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State police it is

I am pleased to report that we have an important convert to our struggle over the two-tier policing system, also known as state police. Last week,…

I am pleased to report that we have an important convert to our struggle over the two-tier policing system, also known as state police. Last week, President Olusegun Obasanjo admitted that what we need is state police, not community police. He told a delegation of ex-local government chairmen who visited him that “our situation in Nigeria concerns everyone, particularly the case of terrorism. The case has gotten over the issue of community police. It is now state police. It is from that state police that we can now be talking of community police.”

I am not crowing yet. I wait for his pronouncement to sink in among the proponents and the opponents of state police. Still Obasanjo is a big fish in our net. He is a very big convert. We should welcome him with open arms. That the former president Obasanjo would throw his considerable weight behind the agitation for state police should be accepted as evidence that some corrosion is eating into the metal gates of those who believe that a single, over-stretched and poorly funded police force fulfil both the letter and the spirit of a federal system of government.

The former president was one of the architects of the single tier of policing system in the country. Before the military invited themselves to institute their long winter of corrective regime, Nigeria had a two-tier policing system: the Nigeria Police and the NA police. The General Yakubu Gowon military administration abolished the NA police and absorbed its qualified personnel into the Nigeria Police to create a single tier of centralised policing system for the country. 

Obasanjo formalised this in the 1979 constitution midwifed by his military administration. Section 194 (1) provides that “There shall be a police for Nigeria, which shall be styled the Nigeria Police Force, and subject to the provisions of this section, no other police force shall be established for the federation or any part thereof.” (My emphasis). This section is repeated in section 214(1) of the current 1999 constitution.

This was one of the fundamental errors of judgement on the part of the generals who, eager, to replicate the military command structure in the nature of our federalism, conflated a unitary system of government with a federal system of government. The result is the current stifling system perhaps roughly described as a unitary-federal system, a strange system of government unknown to the best minds in political theory and governance.

The structure of the Nigeria Police Force cannot be equated with the structure of the military. That the country can have a single army, a single air force and a single navy does not birth the wisdom of a single police force. They are different institutions with different levels of national responsibilities.

The generals should have left well alone for reasons that are even fairly elementary in drawing up and sustaining the country’s security architecture. Security is a local matter, not a centralised system of policing. Security at the sub-national level is the responsibility of the state governors. Under our constitution, the state governors are the chief security officers of their respective states. But they have no tools to police and secure their states. Thus, handicapped by the constitutional obstacle placed in their way, their status as chief security officers of their state is a constitutional mockery. It denies them the right to exercise their responsibility and imposes on the inspector-general of police a burden he cannot satisfactorily discharge in responding to security challenges in villages and hamlets down the length and breadth of this vast nation.

Two uninformed objections are usually raised against state police, even this late in our national history. The first is that the country is not ripe for state police; and the second is that the governors would use it against their political opponents. Both don’t wash. 

It has been 62 years as of this writing since this country became independent of British colonial rule. If it was ripe for the country to have NA police 62 years ago, it grates on the nerves that those who make this argument think they are making any sense. No one denies that the state governors could misuse them but need we remind ourselves that the federal authorities too misuse the Nigeria Police Force against their political enemies? Abuses are inherent in all national institutions, but they are not good or valid reasons for a country not to do what it needs to do to enhance its internal security; or expand the frontiers of freedom at the subnational level consistent with the nature of federalism.

In its manifesto, APC promised to “…bring government closer to the people through political decentralization, including local policing.” (My emphasis). We thought this meant that the party was sold on state police. We were wrong. It was a yarn with a double meaning. Instead of state police, Buhari, in the heat of the security challenges, began to push for community police. State police and community are two vastly different systems of local policing system. But even here, the plan is stuck.

With 22 years of democracy under our belt, it is time for us to take steps to normalise our federal system of government. We can begin with the two-tier policing system to enhance our national security. We must then move on to replace our vertical federal system with a horizontal federal system in which power is diffused among the three tiers of government. Federalism is a unique system in which a certain degree of autonomy among the constituent units of the federation ventilates the system. We should dismantle the centralised federal system.  It is both anathema to our system of government and deleterious to the health of a federal system in name, not in practice. 

We must devolve power among the three tiers of government. The federal government insists on taking on more responsibilities than it can discharge. Let us reduce its appetite for more power by giving back to the states those powers it systemically grabbed and put in the exclusive legislative list. We must redefine the responsibilities of the states and local governments and devolve power to them consistent with their level of responsibilities. 

If our dear country must move forward, as indeed, it must do so as a restructured federal system in which the federating units enjoy a measure of autonomy; in which the presidency does not treat the state governors like military prefects and in which the state governors are equipped to bear responsibilities for security in their various states.

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