their numbers, and equipping them with all the necessary tools and equipment to deal with the security challenges the country is facing.

If this is done, and done thoroughly, then the people of one community will not need to attack another community to avenge a transgression because the police will find the offending parties and put them on trial. The military will not need to perform the roles of the police, getting needlessly slaughtered in the process. In such incidents, people could trust the process of fishing out the culprits.

While prison reforms are great and should be commended, the procedural processes, from how crimes and civil complaints are reported, investigated, and prosecuted, are in far greater need of reforms. This is where we should be focusing our attention at the moment, instead of going for a shiny new toy that we all know, is going to, fall apart as soon as it takes off.

So, when our social justice system, along with all its crime and punishment apparatus, is put on the scale of Foucault, it will be clear that with the constant barbarism, we employ in the guise of pursuing justice or revenge, we are still living in the Dark Ages. Our journey out of this darkness must be decisive and sure-footed. If we are going to have state police, it must come on the back of a reformed justice and policing system, not in spite of it.

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